One Art, Elizabeth Bishop – an Analysis


One skill, one ability in life?

Gut Reaction
A refreshingly atypical way to sum up that feeling that mistakes are to be made but that life will go on regardless.
I expected stanzas full of sorrowful yearning to follow after I read the first line, but love only appears in the final stanza. It does feel like she starts off with the ‘small’ things she’s lost, building up to the main one, her love, but it’s done in a very approachable way, jovial almost, and it’s a really nice read.
When I read this I immediately thought of Carole King.

What does it all mean?
The poet is saying losing things in your life is something that comes easily to us all and rarely does it mean the end of the world – at least when looked back upon.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
It’s easy to lose things, it is part of life and something we all do.

so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Some things in life just make themselves easy to lose – anyone who’s ever had to rummage in their bag for their keys or purse, or slowly gone redder whilst their elusive phone sings louder and louder whilst stealthily hiding – like there is a fairy of mischief lurking beside you at all times. I like to think it might actually be Loki. (* and ** in Links)
Some things are in fact so easy to lose that they become of no consequence.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Get good at losing stuff. Get used to it. Loss is part of life; it happens.
We all know that frantic moment when keys decide it’s time for a game of peekaboo the second we need to leave. Relax. Breathe. The keys are somewhere and hey, if not, we’ll get new ones cut. All will be well.
The repeating of ‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master’ may be the author saying she has lost in her life over and over and she’s somewhat used to the feeling; maybe it’s hard to master holding on to things – for her and for us.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

Get used to losing bigger and more meaningful things. People. Your plans. Your sense of direction.
I like to think that we don’t lose sight of our hopes and dreams; but invariably we do. Seems to be the way of life. I’m not overly happy with that, but it’s true.
The truth is that life is constantly evolving, and what is essential to us today really might be inconsequential to us tomorrow. That’s just life.
And yet there’s an undertone. Is it really of no significance to lose all these things? Is Bishop in fact quite bitter in her open honesty?

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Her mother’s watch, something of sentiment, a token reminder of her mother? Her mother would always be in her memories anyway, so a physical, material object whilst precious isn’t going to take away that memory. True, sometimes it is easier to remember things with something tangible in your hands but…loss happens.
The author has moved on from three homes that she loved. It’s interesting that she refers to them as ‘houses’ rather than ‘homes’. I take it to mean a way of distancing herself from them. Speaking to a friend recently who is very unhappy where she lives, she said something like ‘You’ll notice I never refer to my home as a ‘home’, only a ‘house’; to me it doesn’t feel like a home.’ This is the opposite of Bishop’s feelings. And ‘next-to-last’ – does that mean she is happy where she currently is, or that she fears losing that too?

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

The author has moved a lot, constantly moving perhaps, and the loss just gets to be on a grander scale; but it wasn’t the end of things for her. It is like she is comforting herself; I’ve lost, but I still live.
Did she own bigger, better homes (‘realms’) across/near rivers on another continent? Did she feel she belonged to a different place?

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied.
It’s evident
Ah, and here is the love, it feels like she is looking back on the end of a relationship that she has now come to terms with.
Is she being the ‘former lover, current friend’ and offering words of wisdom to her former partner? Or is she just thinking aloud, acknowledging that she really loved this person but she lost them and hey, it’s okay.
The use of ‘ —’ before ‘even losing you’ shows that this love is separate from all other losses and is more significant; and although it was hard, she has coped with it.
But is she actually okay with it at all? It feels a bit like she’s saying I’ve lost so many times, what’s one more? Does she think that the only art she is good at is losing what is important to her?

(It’s evident) the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
She’s repeating that losing is something she’s developed into an art form, and whilst it is painful – still painful – she is telling herself that it will all be okay.
Is the break up of the relationship more recent then? She is hurting right now, and she’s telling herself to give herself some time, to acknowledge the worst has happened (‘Write it!), to have strength in her ‘expertise’ in losing. Experience tells her disaster hasn’t in fact happened; time will heal.
The forcing herself to write it, is she angry with herself? Saying ‘look, you screwed up yet again; acknowledge it. What’s wrong with you?!’

Form – the vaguely technical stuff
Division and order
A villanelle poem of tercet stanzas – 6 stanzas of 3 lines each with a description of loss increasing in scale from keys through homes and all the way up to love.

Jokey, frivolous, dismissive. Ironic.

Suggested rhyme scheme
aba throughout aside from the last stanza, abaa.

The first lines of stanzas 2, 4 and 6 are consonontal/pararhymes (‘fluster’, ‘last, or’ and ‘gesture’). Line 10 (‘last, or’) shows the only weak ending, the rest are ends stopped lines.
Rhymes are feminine/weak.
Internal rhymes: line 7 (‘farther’ and ‘faster’). You could say the same for ‘hard’ and ‘master’ depending on your accent (or just view it as a partial visual/eye rhyme!)
Run on lines: 2 and 3, 4 and 5, 8 and 9, 10 and 11, 16 to 19.

Similes and metaphors
Disaster – a painful loss that can’t be recovered from?
Realm as a metaphor for homes?

Author’s relationship with their subject
The author is attempting to hide – from us or herself – the pain of losing someone she loves, by adding it to a trivial list of other losses. This relationship was more important than anything else to her.

Other points of view (ideas from other sources)
The author is distancing herself from her threatened loss with a petulant ‘shan’t!’
There is a heavy sense or irony.
Bishop appears to have lost a lot in her life, starting with her parents at a young age Biography so of course this is a feeling she knows well.
Bishop spent a vast amount of time travelling which perhaps explains her feeling of owning other ‘realms’.

Signing off
Taken at face value it feels like this is Bishop telling us all that whilst losing stuff – possessions, homes, people – feels like the end of the world, it really isn’t. Hindsight often proves that point – how many exes did you think you couldn’t live without and you now remember them and groan; what were you thinking?!
However, after several reads, it feels very ironic and bitter. Hey life, you just keep taking away all that’s important to me, it’s okay, I’m used to this feeling of loss. In fact it is the only thing I am sure I am good at – losing. So good I have perfected it into art. You keep slinging mud my way. It’s fine.
I guess we all want to feel strong when we are feeling weak, and when are we weaker than in our vulnerability of losing something important? That strength we portray, that mask we put on, it tells the outside world one thing, but the words we speak say something else entirely.
It is not okay to lose what’s important to you. It is not a good feeling or an art form or something we can dismiss easily. It is, however, life.
And if you’ve never lost anything; good for you. But I wager that when you do, and you will, you’ll lose hard. Some of us have perfected the skill and know how to brace for impact. It doesn’t mean we won’t be broken, but we can probably put ourselves back together quicker having done it time and time over.

** “I am Loki of Asgard and I am burdened with glorious purpose.”

University of Illinois

Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop

When I read this I think of the song… So Far Away


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