Elizabeth Bishop 's "One Art" is a deceptive poem on many levels. First of all, it appears to speak to us, the readers, in language that is conversational and clear, but actually follows one of the most complicated and mind-bogglingly structured verse forms known to man: the villanelle. In terms of content, its casual tone and the simple, graceful flow of its language lull us into a kind of false sense of security that’s gradually eroded as we realize that the poet does really care about each loss she mentions – and care deeply. Finally, while it seems oh-so-transparent and non-manipulative on the outside, the poem cunningly forces readers to look introspectively at their own losses, and draws upon the feeling of individual moments of loss. Oh, Elizabeth Bishop, how do you do it? For these reasons and more, the poem is easily Bishop’s most famous work, and it is often used to represent her whole career of thoughtful, masterful poeticizing.
Think back on all the things you’ve lost over the years. For most of us, the list is impossibly long: hoodies, books, car keys, pets, wallets, homework…it goes on and on. Now, think a little more abstractly about things lost: friends, lovers, family, homes. What do you feel when you think of these items that are gone forever? Anger? Sadness? Regret? All of the above?
In "One Art," the speaker attempts to avoid feeling anything in order to – simply put – get over it. Her practice of the "art of losing" is sort of an extension of something our parents are constantly telling us: to look at the big picture. Every time she says that something’s not a "disaster," she takes a step outside her own life and looks at the big picture.
However, by the time she gets around to claiming that the loss of her beloved isn’t a disaster, she’s necessarily many, many steps away from her past, if you get what we mean. The picture is too big all of a sudden; that is to say, if you want to get through life totally unscathed, you’ve basically got to distance yourself from it completely. The art of losing, it turns out, is actually impossible to master.