Study Guide

One Art

One Art Introduction

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.

What is One Art About and Why Should I Care?

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.

One Art Resources

Videos

Food for Thought
A thoughtful video response to the poem.

The Art of Losing
A short film based on the poem.

Voices and Visions
Another video interpretation of "One Art."

An interesting take…
A musical setting of "One Art."

Audios

Bishop speaks!
Here, you can listen to Elizabeth Bishop read sections from some of her other poems. The recording is from an audiobook compilation of her readings, The Voice of the Poet.

Images

Young Elizabeth
Bishop fresh out of Vassar College.

Older Elizabeth
The poet in her later years.

Historical Documents

New York Times on Elizabeth Bishop
A 2006 article about Bishop’s impact on life, poetry, etc, motivated by the publication of Edgar Allan Poe and the Jukebox, a collection of unpublished materials.

Bishop Reviewed
A 1983 review of The Complete Poems, again courtesy of the New York Times.

Books

Geography III
The 1976 collection in which "One Art" appeared.

The Complete Poems
Everything you need to read by Elizabeth Bishop.

One Art: Letters
Bishop’s collected letters.

Movies & TV

Voices and Visions: Elizabeth Bishop
A 1999 documentary (one in a series of writer docs).

Websites

Bishop at the Academy of American Poets
Bio, some poems, and interesting background on Elizabeth Bishop

Various Bishop Resources
Bishop at the Modern American Poetry site.

The Old Alma Mater…
An Elizabeth Bishop site powered by her college, Vassar.