If you’ve ever seen any of those schlocky movies in which an older narrator looks back at the events of his or her past (classic examples include Stand by Me and A River Runs Through It), you might recognize a similar tone of retrospective contemplation in this poem. Take away the schlock factor, and all of a sudden there’s something reminiscent of the inner monologues that dominate movies like this about this poem, despite the fact that it’s overtly a written work (as acknowledged in the last line – "Write it!" [6.19]).
Though we find out in the final stanza that it’s kind of addressed to a mysterious beloved that she lost, we get the feeling that this poem was never intended to be sent to said beloved. Instead, it’s a sort of self-directed address, perhaps intended to help the poet make sense of her own losses. She attempts to convince herself that she can cope with all the things she’s left behind, but this tactic only partially works; by trying to get used to loss, she only covers up her true feelings of sorrow and longing. Though her voice might sound optimistic, she almost loses it in that last line – after all, some losses really are disasters.
"One Art" works on two levels; on the first, we can take the meaning of the title from the first line, and assume that the "art of losing" (1.1) is the only art here. However, if we take a closer look at the poem, we see that the art of writing is also in the mix here – and that these two experiences, losing something and crafting a poem, are inextricably interwoven. The "one art" of the title combines loss, coping with loss, and expressing the experience through verse.
This is another of those thoughtful, intensely internal poems that doesn’t have a real setting (after all, we don’t know what Elizabeth Bishop’s mental landscape looked like, though it would be interesting to know!). However, every time we sit down and read "One Art," a certain, specific image comes to mind: the poet, who at this point wasn’t exactly a spring chicken, sits at home alone, reflecting upon the many places she’s traveled to and the many people she’s been with. Maybe she’s sitting in the kitchen, or perhaps in front of a fireplace, sipping a cup of tea and looking around at the knick-knacks and other debris that collects in everyone’s life as time goes by.
Instead of bringing back memories, though, this pensive moment reminds her of things that she’s lost. She tries to keep herself from getting bogged down by this sense of passage and loss by telling herself that none of it is as disastrous as it seems, but we can tell that her sadness, though buried, is still there at the core. There’s an interesting effect of, for lack of a better word, disorientation present here: she puts tiny, insignificant losses right up next to huge ones in her mind (and in her poem) and the overall effect contributes to the overwhelming buildup of lost objects. By the end of the poem, we want to sit right down in that kitchen with the poet, put the kettle on, and tell her it’ll be okay.
The speaker in "One Art" isn’t new to the troubles of life and love; she’s been around the block a few times, and probably feels like she’s seen it all. Perhaps we’ve been unduly influenced by real-life photos of Elizabeth Bishop, but we imagine her as a comfortable-looking, white-haired lady with kind eyes and a gentle smile, kind of like someone’s worldly and wise grandma. Maybe she was a little wild in her youth, but now, she’s aged gracefully into someone calm and composed.
We know that the speaker well traveled and has lived in her share of different places, and we can imagine that she’s probably loved her share of people, too. Her experience has taught her that no matter how terrible a loss seems, people always survive, and the lesson she attempts to teach her readers (and herself) in this poem echoes that idea. The Zen-like mantra repeated throughout the poem, "The art of losing isn’t hard to master" (1.1), urges us to get used to the idea of loss, and to accept that some things just can’t stay. Underneath this placidly resigned surface, however, we get the feeling that this speaker still feels each loss profoundly.
You’d never guess that this poem is actually a miracle of technicality and form. Even though it follows a notoriously difficult verse form, the villanelle, it’s a clear and simple read. The language is uncomplicated and simple, and there’s very little hidden here, for all it takes to really feel what Bishop intends for us to feel is an understanding of the sense of loss.
No matter how many times we read this poem, we’re always stunned by how very, very clever it is. Bishop builds upon the idea of losing the small things that we’ve all misplaced at one time or another – things that want to be lost, like keys – and shows us how we gradually grow accustomed to these losses, so much so that we can even teach ourselves to get over huge ones. The truly heart-wrenching thing about the poem, however, is in between the lines; despite the fact that we can learn to "master" the "art of losing," we never really stop feeling the pain of loss, we just deceive ourselves.
Elizabeth Bishop didn’t get her reputation for being a poet’s poet for nothing. Her poems are often praised for their ability to gracefully meld language that feels totally natural and unforced with poetic form, and some of her most famous poems, including this one, manage to use extremely complicated verse forms, like the villanelle and the sestina, while maintaining a sense of real-time conversation and clarity. Bishop’s work is also notable for its tone of calm reflection and sometimes unexpected bursts of humor.
Oh boy. Where to begin? The villanelle is a complicated verse form, to say the least. It’s actually quite famous for its convoluted structure, and the resulting difficulties it can present to writers. The most amazing thing about this poem’s form is the way in which Bishop doesn’t allow the restrictions of the villanelle to interrupt her seemingly effortless, conversational flow.
So what is a villanelle, anyway? Let’s start with the basics: the villanelle has nineteen lines, divided up into six stanzas. The first five have three lines and last stanza has four.
The form follows a very specific rhyme scheme. The poem utilizes two rhymes – that is to say, everything either rhymes with [a] or [b] (in Bishop’s poem, all the lines rhyme with either "master" or "intent").
To further complicate things, there are two refrains, which are lines that are repeated several times. Here, Bishop sticks consistently to one refrain, "the art of losing isn’t hard to master," which she only slightly modifies at the end: "the art of losing’s not too hard to master." Theoretically, the villanelle should have a second line like this, that’s repeated throughout the poem. Bishop, however, takes some liberties here, and instead of actually repeating lines verbatim, her second so-called refrain always ends in the word "disaster" (lines 3, 9, 15, and 19).
Still with us? We hope so. Now, let’s take a look at the roadmap of the form, with some key cues from the Bishop poem:
Line 1 – refrain 1 (rhyme a, "master")
Line 2 (rhyme b, "intent")
Line 3 – refrain 2 (rhyme a, "disaster")
Line 4 (rhyme a, "fluster")
Line 5 (rhyme b, "spent")
Line 6 – refrain 1 ("master")
Line 7 (rhyme a, "faster")
Line 8 (rhyme b, "meant")
Line 9 – refrain 2 ("disaster")
Line 10 (rhyme a, "last, or")
Line 11 (rhyme b, "went")
Line 12 – refrain 1 ("master")
Line 13 (rhyme a, "vaster")
Line 14 (rhyme b, "continent")
Line 15 – refrain 2 ("disaster")
Line 16 (rhyme a, "gesture")
Line 17 (rhyme b, "evident")
Line 18 – refrain 1 ("master")
Line 19 – refrain 2 ("disaster")
Whew! Got it? Good. Now, on to meter – don’t worry, it’s a lot easier. The villanelle doesn’t actually have an official meter. Many famous villanelles are written in iambic pentameter (a ten-syllable line in which every other syllable is stressed). Bishop’s loosely stays around this meter, and many of her lines have the distinctive da-dum da-dum da-dum sound of iambic pentameter, but she allows her lines to have some flexibility, keeping them at either ten or eleven syllables each.
"One Art" approaches loss in a rather sidelong manner; it doesn’t dive straight in and attack the big issues, like the loss of a home or a loved one, but instead begins with the little things that we lose here and there. In so doing, Bishop aligns these unimportant possessions with the more significant things we "own." As the poem goes on, the objects mentioned become more and more meaningful, as does their loss. We see by the end that the loss of simple objects, like a key or a watch, becomes an extended metaphor for the loss of other things the poet loves, such as her past homes or lovers.
The poet’s brief discussion of homes and places that she’s loved provides a smooth segue into the final stanza, in which she reveals that the poem is actually about the loss of a loved one. The idea of possession and lose-able things is greatly expanded by her inclusion of "three loved houses" (4.11), and in the following stanza, "two cities" (5.13) and "some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent" (5.14). All of a sudden, we’re not just talking about misplaced material goods. Now we’re thinking more abstractly about the things of emotional value that we lose.
Art is a double-edged sword here. The poet focuses on "the art of losing," which she depicts as something wherein practice makes perfect. However, this isn’t necessarily an art we can ever truly master. The poem’s ironic command that we "lose something every day" (2.4) to practice getting over the sensation of loss implies that if we lose enough small things, we’ll be ready when we lose bigger or more important ones. No matter how practiced we become at the art of losing, though, we can never really be prepared for losses, which will always seem like "a disaster."
The other art involved in this poem is that of poetry. The entire poem functions as a kind of coping mechanism for the poet, who forces herself to confront her losses by writing them down. There is some power in this act of writing, as shown in her last line, in which the poet forces herself to admit that the loss of the beloved "may look (Write it!) like disaster" (6.19).
If this poem were a city, sex wouldn’t even be at its outskirts. You’d have to go pretty far out into the suburbs to find even a hint of it. Sure, love is an issue here, and a certain loved one comes up in the final stanza, but we’re not even sure what kind of love the poet’s talking about. Maybe it was romantic, maybe not; we don’t know and, furthermore, we don’t need to know.