Study Guide

One Art Tough-O-Meter

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(2) Sea Level

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.

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