Study Guide

One Art Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

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Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

Material Objects

"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.

  • Lines 2-3: The poet personifies the lost objects, stating that they "seem filled with the intent/ to be lost" (1.2-3); that is to say, they want to get lost.
  • Lines 4-5: "Lost door keys" (2.4) are mentioned alongside misspent hours, and we see that objects and more abstract things, like time, are viewed equivalently here.
  • Line 10: The poet mentions casually that she lost her mother’s watch – but there’s more going on here than meets the eye. She’s already getting into the territory of emotionally significant objects, and we can be sure that the watch is a symbol for her relationship with her mother.

Homes, Places

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.

  • Lines 10-11: The ante is upped by the introduction of a new idea: the loss of a home. The poet mentions that she lost "[her] last, or/ next-to-last, of three loved houses" (4.10-11).
  • Lines 13-14: The poet takes this abstraction one step further, mentioning not only specific homes, but also beloved cities and a continent that she’s lost. This makes us wonder exactly how she "owned" (5.14) these places; these mentions of place are perhaps symbolic of the memories she had of them, or of the relationships she once had there.


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).

  • Line 1 (repeated in lines 6, 12): This refrain serves as the backbone of the poem. Its meaning gradually shifts as the poem goes on; rather than being totally straightforward, it grows more and more ironic as we see that "the art of losing" is indeed quite hard to master.
  • Line 18: In this final appearance of the refrain we see it somewhat modified: the poet admits that "the art of losing’s not too hard to master," a significant change from the more confident tone of the original.
  • Line 19: The poet’s internal command ("Write it!") alerts us to a couple of things: first of all, this is a very self-aware nod to the fact that the poet is writing a poem; secondly, it shows us that she has difficulty admitting the pain of her loss, even to herself.

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