Study Guide

One Art

One Art Summary

The poem begins rather boldly with the curious claim that "the art of losing isn’t hard to master" (1.1). The speaker suggests that some things are basically made to be lost, and that losing them therefore isn’t a big deal. She suggests that we get used to loss by practicing with little things, like house keys or a little bit of wasted time here and there; the idea is that if you’re comfortable with the insignificant losses, you’ll be ready to cope when the big ones come along.

The losses mentioned in the poem grow more and more significant. First it’s the things we try to remember, like names and places, then more specific items, such as a mother’s watch or homes one has loved in the past. As these things begin to pile up, we wonder how much the speaker has actually mastered this so-called "art of losing." Is she really as glib (that is to say, smart-alecky) as she sounds, or does she still have deep feelings about all of these things? We’re not so sure.

However, the last stanza reveals a whole lot to us. We discover that the loss that really bothers her is that of a beloved person (friend, family, or lover, we don’t know). She attempts rather feebly to claim that even this loss isn’t a "disaster," though it appears to be one; at this point, though, we see that she really is still sad about the loss, and hasn’t truly gotten over it.

  • Stanza I

    Lines 1-3

    The art of losing isn't hard to master;
    so many things seem filled with the intent
    to be lost that their loss is no disaster

    • This stanza provides the clear opening statement of the poem: it boldly declares that loss isn’t a big deal, and that we should get used to it.
  • Stanza II

    Lines 4-6

    Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
    of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
    The art of losing isn't hard to master

    • The poem continues in a rather pedantic tone, instructing readers to practice losing things by losing different insignificant items every day.
    • The speaker tells us to "accept the fluster" (2.4) that such losses bring, presumably so we eventually stop getting flustered by them at all.
    • We don’t know about you, but most of us are very, very familiar with this "fluster" – you know, the small-scale apocalypse of leaving your keys somewhere, then having to turn the whole house upside down (only to discover, inevitably, that you left them on the *&$^&^%$ subway or somewhere else).
    • We learn that more abstract things, like time ("the hour badly spent" [2.5]) can also be counted as a loss – for example, when an hour that really probably should have been devoted to that paper due two days ago is instead spent eating Pringles and watching Heroes. Um, not that we’ve ever done that.
  • Stanza III

    Lines 7-9

    Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
    places, and names, and where it was you meant
    to travel. None of these will bring disaster

    • The losses mentioned grow somewhat more significant, though they are still vague.
    • The speaker brings up the kinds of things we all attempt to remember but eventually forget – you know the things you maybe mean to write down but never do, like people’s names, or places you’ve been, or places you’d like to go.
    • These losses still aren’t too important.
  • Stanza IV

    Lines 10-12

    I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
    next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
    The art of losing isn't hard to master

    • This is where it gets personal. The speaker brings in some things that she’s lost that are obviously of some emotional significance to her: her "mother’s watch" (4.10) is probably more than just a watch (we wonder if the mother is dead, or otherwise distant from the poet), while the house that she loved was surely full of many personal associations and memories.
    • Though the speaker reassures us again at the end of the stanza that "the art of losing isn’t hard to master" (4.12), we’re not sure how much we believe her this time.
  • Stanza V

    Lines 13-15

    I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
    some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
    I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster

    • Interesting…very interesting. The losses described here are a little more esoteric (mysterious and difficult to understand) – after all, how can you own a realm, much less lose it?
    • There’s something oddly old-timey about this phrase; the word "realm" is just a fancy, antiquated way of saying country or land. It brings to mind images of an earlier time, as though she was the queen of this mysterious place, but now has lost her power.
    • Now, what about the river? Two cities? A continent? What does this mean? We begin to wonder what exactly the speaker is talking about here.
    • What makes the river so special to her? Did she live in the two cities and leave them behind? How could she lose a whole continent? Maybe this place represents a certain phase of her life that’s now in the distant past.
    • Perhaps what she means is that these places have lost their significance to her, but if so, why?
    • We aren’t given the answers, but we are free to speculate. Maybe she had friends or family there who are gone now, or maybe these places were the sites of past homes that she doesn’t live in anymore…we can’t be certain.
    • We do get the feeling that, by cramming all of these significant and mysterious concepts into one stanza, Bishop wants us to wonder.
  • Stanza VI

    Lines 16-19

    --Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
    I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
    the art of losing's not too hard to master
    though it may look like (
    Write it!) like disaster.

    • This is the kicker. Here, we discover that the loss the speaker has been mulling over this whole time is that of a beloved person.
    • We’re not sure exactly who this person is, or what his or her relationship to the poet is, but it’s clear to see that this is one loss that the poet hasn’t mastered.
    • She allows herself to remember some of the things she loved about the addressee – a voice, a gesture – and admits, finally, that the art of losing actually is hard, but not too hard, to master, and that losses do sometimes look like disaster.
    • Her mini-breakdown in the last line (the repetition of like, and the interjection "Write it!" [6.19]) demonstrate the true difficulty of coming to terms with loss. For the first time in the poem, we see her façade of confidence and good humor disintegrate; the fact that she has to force herself to even write the word "disaster" this last time reveals the poet to be deeply human and vulnerable, just like the rest of us.