In "One Art," Elizabeth Bishop focuses upon one of the eternal truths of our world: that nothing is eternal. The "art" she mentions in the title is in fact "the art of losing" (1.1), something familiar to us all. This poem reminds readers that we lose things all the time in our everyday lives, both significant and insignificant, and that no matter how much we love something, it won’t be around forever. The poem asks us to reflect upon the losses we’ve experienced in our own lives, and to stop and think for a moment about the way in which our worlds constantly change.
The rapid accumulation of lost objects in "One Art" comments upon the ephemeral and impermanent nature of human relationships.
The many things that the poet loses in "One Art" aren’t just concrete objects, like house keys or watches; rather, they grow more and more abstract, ranging from misspent hours to a lost loved one. In the world of the poem, memory isn’t something permanent or reliable, and our pasts are subject to the same possibility of loss as our possessions. The memory of past acquaintances and experiences can be dropped by the wayside as easily as any misplaced doodad, and though Bishop treats all of her losses here with the same offhand, casual tone, we recognize the deep anxiety behind its cavalier façade.
The only way to truly cope with the past is to document it, as evidenced by the final line of the poem.
Sadness is like the big, fat, mopey elephant in this room. In "One Art," Bishop never comes right out and says she’s sad about the many losses mentioned in this poem – in fact, she insists upon the opposite (see "Lies and Deceit" for more on that). Rather than dwell upon the moment of loss or its aftermath, the poem consciously pushes sadness off to the sidelines of the reader’s mind. However, by summoning up our own memories of lost things and people, the poet reminds us that Sadness plays a very significant but unarticulated role here.
The glib tone of "One Art" and the smoothness with which it glosses over the events of the poet’s life both contribute to the growing sense of sadness and resignation that dominate the last stanza.
People are capable of loving so many things. Seriously, think about it…we get attached to everything, from our childhood homes to favorite items of clothing to – dare we say it? – other people. We invest emotion all over the place, and when these things get lost, it hurts. This poem consciously avoids describing the pain of losing a beloved person or thing, but constantly seeks to remind us of just how much we care about the people, places, and things that populate our lives, and how much we may take them for granted.
While "One Art" is ostensibly about the art of losing things, it is actually a discussion of the difficulty of coming to terms with love.
This poem is an exercise in self-deception. By casually dismissing all of her losses, the speaker attempts to deal with their emotional aftermath. That she’s writing it in the first place, however shows just how disturbed she actually is by this extensive catalogue of loss. The last stanza packs the hardest punch – we discover that she’s lost a loved one – but she tries her darnedest to brush it off just like the other losses mentioned earlier, by claiming casually that this loss, too, is "no disaster" (1.3). In the end, though, we see that all these things are, in fact, personal disasters.
The poet actively seeks to deceive both herself and her readers in "One Art."