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One Art

July 22, 2013

One Art

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.

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

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

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.

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.

–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.

–Elizabeth Bishop 1973

COMMENTARY: “Poetry provides one acceptable way,” Robert Frost said, “of saying one thing and meaning another.” In an earlier draft of this poem, Bishop wrote “All that I write is false, it’s evident/ The art of losing isn’t hard to master”–a line she rightly revised to its more subtle form here, relying on modulation of voice to enact the reversal of belief. The art of losing IS hard to master. It IS (often) disaster. It’s easy, inevitable, to lose things, but not easy to accept the pain of privation. Loss is uncontrolable (otherwise it’s a gift, or a throwing-away) in the same way disaster is a helplessness to circumstance. Neither are masterable arts. This villanelle (look it up) is Bishop’s way of trying to talk herself into believing that loss can be mastered–the formality of “writing it” a way of denying and controlling the grief.

 

The last stanza is heartbreaking and, well, masterful. The loss of love hasn’t happened yet but is posed as a future inevitability. Here the verb “shan’t”–by 1973 more than a little formal and archaic–expresses on the one hand an ironic overstatement (she shall have lied) and also a sort of will-power turning-of-the-head away from loss. The last line’s exclamation “Write it!” captures the resistance it takes to avoid capitulating to grief. The villanelle shakes under the rising wave, totters, but keeps up the soothing mantra of the falsehood as the wave crashes off in the distance. The poem offers, as Frost also said, a very “temporary stay against confusion.”

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