Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art"

Although I had a difficult time in my senior English class in high school (I wasn't much of a critical/analytical thinker back in the day), it was one of my favorite and most memorable classes. Besides loving the teacher (who became my boss and friend later on when I started working at the school), I also loved the different literary works we read. We read Madame Bovary (which relates to a very vivid memory of the aforementioned teacher comparing the beat of the horses' hooves on the ground to orgasm), Crime and Punishment (not nearly as sexy as Bovary but absolutely fascinating), and The Inferno.

However, my favorite unit was the poetry unit. I still have my old Sound and Sense book (what can I say - I'm an English geek), and to this day, one of my absolute favorite poems is "if everything happens that can't be done" by e. e. cummings. Another memorable poem we read was Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art." While I hadn't thought of the poem in a while, a student I was working with mentioned it today, and my memories of hearing my English teacher read it came back to me.

One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop

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.

For anyone who has lost anything significant, be it a loved one or an object or something else, this poem probably rings very true. On one hand, as my student noted, the speaker is trying to deal with loss through writing. Just as Rosenblatt has argued, writing is compulsion and is how we often deal with stress and heartbreak. Even though writing can make things seem final, it is also a way of acknowledging a loss and moving on from it.

However, I don't fully believe that argument because the speaker is protesting too much. While she or he might be trying to deal with the loss of many things, it is obvious that the words, on some level, ring false. The final line, with the emphatic direction (Write it!) only serves to show that the author is trying to convince herself that this loss isn't a major problem. The poem's form (it's a villanelle), with its emphasis on repetition, only highlight the fact that the speaker doesn't believe what she is saying. The more she says "the art of losing isn't hard to master" and variations on "it isn't a disaster," the less impact these lines have. It is almost like she is trying to convince us (and herself) that this is true.