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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Number 111: Elizabeth Bishop "One Art"

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

Hap Notes: I promise this is the last villanelle for a while. And you can see (because now you are expert at spotting them) that Bishop plays with the form a bit.

Bishop is too thoughtful and self-conscious to be overly emotionally confessional in her poetry. Lowell exposes every raw nerve he has, Plath lets her anger and confusion and hurt flame out but Bishop is more constrained. As you read this poem, imagine you are at her home and she is pouring you a cup of tea. You are going to have a friendly, serious chat over a cuppa with her. As she pours out the tea, she says a few things about losing- keys, hours, a watch – casual things. Then she reflects on loved houses she lived in, places she liked living (she may even have pictures of these places around her study. She has books and maps about the places, too.) You notice her hand shaking now as she pours. As she reflects on the loss of a relationship, her eyes gleam with tears, she gets a grip on herself (being forceful –as if saying "face it and buck up, Elizabeth- don't allow it to master you, just admit it") and finishes her thought with a sad catch in her voice. The poem is casual and polite but it is a mask for loss, which she eventually forces herself to verbalize.

Of course we're not really having tea with her, I'm using it as a device, but I wanted to illustrate her careful progression and constraint in this poem in which she reveals important things. Remember she wants us to know this– it's a poem, not a casual conversation. This is part of her awesome writing mastery. Her vulnerability is hard won in this poem. Think, too, on the title of this poem. It's about writing as much as it's about life. The poem's inner core exposes itself masterfully with every thoughtful word. The poem's somewhat reluctant last stanza is purposely so. Do you see why?

Bishop's personal life remained properly personal but we do know that she had a lover, Maria Carlota Costallat de Macedo Soares, whom she lived with in South America for more than 15 years. When the relationship broke up, Bishop moved back to the U.S. from her much loved houses there. "Lota" Soares followed Bishop to New York and the day she got there (in 1967) Soares took a suicidal overdose of drugs (tranquilizers) and died after being in New York for less than a few days.

This poem appears in Bishop's Geography III which was published in 1976. We have spoken of Bishop before right here:
and also here:

I suppose it's obvious that I love and greatly admire her extraordinary work.

1 comment:

  1. Hap here. I wrote three villanelles. They are all awesomely sucky. Here's the best of the lot. Please try it yourself- it's fun. Kinda.

    Diet of Worms

    All of the eating – what the hell were we eating?
    At the grocery store always the sugary dates.
    And the car careers in the snow and the sleeting.

    We tear open the box and the scene is repeating.
    Oh, the spillage and guilt that our hunger creates.
    And the car careers in the snow and the sleeting.

    In our purses are diet books we have been reading
    To carefully gauge and manage our weights.
    All of the eating – what the hell were we eating?

    Is it because we knew "old time" was fleeting
    That we crammed our maws with cookies and cakes
    While the car careers in the snow and the sleeting?

    Even your cancer we thought we were beating
    With custards and pie crust and brownies and shakes.
    All of the eating – what the hell were we eating?

    And now that you're gone and my sore heart is bleeding
    I wish we could vomit up all of our hate.
    All of the eating – what the the hell were we eating
    As the car careers in the snow and the sleeting?

    -- Hap Mansfield