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. 

 

Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ is a poem of melancholic positivism, showing us that we much learn ‘the art of losing’ if we are to remain strong against the pain it may bring us. In calling losing an art, Bishop perhaps labels it as a valuable virtue, harping to the well-known idea that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ She tells her reader that as loss ‘is no disaster’ if one learns to treat it as such.

The speaker begins to ‘teach’ the reader how to ‘master’ the ‘art of losing’ in the second stanza, instructing them to ‘lose something every day’ and to ‘accept’ that this is a necessary part of life. In referring to losing such trivial items such as keys, Bishop shows us that losing things is as easy as anything and that it happens all the time and to everybody. The speaker then continues to encourage the reader to master the art of losing in the third stanza by expanding from losing physical belongings to losing memories and abstract ideas; ‘places, and names, and where it was you meant / to travel.’ She ends the stanza again by ironically claiming that will also not be a ‘disaster’, again prompting the reader to, in some regards, devalue the things that they lose, whether physical or abstract. The speaker then goes on to tell the reader of their own personal successes in mastering the art of losing. They tell us how they lost their ‘mother’s watch’ and ‘three loved houses’ and then even more significantly ‘two cities’, ‘two rivers, a continent’, the speaker confesses that they miss these things but still insists that this, as well, is not any ‘disaster.’

And finally the speaker addresses the very loss that – we can assume – caused them to put pen to paper in the first instance. Bishop pulls the reader back to the present moment of reality, revealing that she herself has lost someone she loves. By the end of the poem we come to realise that a loss can, in fact, be a disaster. Bishop starts simple and small in the losses of objects like door keys, then progresses to the loss of memory and important information like names and places. She then escalates to very significant items of sentiment, such as the family heirloom of a watch or a home, and then raises the stakes again to fantastical losses such as entire cities, rivers, and continents. Bishop ultimately realises that the loss of  love ‘may look [and feel] like…a disaster’, not that it is a disaster.

 

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

 

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