Monday, April 2, 2018

One Art - 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.

This poem by Elizabeth Bishop is reassuring and beautiful.  Whatever you may lose, it is not a disaster.  What stands out to me most in this poem is the intentional nature of losing, and its framing as an art.  What this poem seems to be to me, more than anything, is an entreaty to balance, acceptance, and calm.

From a formal standpoint, many of the lines are hendecasyllabic.  That means lines containing eleven syllables each.  It's not dissimilar from iambic pentameter, which features ten syllables of alternating stressed and unstressed "feet" made of two syllables each.  It's quite common for poems written primarily in iambic pentameter to feature a hendecasyllabic line.  Keats made use of it in the opening line of Endymion and it's a natural feeling rhythm.  All stanzas, with the exception of the final one, are tercets, wherein the first and last lines are rhymed, or slant rhymed.  Examples include "last, or/master," "master/disaster" and "fluster/master."  They aren't all perfect, but they have enough common sound to lend a lilting quality to the poem.  I will get back to why this matters when I address the end of the poem.

What is losing, to Elizabeth Bishop?  We can say with certainty, that despite all appearances, it is not a disaster.  You can lose material objects ("the fluster of lost door keys"), time ("the hour badly spent") and people ("you").  What I like best about losing things in this poem is that Bishop never denies the pain of loss in the course of reassuring us, and herself, that it is no disaster.  Losing your keys does fluster you.  An hour can absolutely be badly spent.  There is no denial here, only assurance.  To accept those losses, and to continue, that is mastering the art of losing.  And besides, some things are meant to be lost!  Keys are practically begging to be misplaced, I know mine are.

Mastering the art of losing is hard, too.  Bishop herself needs to force it by the end of the poem.  When the poem turns to love, it's presented in the second person perspective, addressed at "you."  It is obvious that Bishop misses this "you" given her remembrance of "the joking voice, a gesture I love" and speaks of those things in the present tense.  By now in the poem, we've lost both our meter and rhyme scheme, and the final stanza is a quartet rather than a tercet.  Losing is not too hard to master, but Bishop has to (in parenthesis) remind herself, "Write it!"  Committing to paper the loss is part of acceptance, and mastery of said loss.  It's a beautiful, affecting touch at the end of the poem, and it cuts through the poem's texture like a knife.  It brings to mind loss you may have felt, a lover you may have drifted from, and it reminds you, master the art of loss.  "Lose something every day" Bishop tells us.  Accept, internalize, express.  You will miss things, but it will be no disaster.

Speaking of missing things, I've missed you, reader, and this blog.  A good friend of mine saw my blog as the first result when she Googled for a poem to show a friend, and encouraged me to resume blogging.  I am glad she did.  I hope to bring you many more poems in the coming days, months, and years. 


  1. I had lost without knowing, this blog, and did not even know I had until, there it was in my inbox! Thank you for coming back, I missed it and I did not even know I did! Please keep posting!

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words! I'll endeavor to keep posting and bringing poetry to your inbox :)

  2. I missed this blog very much when it died away, and hoped it wasn't because things had gone awry in your life. I'm delighted to see it again; your comments are always so insightful and interesting. I'm looking forward to having them back in my llife (PS Just finished today reading Helen Dunmore's Inside the Wave - astonishing, numinous writing. Do check it out)

    1. I can't express how much I appreciate your comment, Tig. I'll definitely look up Inside the Wave.