“One Art” from POEMS by Elizabeth Bishop. Previously published in THE COMPLETE POEMS 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop. Copyright © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
We’ve all lost something at some point in our lives, from keys to wallets to homework assignments. Sometimes we lose bigger things: memories, people. Some of us have lost loved ones: grandparents and siblings, parents and friends. Some of us lose ourselves.
Loss—all of these kinds of loss— are central to Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art.” In it, Bishop describes how she loses one thing after another, beginning with trivial objects like keys and building up to larger losses: houses, rivers, a continent. A loved one. Those losses, she tells us, were “no disaster,” but as the poem goes on, we come to wonder if she really means it as she repeats that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.”
Elizabeth Bishop was a leading American poet in the 20th century. Though she wrote many extraordinary poems during her life, “One Art” is easily Bishop’s most well-known work, and in my opinion, it is her greatest. What starts off as an observation of loss and a plaintive refusal to recognize that loss is disaster ends with an anguished, heartbreaking denial that even the loss of “you” could have been a disaster.
Throughout her life, Bishop herself endured countless losses, beginning in infancy when she lost her father (she wasn’t even a year old). In her grief, her mother fell into depression and had to be hospitalized when Bishop was five. Bishop then grew up afflicted with asthma and spent her childhood alternating between the care of various relatives. As an adult, Bishop lost one lover to death, and at the time of writing “One Art,” she had just separated from another longtime lover, a younger woman named Alice. In response, Bishop rapidly wrote out 17 drafts of a single poem in less than a month, a first for her, since she usually spent months perfecting and revising her work. The result was “One Art,” a tremendously beautiful and heartbreaking read.
“One Art” begins with its most famous line: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Bishop starts off slowly, reassuring us that misplaced keys and wasted time are only small losses and encouraging us to practice losing: “Lose something every day,” she writes. She tells us what else she has lost, things that gradually start to seem less and less trivial: the loss of her mother’s watch, her house, her memories. Still, these losses are not disasters. Here the reader begins to realize that Bishop might not take these losses so lightly after all, though she so bravely pretends otherwise, as she describes the losses of “lovely” cities, continents, and realms, which (she claims) are still not disasters.
But then she reaches the final stanza, arguably the most important one in the poem. Here is where the twist is. The dash before this stanza makes it seem to be almost a postscript, an addition that couldn’t be held back. “—Even losing you,” Bishop writes here, revealing that the poem is being written for a certain person: “It’s evident that the art of losing’s not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” This very last line exposes to us the true nature of Bishop’s immense struggle to cope with her loss, despite her repeated assurances otherwise. “(Write it!),” she commands herself; those two words are the only ones in the entire poem where her true pain is revealed to the reader, leaving us feeling just as torn as she is.
The best thing about “One Art”— the thing that, in my eyes, makes it so powerful—is how human it is. As Bishop herself once put it, “One Art” is “pure emotion.” It approaches loss in a way completely novel, yet so familiar to any of us who have lost something we treasured. Though the speaker continues to deny that loss is any disaster, it is evident that the opposite is true, and that is what makes this poem so compelling. It is deep and powerful, simple but complex. To me, “One Art” is exactly what poetry is at its best, laying bare not only the human mind, but the human heart, however agonizing it may be.