Hello, and welcome to Poetry Soup! I’m your host, Emma Catherine Hoff. Each episode, I’ll discuss a different poem and poet. Today, I’ll be talking about Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle, “One Art,” which is about losing things — and people.
Have you ever lost something? A favorite pen, maybe, or a precious stuffed animal? That can be hard, but losing someone you love can be even harder. This is the subject of Bishop’s poem.
Elizabeth Bishop was born on February 8, 1911, in Wooster, Massachusetts. She was an American poet who wrote many poems that I love, such as “In the Waiting Room” and “Crusoe in England.” They’re all worth checking out! In 1956, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and in 1970, she was the National Book Award winner. She had an extremely complicated childhood. Her father died when Bishop was only eight months old, and her mother was institutionalized when she was a child, so she went to live with one pair of grandparents, and from them to her other pair, and, eventually, from them to her aunt. She got very little formal schooling. When she got accepted to a high school for her sophomore year, she was not allowed to attend because she did not have all of the required vaccinations. Eventually, she went to Vassar college, which is extraordinary, seeing that she had very little schooling and Vassar is a pretty prestigious school.
Elizabeth Bishop’s aunt introduced her to many Victorian writers like Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Elizabeth Barret Browning, and Thomas Caryle. She was deeply influenced by the poet Marianne Moore and was friends with Robert Lowell. Robert Lowell said that his famous poem, “Skunk Hour,” was “modeled on” Bishop’s “The Armadillo.” One of the last poems that Bishop ever published, called “North Haven,” was in memory of Lowell. This is interesting, considering that the poem I’ll be reading is also about loss.
Now I’m going to read “One Art,” a poem about losing and longing.
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.
In “One Art,” Elizabeth Bishop uses the structure of a villanelle to capture the feeling of the poem. The refrain is really powerful! A villanelle is a poem with nineteen lines — five triplets (stanzas with three lines) and a sixth stanza with four lines. On top of that, there are two lines that repeat every other stanza throughout the poem. The first line of the first stanza becomes the last line of the second stanza, and the last line of the first stanza becomes the last line of the third stanza, and so on. In the last stanza, the two lines follow each other. Though these lines are traditionally supposed to be the same each time, Bishop changes them a bit.. She repeats “The art of losing’s not too hard to master,” but “to be lost that their loss is no disaster” changes by the end of the poem, when it becomes “though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” However, she always uses the word disaster. There is also often a A-B-A-B rhyme scheme in a villanelle, too, which Bishop also plays around with. Her end words don’t always rhyme, like “or and master,” but she also uses a lot of slant rhymes, like “gesture and master.”
Besides the structure, there is more to Bishop’s poem — which the form, in fact, emphasizes. It is about losing things — small and big alike. Bishop starts with keys and misused time. Then she moves onto houses, cities, and continents. Finally, she talks about losing a person — in this case, a friend or someone Bishop really cared about. This loss means a lot to Bishop, she writes “(the joking voice, a gesture I love).” This is why she must force herself to believe it doesn’t matter: “though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” It is hard for her to put pen to paper and write the refrain. This poem represents Bishop’s feelings so much because she breaks the form. She feels the need to continue to repeat the lines — both in the poem and in her head.
Like a lot of great poetry, this poem is very beautiful and elegant. The words and the form are all amazing. But there is also meaning in the poem — it isn’t just a collection of metaphors, descriptors, or pretty lines. Though I have never really experienced loss, I can imagine what it feels like when reading this poem. I think that that’s the point of “One Art” — to let the reader go with new knowledge and perspective.
Though this is a very serious and sad poem, it is also very inspiring — it shows you that messing around with a structure and making it your own can turn out really well! I hope you enjoyed this episode of Poetry Soup, and I’ll see you soon with the next one.