Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”

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I first learned about the villanelle in Mrs. Horsley’s AP Lit class senior year of high school. We read Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking” and Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” and the form was easy to see: 19 lines total, 5 tercets (three-line stanzas) and a quatrain (a four-line stanza), with the first and third line of the first stanza repeated as end lines of the subsequent stanzas and then as a couplet at the end of the poem.

That’s what Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” is, a villanelle … sort of:

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:
faces, 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
thought it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

The form is there, but corrupted from the very beginning. I sometimes use this poem to teach students about enjambment, which in poetry means when the syntax of a sentence runs over the end of a line into the next line without any punctuation or pause. The second and third lines of the first stanza are aggressively enjambed: “so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” This means that from the very beginning of the poem, the possibility of a perfect villanelle is foreclosed, because the third line can’t simply be repeated as it appears. It’s bound too inextricably to what came before.

Nevertheless, the poet tries to put a brave face on. She keeps insisting that the art of losing isn’t hard to master, even though the things she loses grow in importance as the poem progresses, from door keys to houses to an entire continent to a person she holds dear. By the end of the poem we realize what a paradox the first line presents. On the one hand, it’s true. Losing isn’t difficult to do. It’s a fundamental part of life. The passage of time ensures that we will eventually lose, well, everything.

But it’s precisely because of this fact that “losing” is the great tragedy of mortality, which is why we see the poet struggling against the very form of the villanelle, breaking down into repetition and almost incoherence in the last stanza (Write it!). It’s possible to think of this poem biographically, as corresponding to tragic events in Bishop’s life, as some scholars have done. I think such an approach enriches understanding, but the poem also stands on its own as a testament to loss.

For me, the most poignant, and also the most horrifying, moment in the poem is the word “shan’t”–as in, “shall not.” That word signifies that the poem has just shifted subtly into a mode not of memory but of anticipation. In other words, the poet has not yet lost her beloved, but is only contemplating that inevitable loss. I confess that when I think about the small intimacies I share with K–a “gesture I love”–the thought of such a loss is almost unbearable. We will never master loss.