Thursday, April 3, 2008

Elizaebeth Bishop - 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;
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

Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art

The first thing you notice as you read One Art is the form. One Art is a villanelle, a French style that follows strict repetition, taking lines from the first stanza and reusing them at the end of subsequent stanzas throughout the poem. The poet has some flexibility to reinvent the line, but the wording must remain true to the spirit of the original line. Villanelles employ a clear rhyme scheme with the end words of the first and third lines in each stanza rhyming throughout the poem. Trust me when I say this is one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult poetic form to write. Not only did Elizabeth Bishop write a villanelle, but she wrote a damn good one; in fact, many scholars of contemporary poetry would rate One Art as one of the greatest poems of the 20th Century.

Why is this poem so well respected? One Art takes the universal subject of loss and illuminates the ease with which it weaves its way through our lives. Her diction and imagery are precise to a level that very few writers attain. She reminds us that somewhere along the way we settle into patterns of accepting the pain that accompanies loss. This is a poem where the reader and the poet are in the same mind, as evident by the famous final lines of the poem: “the art of losing’s not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” She urges herself in a moment of strained courage to “write it,” referring to the last line and the poem in general. It is imperative that she records her thoughts about loss; only then will they be recognized and true, but even as Bishop is writing the line she needs to be convinced. The magnitude of her loss haunts her; she’s unable to forget what it was to be in the presence of the places and people she has lost.

Bishop misplaced her keys and misspent an hour or two as the poem posits, but her personal loses were far greater. Born in 1911, she lost her father when she was less than a year old, which in turn caused her mother to suffer mental breakdowns that resulted in her permanent institutionalization when Elizabeth was only five. Raised in Nova Scotia by her grandparents, Bishop was uprooted to live with her father’s family in Worcester, Massachusetts. After attending Vassar, Bishop suffered through numerous maladies, including severe asthma, alcoholism, and depression. She moved to Brazil and fell in love with Lota de Macedo Soares, a wealthy Brazilian aristocrat and former classmate. In 1967 Lota committed suicide, burdening Elizabeth with an indelible loss that she never truly recovered from, even though she taught at Harvard until her death in 1979.

In one of my graduate courses at Emerson College, a professor shared with our class over twenty-five drafts of One Art. She had access to some of Bishop’s letters and archives at Vassar and photocopied the invaluable documents. I pull them out from time-to-time, especially when I’m feeling stuck in my own writing, or even stuck in my own life. Following Bishop’s progress from handwritten to typed drafts, seeing the poem expand and reduce in the process of taking shape, observing the developing rhyme scheme---this practice refreshes me. In these moments of reflection, I understand just how painstakingly Bishop probed the depths of memory to capture the tender exactitudes of grief, and it is then that I’m thankful Elizabeth Bishop took the broken pieces of herself and made them into stunning art, One Art.

1 comment:

jamekay said...

Matt – you have educated me here … I had no idea what a “Villanelle” was or the challenge involved creating such a thing. It is difficult enough to convey thoughts and ideas but to impose specific form rules adds an entirely new level of complexity and appreciation to Elizabeth Bishop’s work. My take on the author’s poem is that loss is inevitable, so to manage the pain that remains - we must learn to accept and reconcile the loss - no matter how profound. What would the alternative be … debilitating suffering as experienced by her mother?