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One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

Topics: Poetry, Madrid Metro, Stockholm Metro, Stanza / Pages: 6 (1474 words) / Published: Feb 23rd, 2013
The poem One Art by Elizabeth Bishop has a conversational tone conveying an obvious particular notion--at first. The first refrain serves to declare victoriously an opening statement that, "The art of losing isn't hard to master" (Bishop Line 1). As the poem advances, repetitions of the first and second refrains reveal themselves as helpful incantations. At first, this villanelle appears as a no-nonsense tutorial equipped with literary imagery on how to get over losing things, places, opportunities and persons in life. Having theoretically mastered the list of losses seems to somehow qualify the speaker to give such recommendations. Each stanza explores how Bishop, the main character, may have arrived at her "loss is no disaster" (second refrain) approach to grief mastery. By the last stanza though, she is no longer perceived as apathetically reciting incantations perhaps for our learning, but as coping with personal losses and evolving through resulting stages of grief. By the end, we witness an ironic exposure of the speaker's true emotional self behind the mask. Bishop’s word choice offer the impression that she has overcome the burden of experiencing negative emotions associated with loss. The specific scheme that is adhered to throughout this poem is a two-rhymer, ABA, in that all the lines rhyme with either "aster" or "ent". In the first stanza, a rationale emerges that "so many things seem filled with the intent/ to be lost” (Bishop 1.2). She personifies inanimate objects even giving them intentions. This seems a way for Bishop to exude control while removing self from responsibility perhaps to assign blame for her role in the crisis. This though, is the first clue that the speaker may be experiencing a degree of denial. Bishop symbolically presents her "no disaster" formula for everyday losses arranged from lost keys, to time spent looking for them. The speaker must give the illusion that this advice is attainable. She reasons that to some this loss may seem like a setback, but to her, disaster had been wholly averted. Neither of these losses appears to cause Bishop any real suffering either. In the second stanza, she cements this passive attitude an apparent lack of concern for certain losses experienced in life with a vigorous assertion that, “The art of losing isn't hard to master.” (Bishop 2.3)
The speaker's philosophy can lend the hope that if by mastering coping skills, loss will cause no pain. Bishop advices "lose something every day". She dialogs with the reader to encourage us to "Accept the fluster..."(Bishop 2.4). Recognize we are powerless to prevent such losses. Then she issues a fruitless challenge: lose faster, farther as if to say, to master coping skills we must lose more, more often to approach mastery of the "art" of losing. Bishop pushes the human emotional aptitude to overcome such grievances and finds no difficulty in metaphorically comparing the ability to cope with such grief to “art form”. Art is usually affiliated with human accomplishment, something beautiful to behold. One could presume that Bishop simply infers that freeing oneself from ever experiencing negative emotions resulting from loss is not only possible but a beautiful and likely skill if you follow her mantras. However, most people realistically experience some kind of negative pesky resulting emotion, if only temporarily. The most poignant of losses have tragic implications that Bishop may have already encountered. The speaker dutifully rehearses the refrain because this is what she may need as the by-products of her own losses may be proving themselves overwhelming.
In the fourth stanza, the speaker nearly drills in the readers mind that this "art" isn't "hard to master" as if our acceptance/approval will validate this grief recovery strategy. Bishop appears to be reassuring herself rather than the reader that “The art of losing isn't hard to master.” (Bishop line 12) The opening exclamation, "I lost my mother's watch. And look!" (Bishop 4.1) appears to be a deflection tactic. It is unclear whether her mother's watch was the loss of time with her mother, if the word "watch" is symbolic for a mother's influence/guidance, or whether she lost the physical timepiece itself. The loss of either would be understandably difficult to accept. Just when readers think that the dissolution of her strict persona is imminent, Bishop enthusiastically points to even greater losses. She leads us non-chalantly to the loss of her "last or next-to-last of three loved houses" too! (Bishop line 11). These statements create a sense of doubt that anyone could possess such a flippant attitude regarding the loss of irreplaceable mementos, time, or a beloved home. To understand to whom these ironic tips for learning to live with loss are directed, we must visualize the speaker experiencing these events and attempting to console and possibly instill confidence in self. Then it becomes evident that Bishop is poetically sharing with us, but must prove to herself that she has successfully overcome varying degrees of loss. She must bravely learn the "art" which she proclaims "isn't hard to master". Mastering loss seems an unfair expectation of anyone and even a bit unrealistic. Most people are negatively affected under these circumstances and feel some kind of frustration, shame, desperation, etc., and Bishop is no exception. This emerges as the point in the poem when her language begins to change. It starts to become clear that she's fortifying herself with the incantations to deal with potentially disastrous emotions that have arisen from divulging certain sentimental experiences.
By the fifth stanza, Bishop reveals much about herself as travel and home are apparently very important to her, both seem to emerge as important themes. In the previous stanza, she lists rather large losses “two cities, two rivers…and a continent” (Bishop 4.1-2). These geographical references could be symbolic for suppressed feelings of hopelessness. She suggests that we are to lose "Places, names and where it was you meant to travel" (Bishop 3.1-2). Perhaps practice exercises for the inevitable. Then, as if to illustrate her supposed livelihood after having lost the very same, the structure and word choice extend flippant reassurances that “None of these [losses] will bring disaster” (Bishop Line 9). In an apparent descent in mood, even the master needs reassurance for what is to come. She claims to have owned vast realms encompassing massive amounts of land and water. In the first and third line of the fifth stanza, she exposes vulnerability. She uses a subjective adjective “lovely” and tells that she actually “misses” those lovely lost realms. A reference to herself that now she has quite possibly lost it all. Perhaps she's lost what meant the world to her. In recalling these understated losses, the esteemed vigor has been exchanged for scheduled composure. This time around again she resolves, but with less than concrete certainty than before, that it “wasn’t a disaster”. (Bishop 5.3)
As the poem progresses, Bishop comes to poetically acknowledge the pain of loss and disaster. The first stanza begins controlled, confident, and logically arranged, but; by the final stanza, word choice and breaks in form unmask the painful reality. The last stanza departs from formal villanelle form in that line one begins with a very significant dash. Its usage along with the brackets in the following line illustrates a deportation from the norm. In this final stanza, the subject of loss of love comes up and a rapid decline in mood ensues with each passing line to reveal a very real and present battle. In these lines she exposes raw feelings over the loss/death of her loved one. The present tense of the word love in “gesture/ I love" indicates that clearly she hasn't gotten over the resulting grief yet. In the second line of this stanza, she confesses she "shan't have lied", as if to look back upon her losses and to finally be honest with herself and the reader. Bishop's continued acceptance of the established "no disaster" claim nears impossible. The inner struggle is further illustrated by the stutter “like…like” in the poem's last line. A break in her voice is indicative of her battle to contain in poetry form her bursting emotions, her ritualistic repetitions were enough until now. In the last line, she diligently remains in step with form and restates her refrain. However, a parenthetical insertion of an italicized "Write it!" in Line 18 gives the clear impression that a force of sheer will power becomes a necessity to go on believing in the "loss is no disaster" approach to grief mastery. An overall sense of irony emanates from this ending as we see the tough facade fade away. This revelation is of a desperate person clinging to and learning from her own learned mantra “losing isn't hard to master". (Bishop line 1)

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