By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘One Art’ is a poem by the American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79), first published in the New Yorker in 1976 and included in her collection Geography III the following year. The poem, which is one of the most famous examples of the villanelle form, is titled ‘One Art’ because the poem is about Bishop’s attempts to make loss and poetry into one unified ‘art’: to ‘master’ what she calls the ‘art of losing’.
You can read ‘One Art’ here; below, we offer an analysis of Bishop’s poem.
‘One Art’: summary
Elizabeth Bishop begins ‘One Art’ by asserting that it is easy to deal with loss. So many things in life seem to be designed to be lost, that losing them should not be viewed as a disaster.
Next, she entreats us to try to lose something every day if we can. It might be lost front-door keys (an item commonly lost or mislaid) or lost time (an hour wasted doing something unproductive). After all, it isn’t difficult to master this idea of losing things.
Once we have learnt to lose these small, insignificant things, we should set our sights higher, or rather ‘farther, faster’: we should forget the names of things, or forget places we have been, or places we intended to visit on our travels. Forgetting any of this, she assures us, will not bring about disaster.
Bishop then proffers a personal example: she lost her mother’s watch, and then the last-but-one of the three houses she has lived in. This, too, was easy: after all, it isn’t hard to ‘master’ this ‘art’ of losing things.
Now the losses get even bigger: two cities, which the poet had presumably left behind. These were beautiful cities she was fond of. She even ‘lost’ two rivers and a whole continent, leaving them all behind. Although she misses them, it wasn’t so terrible to lose them. It certainly wasn’t a disaster.
In the poem’s final quatrain, Bishop turns to address an unidentified ‘you’: she tells this addressee that even losing them, with their endearing jokey voice (a gesture the poet loves), can be lost, the poet can admit without having lied.
She then concludes by reaffirming her earlier statement that it isn’t ‘too hard’ to ‘master’ the ‘art’ of losing things which we hold dear in our lives, although it may look like disaster.
‘One Art’: analysis
‘One Art’ is a subtle poem whose force derives in part from the ambiguity of the word ‘hard’, which appears in the first of the poem’s two refrains. In the context of the poem, ‘hard’ can mean both ‘difficult to achieve’ and ‘difficult to cope with emotionally’.
Clearly, the former is true but the poem – with its litany of dearly-held things the poet has lost, including a loved one in that final stanza – invites us to question how true the second is. It may be ‘easy’ to lose loved ones – indeed, it’s sadly inevitable that the people we love will die – but it isn’t easy in the other sense: that is, it isn’t easy to get over that loss.
‘Losing’, too, clearly carries several different meanings in ‘One Art’: losing one’s keys isn’t the same as ‘losing’ a continent (parting with it or leaving it behind when one moves to another continent), for instance. Even ‘master’ is carrying two subtly distinct meanings: both ‘achieving’ and ‘overcoming’. One masters the violin, while one has to master one’s fears. These two types of ‘mastering’ are not exactly equivalent.
It is partly because of these fine differences in meaning that ‘One Art’ succeeds where many villanelles can fall prey to deathly flatness: as William Empson once observed, the difficulty with writing a villanelle is to stop it from dying as it goes on.
The various meanings of the words ‘hard’ and ‘master’ mean that each time this refrain is repeated throughout the poem, it takes on a slightly different meaning, becoming both more apt and more ironic: apt because we come to realise how many things we must ‘lose’ in the course of a life, but ironic because we realise that, contrary to what the poem appeared to be saying, it is a disaster to lose many of these things.
‘One Art’ comes to have the air of someone whose shoulders are shaking with sobs even as they wipe tears from their eyes and reassure us that they’re not crying.
‘One Art’ is an example of a villanelle. As its name suggests, the villanelle is a French verse form, yet this French form took its name from an Italian one: the word derives from villanella, a form of Italian part-song which originated in Naples in the sixteenth century. The villanelle comprises nineteen lines made up of five tercets (three-line stanzas) and a concluding quatrain.
As the Oxford English Dictionary summarises it, ‘The first and third lines of the first stanza are repeated alternately in the succeeding stanzas as a refrain, and form a final couplet in the quatrain.’
In addition to the restrictive pressure of these recurring refrains, the rhyme scheme of the villanelle is also tight: aba aba aba aba aba abaa. Bishop innovates slightly with these restrictions, employing pararhyme or half-rhyme (‘fluster’, ‘gesture’) in a couple of the lines, while her frequent use of enjambment or run-on lines prevents the individual lines of ‘One Art’ from becoming too self-contained.
After all, the poem is about how all of these various forms of loss can be unified into ‘one art’. (Contrast Bishop’s villanelle with one by William Empson, ‘Missing Dates’, which utilises mostly end-stopped lines.)
In addition to these modifications to the villanelle form, Bishop doesn’t repeat the second of her two refrains in full throughout the poem: only the final word, ‘disaster’, and the general sentiment expressed in the line remain constant throughout. But the repetition or near-repetition of the two refrains serves a very particular purpose in ‘One Art’.
In some villanelles – Sylvia Plath’s early poems using this form spring to mind, as do Empson’s poems – the repetition carries the force of mental paralysis and deadlock: the poet finds themselves returning to the same narrow obsessions again and again. But in ‘One Art’, it is more of an unravelling of a fragile belief than it is the hardening of an inevitability.
That is to say, Bishop begins in a casual yet sure and certain enough manner: it isn’t hard to master the art of loss, after all, so what’s all the fuss about? The poem seems to shrug.
But as the villanelle develops and those refrains recur, we start to suspect that the poet is kidding herself: as she’s trying to convince herself of this axiomatic truth, all of the evidence is leading her away from it.
The subtle shift from the initial ‘losing isn’t hard’ into that closing ‘losing’s not too hard’ (ah, so it is hard, after all) reveals the fissure that has opened up in the speaker’s thinking.
That final ‘Write it!’, desperately italicised and enclosed within parentheses for emphasis and isolation, seems to admit, finally, that all writing comes from loss, and from trying to work through that loss. Writing is consolation, and for consolation to happen, something must, after all that, have been lost.