‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop

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 a disaster.

This is a beautifully crafted villanelle, and a fascinating illustration of a person’s internal struggle with denial over how much they have been affected by the loss of a someone they love.

I love the way the poet shows the self-deception involved, as she tries to convince herself that she can learn to be able to cope with significant loss. The mantra, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master”, runs through the poem. The repetition of these words suggests that the speaker is trying desperately to convince herself that it is true.

The speaker starts off by talking about trivial things that she has lost (things that are ‘safe’ for her to talk about). She tells us that she has lost “door keys” and “an hour badly spent”. Losing these things “wasn’t a disaster”. Then she advises us to “loose something every day” — to “practice” loosing increasingly significant things — as if this will help to prepare us for when we loose something vital to us, like a loved one.

As the speaker moves on to talking about more valuable things that she has lost (“my mother’s watch”… and then “two cities”, “two rivers” and “a continent”) she tells us, “I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster”. We can see that she is aware that loosing material things is nothing compared to loosing a person that she loves.

I love the final stanza because it is so self-aware. She is trying to convince herself that she can cope with losing the “you” to whom this poem is addressed. The way she describes the person as “the joking voice, a gesture/I love” shows us that she has lost a person very dear to her — someone she has spent a great deal of time with. It could be a friend, a lover, or even a spouse. It is theirpresence that she misses. Again she repeats that “the art of losing things isn’t hard to master”, but finally admits that “it may look like (Write it!) like a disaster”. I love this final line. The “Write it!” part  makes me think about how writing can be very therapeutic. The act of writing can make things more real and help us to accept them. Here, it seems that when the poet writes “Write it!” she is trying to convince herself to admit it — to admit that losing this person is a disaster for her.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

  • Smart Janitor

    This is a lovely, sad poem to have chosen. I agree with you that the dynamic that starts with the speaker’s losing small things and then proceeds as she loses bigger and bigger things (continents, realms, you) is a good momentum-builder. The form of the villanelle also helps the momentum: tick-tock. I would quibble with two things: The poem should not be reprinted in a font that looks so much like italics, one; and two, you need to be careful to spell “lose” that way and not “loose” in your analysis. Please take a look and, if you wish, follow my own blog, englishavocado.com, a site for students and teachers of English.