Joanne Feit Diehl: On "One Art"

Bishop's late poem, "One Art' (whose title conveys the implicit suggestion that mastery sought over loss in love is closely related to poetic control), articulates the tension between discipline in life and the force of circumstance.

The poem speaks in the tones of the survivor:

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.

The opening fine, with its echo of a folk prescription such as "an apple a day," leads into the specifics of daily loss—of keys, of time—syntactic parallelism suggesting an evaluative equation of what we immediately recognize as hardly equal realities. Such parallelism, by providing a temporary distraction that draws the reader away from the force building in the poem, functions as a disarming form of humor that undercuts the potential self-pity otherwise latent in the poem's subject.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. The art of losing isn't hard to master.

"One Art" presents a series of losses as if to reassure both its author and its reader that control is possible—ironic gesture that forces upon us the tallying of experience cast in the guise of reassurance. By embracing loss as Emerson had Fate (the Beautiful Necessity), Bishop casts the illusion of authority over the inexorable series of losses she seeks 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.

The race continues between "disaster" and "master" as the losses include her mother's watch, houses, cities, two rivers, a continent, and, perhaps, in the future, an intimate friend whom, breaking out of the pattern of inanimate objects, the poem directly addresses:

—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.

Here conflict explodes as the verbal deviations from previously established word patterns reflect the price of the speaker's remaining true to her initial claim that experience of loss can yield to mastery. With a directness that comes to predominate in Bishop's later work, "One Art" delineates the relationship between the will and the world. Note the split of "a gesture / I love" across two lines; the profession stands by itself as it turns back toward the beloved gesture. Syntax reveals the pain "One Art" has been fighting, since its beginnings, to suppress as the thought of losing "you" awakens an anxiety the poem must wrestle with down to its close. This last time, the refrain varies its form, assuming an evidentiary structure that challenges as it expresses what has hitherto been taken as a fact recognized from within the poet's consciousness. Coupled with the addition of "it's evident" is the adverbial "too" (It’s evident / the art of losing's not too hard to master"), which increases the growing tension within the desire to repeat the poem's refrain while admitting growing doubts as to its accuracy. In the end, the pressure to recapitulate the by-now-threatened refrain betrays itself in the sudden interruption of the closing line by an italicized hand that enforces the completion of the "master" / "disaster" couplet that the poem itself has made, through its formal demands, an inevitable resolution: "the art of losing's not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster." The repetition of "like" postpones, ever so fleetingly, the final word that hurts all the more. The inevitability of "disaster" ironically recalls the fatalism of such childhood rituals as "he loves me; he loves me not" - in which the child's first words, "he loves me," and the number of petals on the flower determine the game's outcome. In its earlier evocation of folk ritual and in the villanelle's rhyme scheme, "One Art" reveals an ironic playfulness that works in collusion with high seriousness, a strategy that proliferates throughout Bishop's work.

from Women Poets and the American Sublime. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. Copyright © by Joanne Fiet Diehl

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Criticism Overview
Title Joanne Feit Diehl: On "One Art" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Joanne Feit Diehl Criticism Target Elizabeth Bishop
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Women Poets and the American Sublime
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