Bishop’s “One Art”

I’ve finished all of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems except for her translations, which I’ll discuss later, and there are surprisingly few poems I’ve marked as ones I really like, five, to be exact.

Judging from the poems I do like, which include several that are often anthologized, like “The Armadillo” and “First Death In Nova Scotia,” I suspect that what I don’t like about her poems is the overwhelming sense of “objectivity.” Too many of the poems seem to do nothing but describe a scene, describe it so coldly and meticulously that you can’t help but sense the artist’s alienation from what she has chosen to describe.

It is precisely those poems that try to articulate this alienation, those mentioned above and, particularly “One Art” that I do like:


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.

I hope that I wasn’t influenced to choose this poem because I heard the author read it here, but I probably was. It always seems difficult to totally ignore what we’ve been told are “good” poems prior to actually reading them ourselves.

I suspect that reading this poem in the context of all of her other poems influenced me, too. In some ways, this poem seems to summarize her outlook on life, which is not too surprising when you read her biography.

More importantly, the poem precisely captures a moment most of us have felt more than once in our lives.

Everyone has lost many of the things mentioned in the poem, none of which seemed disastrous. But too many of us have also lost those things that do seem disastrous. Even at fifty-five it hurts to be a “motherless-child.”

I still remember that period in my life when I repeatedly played Ray Charles’ version of “If It Wasn’t For Bad Luck,” I wouldn’t have any luck at all, and ironically referred to it as my theme song.

Things often have a way of righting themselves, though it certainly doesn’t seem that way when you’re in the middle of a losing streak. Unfortunately, for some people things never do quite right themselves, and who can blame them if they’re left feeling lost and alienated?