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?

8 thoughts on “Bishop’s “One Art””

  1. Mine too!! This Bishop poem is famous among poets, not just for its utter precision and parsimony when it comes to speaking about so much loss, but also because (apparently) it underwent a number of serious revisions.

    Quite apart from all that, I also love its music!

  2. This is a beautiful poem…it is simply the author mourning the loss of her lover. She tries to convince herself that it is ok and prevent self-pity from taking over her life. As the end of the poem, you can see that she is not being as successful at overcoming her grief as she would like. She is telling us that losing is a part of every day life and that we cannot escape it. It’s a love poem with such a large amount of feeling that you can almost see it.

  3. I heard this poem recently in the new movie “In her Shoes” and as soon as I did had to find it. I think each and every one of us relates to this poem and that’s why it seems so deep. But like others have mentioned bishop is simply saying we’ve lost and no matter how big or little the loss everyday life goes on and we just need to put it behind us.

  4. I read this, and thought of all I’ve lost this year: my father to dementia, my home in Gentilly to one hurricane, my parents’ home where I grew up to another. Then I read it again, and I didn’t cry the second time.

  5. an amazing poem indeed.

    it went through 18 drafts. the form is complementary for subject matter, the way in which it’s written and progressed; a villanelle.

    the meter, and her playful way of facing melancholy. losses can be so immense and massive – how can you describe them? with a giggle?

    she hammered this one with perfection.

  6. i has to read this poem for class and write an essay on it. at first i was really confused. i then watched in her shoes and everything just began to flow. i know think this is one of my favorites. thanks emily bishop

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