While reading Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art”, it is easy to picture an older woman sitting in a rocking chair with warm tea and a ball of yarn for knitting. She has been to so many places and seen so many things. Instead of talking about those things while sharing fond memories, she elects to share the pain of losing countless items that were lost over the years. Without mentioning pain, Bishop injects humor while reminding her audience about how irritating it can be to misplace keys and miss the time as it flies by. Before a person can put on a seatbelt the ride of this poem jerks forward. Bishop takes the reader down a spiraling rollercoaster of sadness that ends in a pit of sarcasm. The sarcasm in the phrase, “losing isn’t hard to master” is a coping mechanism decorated in a box of deception. She explains repeatedly that losing isn’t hard to master as if it is not a big deal. It is reminiscent of the obese person who tries to deceive herself by saying (over and over again) that she is beautiful when she really feels ugly, enormous and much like a manatee.

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Whether her audience wants to join in or not, they might as well grab the tissue box for teary eyes. The big, sloppy elephant in the room is the one truth splattered across the poem. The truth is that losing little things, time, memories and loved ones will always remain constant in life. Poor Elizabeth! The only ways she could cope was to downplay it, poke fun at it, and try to stare it in the eyes. No matter how much we try to spray perfume over the stench of life, losing things can be disastrous. Elizabeth admits to this in the end.

Everyone must find a way to cope with the unfortunate mishaps in life. The most common mishap is losing things. Losing things that are both small and large is common to people of all ages and cultures. It makes sense that Elisabeth Bishop would write a poem about it. The poem she wrote describes losing things in life as an “art” (line1). At first she injects a teaspoon of humor into the topic but soon afterwards she reveals a serious mood to the reader. The poem, “One Art” may not be the most colorful poem of her writing career, but it certainly offers lyrics that sing a significant song. With the subtle sprinkle of memories the roles of love, sadness and lies braid into one thought provoking piece of work.

Beneath the roles of love in Bishop’s poem, there are a few metaphors that are worth mentioning. Art is the metaphor she chose to explain the act of losing possessions both tangible and intangible. In the beginning, the things seem barely significant. For instance, the lost door keys in line 5 and wasting time in the “hour spent badly” (line 5) are things that are easy to lose. In a brief moment of personification, she actually assigns blame to these artistic examples by saying that they seem to be filled with intent (line 2). Love comes into play at the end of the poem when she exclaims “Write it!” (line 19). Her emotion builds up as she describes losing bigger things that inevitably bring on sadness such as losing two cities and “losing you” (lines 13 & 18). Nothing can be more devastating than losing one’s memory of previous places and losing loved ones. Once she mentions losing loved ones specifically in line 13, she finally reveals to the reader that her loss is real and cuts quite deep. Herein lies the role of love. Love hurts when the things we love are lost. At first, Elizabeth reminds the reader about the annoying inconveniences of losing things. By the end of the poem, she reminds us that the love of a gesture from a joking voice (line 16) is what makes it so hard to accept the things that are lost. Nonetheless, she tries to be brave throughout the entire poem before admitting that losing is like a disaster.

Perhaps it is not until the last four lines of the poem that sadness jumps out from behind the curtain. Losing things is “not too hard to master” because human beings have very little control over this constant variable in life. Essentially, Bishop explains that we might as well get use to the idea by purposefully losing things. The sadness of the poem comes in two stripes. The first stripe is that of trying to cope with loss. She suggests trying to cope by intentionally losing things and then “practice losing farther” and faster by forgetting things (line 7). This is synonymous with a cancer patient voluntarily shaving their head bald since the chemotherapy will yank their hair out anyway. She tries to take control by staring loss in the face and inviting the reader because misery loves company. The second stripe of sadness comes as the reader begins to understand that she probably is losing her memory. Everyone knows or loves someone who is losing their memory to degenerative neurological diseases and it is sad to witness.

Bishop’s poem is buttoned up in a corduroy web of lies. Elizabeth tries to tell herself that losing is easy to do as if she bears no fault for what she has lost. Repeating this statement over and over again is like a cover-up for the fact that deep down inside she indulges in self-blame for losing everything. The other lies are that she owned “two rivers, a continent” and then losing them “wasn’t a disaster” (lines 14 & 15) because she didn’t mind.

In summary, Elizabeth could have been well-known by the masses before her popularity faded. She is kidding herself by saying that it wasn’t a big deal. The poem could have also been called, “The Impossible Art of Suppression”. Her bulging bandage on a broken heart can barely contain the pain of losing what she loved. We can relate to these lyrics and either cry or laugh.
Losing things is inevitable. In the course of healing from it, we must try not to lose our minds.

  • Bishop, E. (1979). “One Art”. Retrieved from http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/one-art