Elizabeth’s Bishop “One Art” is a poem that contain an apparently resigned and uninterested registration of the nature of loss as something that naturally occurs throughout the course of a life time. Throughout the poem, this loss is treated as both a fixed and an abstract quality which pervades one’s life and which attaches itself to specific object and experiences. A key aspect of the poem is the subtle distinction which it generates between the apparent ease of loss and the actually traumatic nature of individual losses. This is something which emerges most clearly in the fracturing of the poem’s structure as it occurs in its final stanza.
The poem begins by registering the apparent ease with which loss occurs, and with which the abstract concept of loss may be applied to a variety of different objects and experiences, so much so that it even appears to suffuse their being and define them as things in the first place. The first stanza of the poem reads: “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” (Bishop, 2011, p. 72). In one sense, Bishop appears to present this as a matter of fact statement which seems to have little attachment to the loss which its speaks of. At the same, however, the use of the rhyme between “master” and “disaster” foregrounds the latter word and does so in such a way that enables the idea of actual destruction to echo across the poem.
In the following stanzas, this sense that the ease of Bishop’s statements is in some way belied is maintained as enacts a tension between the universal idea of “loss” and the act of losing particular objects. In particular, the continued use of end rhyme in the stanzas and the repetition of the words “master” and “disaster” creates the sense of a continuous chain of loss that both defines, but also overrides and subsumes its objects. The fourth stanza of the poem moves between seemingly incommensurable objects, such as Bishop’s “mother’s watch” and the third house she lived in, but by uniting them together within the fact of loss she suggests the capacity for something to be lost may even be seen as a condition of it being experienced at all.
Throughout all but the last stanza of the poem, therefore, loss can be understood as constitutive part of life. While this remains the case in the final stanza, Bishop deliberately employs a shift in register in order to suggest a diremption in her speaker which testifies to the actually traumatic nature of the loss they have suffered and the manner in which this defines their life. At this point in the poem, Bishop breaks up her own rhythm with use of bracketed phrases that appear to be the speaker’s internal monologue forcing them to continue within the rhythm of the poem even as the stanza breaks apart. The final stanza begins with a caesura and then runs “-Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture / I love) I shan’t have lied it’s evident” (p. 72). This use of caesura, combined with the particularity which is invoked in the memory of the “joking voice” serves to rupture the rhythm of a poem which had, until this point, been focused on demonstrating the commensurable nature of loss. At this point the poem fractures and completely belies its own intention, something which is rendered in the brackets “(Write it!), as if in the final line of the poem the speaker is forced to conclude in a rhythm which is now manifestly contrary to her actual feelings and experience.
In conclusion, therefore, it is this contradiction between the apparent ease with which the poem conducts itself with regard to loss and the real anguish that the speaker appears to feel which links the final stanza of Bishop’s poem with the one that comes before. What makes them distinct, however, is that in the former this breakdown is hinted at within the structures and repetitions of the poem, whereas in the latter it is revealed in the breakdown of these same structures.
- Bishop, Elizabeth. (2011). Poems. New York: Chattus & Windus.