#16 “One Art” (Elizabeth Bishop)

Elizabeth Bishop’s masterpiece, “One Art,” is one of the most frequently reprinted poems of the late 20th century. Its power resides in how it represents rhetoric. Well, let me put that in a more roundabout but clearer way. The poem imagines a situation where a speaker is talking to someone they might lose. They are trying to persuade that someone that losing them isn’t going to be a big deal. They’re so experienced at losing things and people that it’s almost like they’ve practiced up for this one last big loss.

But as Victor Laszlo says to Rick in Casablanca, the speaker sounds “like a man who’s trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t believe in his heart” (or woman, in this case). That’s why I use the word “rhetoric”: rhetoric is meant to persuade or convince, but you don’t have to believe in it to use it. In fact, you might be trying to convince yourself in the process of deploying rhetoric. As Oscar Hammerstein II wrote, “When I fool the people I fear / I fool myself as well.”

The speaker obviously fears losing the person she’s speaking to. But she doesn’t even let on that she’s speaking to a specific person till late in the poem. Till then, “One Art” has been a poem on a general topic, almost like an advice column. “Lose something every day!” sounds like a program that Heloise might advise.

All the while that this chipper advice is being given, the stakes in the losing deepen, till we get to the real crux of the poem: the departure (whether it’s going to happen, or has happened already) of the loved one.

“One Art” is a variation on the form called “villanelle,” where two rhyming lines are introduced in an initial three-line stanza, repeated over and over as the concluding lines of three-line stanzas, and then joined again as the concluding couplet of the poem. Villanelles are standard creative-writing exercises, and a frequent feature of 21st-century collections of poetry by academic poets. But though they demonstrate a high level of technical skill, they are hard to write memorably: the great English examples from the 20th century are “Missing Dates” by William Empson and “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas. (Neither of those will be in our 64-poem Countdown, though they might make a 128-poem version.)

But “One Art” is not a true villanelle. The entire rhyming lines do not always repeat; only the final rhyme-words do, and there’s considerable variation in the phrasing. As so often, really great poems take a standard form and play with it: suggesting the pattern but then performing a variation on that pattern, much like great jazz.

22 responses to “#16 “One Art” (Elizabeth Bishop)

  1. spontaneous12

    “One Art”-Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)
    People usually are in denial when they try to force someone to leave or prematurely exit a relationship sooner than expected. Yet Elizabeth Bishop claims that the speaker is no stranger to losing someone and that it would hurt the recipient more than it would hurt the speaker. She has become so experienced in losing that Bishop compares lovers to cities that have been forgotten, lost keys that eventually get found, and an hour that cannot be retained. Yet houses could have particular memories that remind you of the good in falling in love. Lost keys give you worry for quite a bit of time up until you find them. A wasted hour is always regretted if it conflicts with something you really had to get done. Bishop confesses that she misses such things not to mention a continent, “but it wasn’t a disaster,” Elizabeth Bishop quoted. Any lost that comes the speaker’s way is something that can be dealt with. On the contrary, at the end of the poem the speaker is trying to convince herself that she will be okay.

  2. I actually didn’t realize that the speaker was talking about losing someone until I read the blog posted above. With this knowleedge, I do agree that the speaker is trying to convince himself/herself that it wouldn’t be a big deal to lose that person. I feel like that the speaker doesn’t believe so but he/she is ttrying to make herself believe and think so. In the real world, there are sometimes when we try to act like we don’t care if someone left us or if we lost someone when in actuality we do care but we don’t want to show so we don’t look weak in some cases. The speaker even goes on to say that he/she has “mastered the art of losing” and that it wouldn’t matter to them if they lost something else because they are so used to losing. I do think that there are poeple like that who have lost a lot in their life that they never expect something to last permanently; they always expect to lose things and then when it happens they don’t feel as much pain because they would be expecting it. However though, I think that even such people always feel sad everytime they lose something. I loved this poem because it was so relatable; Elizabeth Bishop usually writes poems that readers could relate to and I like that about her poems.

  3. The speaker of the poem sounds like someone who is trying to sound indifferent to loss. The speaker lets the reader know that losing is not something she is unaccustomed to. I agree that the speaker is trying to convince themselves that losing is easy and effortless. People often try to convince themselves that they have suffered far worse than the current situation they are in. It’s a coping mechanism the each of us has for survival. We are all programmed to repress memories that are too hurtful to deal with. The speaker probably has repeated this poem like a mantra to themselves to get through each loss that they have been through. We have all been through loss and had to cope with it somehow otherwise we would breakdown and lose ourselves. Our survival instinct won’t allow that to happen therefore we find ways of dealing whether it’s the memories we suppress or the lies we tell ourselves just to make it through life.

  4. In Elizabeth’s Bishops poem “One Art”, loss is discussed in a way we all know and feel. We have all lost something or someone that was dear to us. When losing an object the stakes are not as high as when someone loses a person. The title of the poem puts an interesting twist on the term loss. It is discussed as if it can be mastered as with practice. Such as the “art” of dancing or the “art” of music, with practice, one can master. The author alludes that there has been a lifetime of practice and is now ready to practice the art she has mastered. Is the author simply pessimistic because she doesn’t want to be let down? She sees a loss in her future and comforts herself by telling herself she has prepared for a lifetime. Regardless of the amount of practice one has had at this “art”, one can never be completely ready for loss.

  5. I didn’t know Elizabeth Bishop’s work before taking this class. I have to say, after reading so many of her pieces, she has become one of my new favorites. I thought this poem was fantastic. Who hasn’t been in this position? Anyone who has ever been in love knows how it feels when it looks like it may be coming to an end. It can be hard to accept, but we try to put up a brave front. “Hell no I’m not gonna miss you, I’m used to losing people. You’re no different.” But do we ever really mean it? Maybe sometimes in some situations we do, like if the relationship was awful to begin with. But most of the time we have to convince ourselves that we’re okay with what’s happening just so we don’t break down in the end. That’s what it sounds like in this poem, for sure. Particularly the “write it” at the end, like the writer is having to urge herself to finish. I think that it doesn’t really matter if she’s talking about her current lover, the lover that committed suicide, or if she’s making the whole situation up. The fact of the matter is that the poem still resonates with you. Something you’ve been through can relate to this. It doesn’t matter why the poem was written, the important thing is that you understand exactly when the writer is saying. For a lot of poems (like “They Feed They Lion” and others like it) it really helps me to know the story behind the poem. I didn’t need it for this one, and I don’t think that knowing which story was true could really make it any better for me than it already is.

  6. kursteilnehmur

    Building relationships with others is kind of like weaving a safety net for oneself. The capacity to bond and laugh together creates a solid emotional foundation. The ability to reach out to others may also help cope with loss, death, divorce or many other reasons. Regardless of if you want it to happen or not, your life will be turned upside-down at some point in your life. Realistically no one is absolutely immune to problems, pain or suffering. If you strengthen your own life then you will be more prepared when adversity comes knocking at your door. The question is “How can I become prepared for adversity?” One way is to find what your passion or personal meaning is in life. If you figure out what is important to you then you will have an anchor for when the storm comes. Some people need a larger anchor or more than one anchor to deal with adversity. In the poem “One Art” the speaker must possess a substantial relationship with the one being addressed in the poem. If one has a firm grasp on what drives them to succeed in their own eyes, there is no limit for the changes one can endure. People will never be immune to loss, but on the bright side there will always be room for new relationships. This half-full glass mentality can be of some help as well in this situation. But I digress… The central idea of “the art of losing is not hard to master” can be seen building in a crescendo up to the end of the poem where we find out that it is about a person of some importance to them. The speaker builds up this tension to emphasize the loss or imminent loss of a loved one. This crescendo is seen through the value of importance she places on the material things lost prior to the revelation of the loss being about a person. It seems that the speaker has reservations about how she will react to this loss. She ends on the note that everything will turn out all right in the end. The speaker will eventually heal from this loss, just as one would heal from a cut or abrasion. She may carry the scars for the rest of her life, but she will continue to live. People have dealt with loss for generations. Perhaps she will find a self-help book, or “dealing with loss for dummies.” In the end everything can change, and adaption to change is key for survival in this world.

  7. In this poem bishop is speaking on losing someone dear to her. She talking about how we try act as if we do not care if we lose someone in a relationship or how we try to hide how we really feel. Its kind of like the saying we dont miss a good thing until it is gone. It is a deeper feeling to lose a person than it is sn object. People come and go in our lives but when we find that special person we kniw we do not ever want them to leave us. I think she is also talking about how she is use to losing someone or something. Losing these things are nothing new to her. I feel that she is almost saying everything she gives her heart to or loves, she loses. I like this poem because i think we can all relate to a time when we said we didnt want people in our lives anymore but didnt really mean it. I think we can also relate to a time when we have lose someone or something dear to us.

  8. andreamcginley

    “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop was a fairly good poem. I can see how it made it so far up on our list. It has a taste of mystery as to the intended recipient, yet still a light hearted tone. The poem also makes perfect sense for life. It goes back to the old saying; do not cry over spilt milk. The first stanza even goes into the fact that things are made to be lost. We can look at Thomas Hardy’s poem about the Titanic, that even the biggest and most extravagant things are eligible to be lost into the depths of the sea. When the speaker goes into the line, “Accept the fluster of lost door keys” it just related this poem to me more like any other that we’ve had in the countdown. I am the QUEEN of losing my keys I bet that I will spend a good part of my life searching for those little monsters. That line is one that makes me like this poem even more, because people have been losing keys since forever and it is something we cannot stop, not matter how hard we try because one day it will happen, and we will just have to go with it. The last stanza is what gives the poem a nice upbeat rhythm because of the parenthesized parts. The speaker takes an act of losing a person, which happens every day whether it be to moving on in one’s life or death, and turns it into a joke, saying that she can go on, even though it may “look like disaster”.

  9. A person can master or get used to anything that they do or happens to them frequently. In the poem, the speaker points out to the readers that losing is not hard to master, and this is mainly the result of her having lost so many things in her life. It could be that the speaker was anticipating that her lover was going to leave her. Maybe the speaker wanted her lover to believe that the situation of losing her wouldn’t be a difficult one although it really is. The speaker also mentions in the poem that she misses some of the things she has lost, further anticipating that the loss of her lover would be missed. The first time I read the poem I didn’t understand the last line of it, but after having read it again, I finally understood. She is making herself write the word ‘disaster’ because she wants to convince herself that the loss of her lover will not be difficult since she has mastered the art of losing. The speaker seems to be trying to comfort herself and this is her way of coping with loss. We all have different ways of coping; I just think it’s kind of sad when a person detaches themselves from the actual reality. To me, it is easier to accept my feelings and understand them well rather than hiding them behind words. Fooling oneself does not necessarily make things better.

  10. When we read this particular poem in class, I found it so much more meaningful because of the background that was discussed before the reading. It is interesting that the poet discusses the many facets of loss yet we never know what (if anything) is the real reason behind the poem. I guess that it’s feasible that the poem is about loss in general, but the question that pops in my mind is what one event triggered the writer to pen this.
    This poem strikes a chord with me because it speaks to something that is so real. Although the poet and I disagree on the affects of loss, it is still a great poem. I say disagree because I think that loss is difficult and we NEVER really master it. Even if we practice losing farther and faster. I suppose this all depends on what is actually lost. Losing a dime would be less traumatic to me than losing a hundred dollar bill; as well, losing my dog would hurt more than losing the hundred dollar bill, but not nearly as much as losing my mother.
    The poem is really well written and I love the way that it flows. It’s an easy read and is one that holds your attention through the entire set. I have found that I get lost in some of the poems and have to re-read it several times just to get a grasp on where it is going. This poem however is nothing like that and is one that I will re-read just because I like it.

  11. This poem reminds me two things relationships and death. Some of us have been in relationships were they have not worked out in the past and when someone else comes along to love they already have it made up in there mind that it won’t possibly work. And they try to prepare themselves for the worse or convince themselves that they will be fine if they leave or they lose them. Or with death sitting there looking at someone that you could lose, smiling and pretending to be happy but internally your battling with yourself trying to tell yourself it will be okay. Losing someone is a disaster. And it’s hard to prepare yourself for a loss. No matter how much you try to convince yourself or others its difficult.

  12. “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop is a very moving poem about loss. It flows brilliantly, and as the poem goes on you can feel more and more of the speaker’s emotions pouring out. This also seems like one of the most personal poems so far on the countdown, one that seems to reflect the author’s personal feelings more than any other poem that I can recall. On the surface it does seem like genuinely good advice, we all experience a lot of loss in our lifetime, so why not prepare for it by losing something each day. It is interesting the order of the objects Bishop talks about losing though, going from seemingly more insignificant like car keys to her lover. It keeps with what I was saying earlier about her emotions, the beginning more detached than the ending. As the poem progresses it goes from something small like car keys and a family heirloom to houses, cities, continents, and finally the most powerful of them all, her lover. She seems to keep it in this order to explain her idea of losing something every day, trying to tie her lover in with insignificant things like the car keys. The thing though that makes me really like this poem though is the last line. After all of her work you can feel the emotion from the last line, all of her writing about association fades away, and she still has trouble finishing it because of the thought of losing her love.

  13. I really enjoy reading Elizabeth’s poems, they are very easy to understand and it makes you ponder on life. This poem reminded me of a poem that we read earlier in the semester about a king who drank poison in order to grow immune to it. “One Art” has a very similar theme because it shows you the idea of doing something you don’t like every day will prepare you for the real bad things later on. The poem talks about the “art” of losing someone, something, anything. It basically gives us the idea that if we program ourselves on losing something every day whenever we have a big lose it will not hurt as much because we have already “mastered’ the “art” of losing things. It’s a hard concept to understand but if you apply it to everyday life is something that people actually do. For example, when a person has a terminal illness and has a loved one by their side, they know that sooner or later they will leave their love one and that will cause them great pain. In order to try to “alleviate” their love ones’ pain they will try not to see them very often or have happy moments with them so that whenever they do pass away they will not cause a big pain. But this makes me wonder if one can really “master the art of losing”. I think if you really love someone or something very much it will cause you a lot of pain to lose it no matter what.

  14. I am interested in this particular poem because of it refers to losing as an art. I looked up the definition of art and it is; the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance. So to say that losing is an art proposes that losing is a sort of beautiful thing to be appreciated. This is counter-intuitive because most times losing is considered to be either tragic or at least inconvenient. So when she writes “Lose something every day. Accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. It seems that she is asking you to embrace this losing as a sort of challenge to us to be able to accept loss. Humans do not like to lose or in other words fail it is a terrible feeling that leaves us feeling inadequate. Elizabeth Bishop challenges us to “lose farther and lose faster” as if she is trying to get us to conquer our fears of defeat or loss. To make us stronger more humble people whom have mastered the art of losing.

  15. Until I read “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop the thought never came to mind that we have all mastered the art of losing. Losing items, jobs, cars, homes, and people to death, relationships and even our trace of thought, this has become part of our everyday living. It is not like we are trying to lose certain things, names or people we just do. As clearly stated the hour badly spent mentioned in the second stanza is a true fact. We lose time everyday and try to make it up in the following day or some where within the week. We tend to look over our life and think about what we could have changed, what we would have done different, the time that was spent and things we use to have. In my opinion this poem is about Elizabeth’s life but we can relate to so much, of what is being said. She misses the cities she lived in, thing’s she once owned, and life experiences but they did not depart from her with hurt. As joked not even the love she lost, we have come accustom to the blows of life or the art of losing. So when true love, meaningful things or people leave are life we feel no pain. This is a poem that goes deeper than just Elizabeth Bishops life it opens my eyes to see themore importance of time, life and people.

  16. The first line in this poem is an attention grabber because I do not believe most people would even consider losing a form of art. Throughout most of the poem it seems as if the speaker is either in denial or that they are being very sarcastic. Since the first line in the last stanza reverences a joking voice. I believe that Elizabeth Bishop was actually writing this poem in a sarcastic manner rather than being in denial. However, I do believe that Elizabeth Bishop may have been feeling quite sad, lonely and possibly even angry while writing this poem. After experience loss after loss I would expect anyone to feel that way. By the end of the poem I come away with the thought that this poem is saying loss is hard for everyone but everyone is good at it. I agree with Ms. Bishop, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”

  17. Obviously the writer Elizabeth Bishop is either highly depressed or extremely pessimistic when it comes to living life. This poem was meant to be sarcastic, and unfortunately there are lots of people in the world that can relate to this poem. It is true that mastering the art of losing things is very easy, almost effortless. People all over the world especially who live in crowded cities can agree to what Elizabeth Bishop is saying because they have to live a very fast and busy life so it is only human nature to overlook the most simple things. Bishop starts out by explaining (to those who are interested) the fool-proof methods of becoming an excellent loser. I laughed when I read this line because Bishop almost seemed sincere in passing on her knowledge of losing things. Another part of the poem that made me laugh was when she confessed to losing things that are literally impossible for one person to lose, such as cities and rivers. Although this line was very amusing, it also exposed the high level of frustration that the writer has for her little special but common talent.

  18. After reading the poem, I got the impression that the speaker is in denial. The art of losing actually IS hard to master. I don’t think anyone can really ever master it. Brushing off a loss as if it was no big deal does not represent mastery, it represents denial and refusal of acceptance. I guess the speaker thinks that loss is easier to deal with if she brushes it off like its no big deal. She probably thinks that her refusal to accept loss somehow makes it less of an issue. She is definitely taking the easy way out, but I think we’re all at least somewhat guilty of that. Be it the loss of a relationship, the loss of a job, or the loss of pretty much anything else in our lives that could have a major impact on us, I think we’ve all at some point refused to accept the negative impact of the loss, and just taken the easy way out.

  19. While not really too particularly amazed by Elizabeth Bishop’s past poems on the countdown, I think “One Art” really belongs at its #16 spot. This poem covers everything from losing a key to losing houses and finally ends with what I suspect the real meaning behind all of it to be, losing a loved one. Though she does not mention in which sense of loss she has experienced from this person, I think that’s what really makes it more universal, in the sense that whether you have lost someone because they have left your life or because they have died, this poem can address that situation. Near the beginning of the poem, she starts with small things that, in fact, are easy to lose, because you can always get another key and will most likely live through another hour. As the poem continues, however, you can almost feel the speaker struggling more to more to really believe that losing three houses, two cities, or a person who means so much to you can really be as simple as losing the smaller things in life. In reality, I agree with most of the other comments that you will feel worse when dealing with the bigger situations. It is inevitable and this poem is really dealing with the first stage of grieving, which is shock and denial. Eventually, the speaker will have to come to terms with reality. But then the poem would be completely different, wouldn’t it? I have lost many people, in both ways, and I think Ms. Bishop does a great job really expressing what seems to be logical reasoning in one’s mind at that point in life. Everyone has a moment where they want to believe they are stronger than such emotions, but in order to come to terms with loss, you must first face them head on. It would be interesting to see a list poems which deal with all the seven different grieving processes of death (shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression, calm, reconstruction, and acceptance) but I guess that’s an idea for another class entirely.

  20. decarlocoleman

    This poem is so true, Elizabeth Bishop was saying things that we all grow up and learn but don’t quite understand as children. To master the art of losing I believe someone has to reach a certain level of maturity in their life experiences to fully grasp this concept. Life is full of things that we lose, sometimes we have no choice but to accept them yet we don’t fully understand why it was we had to lose it. I’m positive that there are people who have lost their jobs recently and are very upset or discouraged, they have no choice but to accept it but some may not understand it. I believe losing things in life makes you care more. I have lost things and now I pay more attention to them, I’m more careful with them, I also learn to appreciate them. Losing makes you strong and mature, the possibility of making a mistake decreases dramatically. I’m not always understanding when it comes to losing but I must say that there has never been a time that I didn’t learn from the situation…

  21. The thought about losing whether an item, a game or a person is never a pleasant one. Loss is something that many people do like to think about. One doesn’t like to think about when it is or they are no longer around. It can be a scary and turbulent thought. When the author wrote “I lost two cities, lovely ones” I automatically thought of the people she loved. She lost them but she is still ok….she is still existing. The thought of losing another person when she says “- -Even losing you” makes her sound like she is convincing herself as she tries to convince the person she is talking about that she will be ok…that life goes on. She has lost before and she will lose again…no big deal. I think that the part that says “(Write it!)” means that by writing it helps ease the pain and any depressed feelings she might have. Writing is a method of healing, so that would be a good idea. We have all lost something yet we have managed to pick ourselves up and keep on going(or at least most of us). There is life after loss. It may take awhile and it may be painful but we do manage to continue on our journey in life and live our lives. There are certainly times where loss is actually a good thing but in most cases loss is never fun. We do grow and we learn from those we have lost.

  22. I really like the truth within this poem. The art of losing really isn’t hard to master if you think about it. We lose things throughout our lives. As children, we lose things that don’t really matter to us. Like the poem states, a lot of these things we lose are meant to be lost, therefore we don’t seem to care for these loses. How many hours do we college students lose being lazy or “busy” with something else instead of being productive? Probably a lot, but we don’t sit there and mourn over it. A lot of us move a lot growing up, we lose friends and paces we called home, but we make new friends and look forward to our new home. As we grow older, we lose important people in our lives. The first few are tough to deal with, but you learn, or master that art of loss. We learn to accept the fact that we begin to die the day we are born. Some loses may be unexpected, but we cope with them and while we do mourn a little, we know it’s not the end of the world. We learn to appreciate the things we had and lost, great poem.

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