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The Art of Losing by Elizabeth Bishop


Elizabeth Bishop has often been portrayed as being detached from her poetry, partly because she often takes an exterior view. However, this is merely her artist’s eye coming through as she uses very co0ncrete imagery to convey her meaning and expects the reader to create most of the message. However, she used “One Art” to confess indirectly her personal struggle with loss depicted throughout the poem which parallels her life. She is halfway through the poem before she ever admits to any personal loss, and even then she takes care to state mostly facts, without many emotional cues.

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Bishop uses several phrases like refrains: “the art of losing isn’t hard to master,” (1) and “so many things filled with intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster.”(3) Loss is purposely forgotten -as is her past. The poem may have simply been an attempt at a villanelle, considering the form, until she was simply carried on the wave of the inspiration. First Bishop suggests to the reader that one should lose things every day, presumably in order to master the art of losing. This is the first hint that she did indeed live with considerable loss all her life. The first few things mentioned seem to have little importance: door keys, an hour badly spent, places, names and where you meant to travel. However, on closer inspection they may not be so unimportant after all. Symbolically, these can be of supreme importance to one’s life, governing opportunities, what one does with one’s time, where one spends that time and with whom and even what one sees in life. She never says these are important, but she did choose to put them into this poem and immortalize them. Finally the things lost become more personal (mother’s watch, beloved homes) and then much larger: realms, rivers and a continent.

Elizabeth Bishop lost her father before she was even old enough to know who he was, an she was only 8 months old when he died. At age 5 was her last glimpse of her mother, who was mentally institutionalized, after failing to recover from that loss. It is safe to assumption that her critical years of development where crippled from the start, and maybe she even wondered why her mother could not recover from one loss, since she states that mastering the art of losing is not difficult.

She intentionally suppresses emotional cues in her work, and many who knew her said that she did the same with her life, keeping the emotional expressions to a minimum. Brodsky, who wrote an article titled “Poetry as a Form of Resistance to Reality” (1992), speaks of the techniques used by most artists as “a form of resistance to the imperfection of reality, as well as an attempt to create an alternative reality, an alternative that one hopes will possess the hallmarks of conceivable, if not achievable, perfection” (Joseph Brodsky 221). This statement supports the idea behind Bishop’s intent to hide her own weakness behind her personally altered reality in her poetry. The truth of her life and the despair of her loss are well hidden to audiences lacking very well hones senses of hidden meanings or those knowing nothing of Bishop’s life history. Poetry is a kind of code, meant to conceal as much as it reveals, and then giving up its secrets—not easily—only to the persistent (and delicately prying) reader (Spivack 496).

Throughout the poem she insists that “losing isn’t hard to master”, because she doesn’t even have to try at losing: it just comes naturally as seen so vividly throughout her life. She’s mastered the loss of her parents, mastered moving from house to house, losing her keys, wasting her time, losing friends, faces, cities, rivers and continents and important people she neglected to see. Bishop states that none of these losses brought disaster. In other words, she has survived through it all and is still hanging on to what’s left of her sanity… and finally realizes. “That’s how you learn this “art”—by doing (Spivack 506). Bishop continues, “I lost my mother’s watch.” (10) This would appear as a mere physical item; however if Bishop’s history was referenced one could see the correlation.


Finally, Bishop reveals her present day struggle with a loss of love, which has been heavily building throughout this poem. “Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture I love) the cry of grief is “mastered,” subdued, suppressed, and denied (Spivack 506). Bishop finally orders herself to “Write It” (18). This is the moment when what is not said, or was half-said, is deeply felt and understood, that the final grief does not even have to be addressed directly (Spivack 506). This is that “ah” moment that the poet strives to create as a connection with the reader, conveying so much more than simple words can do, as the reader understands what she means.

Works Cited

Brodsky, Joseph. “Poetry as a Form of Resistance to Reality.” PMLA 107.2 (1992): 220-5.

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Spivack, Kathleen. “Conceal/Reveal: Passion and Restraint in the Work of Elizabeth Bishop.” Massachusetts Review 46.3 (2005): 496-510.

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