The first line in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art”, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” (1), is an essential piece to the poem’s structure and meaning. This one line carries the argument that loss is an attainable skill. Also, the repetition of this first line in certain key places reveals the poem’s form as a villanelle. Through this unusual first statement we are drawn to continue reading, wanting to discover how the speaker will provoke us into thinking differently about loss. At the end of the poem, in line 18, it will be through the repetition of refrain from the first line, which has by then taken a new meaning, that the speaker will hint to her acceptance that “the art of losing’s not … [as easy] to master” (18) as she believed at the beginning of the poem.
The first line in the poem contains the word “to master”. To understand the meaning of that first line we have to consider the meaning of such a word. When you repeat a task over and over and increase your proficiency close to a practical maximum, you have become a master or expert at this task. Losing things can be such a task. According to the narrator, mastering “loss”, almost to a point of an art form, is probably within the reach of all of us.
The fixed form scheme of a villanelle gives “One Art” the qualities of a song, which makes the poem nicer to hear and the reader more susceptible to its message. This poetic form strengthens the speaker’s argument allowing her to restate her point without having to rephrase it. This technique of repeating lines gives the argument a circular motion where the ideas put forth appear again and again to the reader and their meaning shifts slightly with each repetition. It is for this reason that the first verse, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master;” becomes the argument the speaker is trying to prove to us in the entire poem. In other words, this line becomes the thesis statement of the poem.
The Villanelle as Catharsis
In the poem, Bishop uses the villanelle as catharsis and modifies its conventions the same way the speaker disregards the commonly accepted notions of loss and tries to replace them with a new ideology. An example of these modifications to the villanelle’s poetic form is the inconsistent repetition of the second refrain (“to be lost that their loss is no disaster” (3)) in lines 9, 15, and 19. In line 9 she changes it to “to travel. None of these will bring disaster,” in line 15 she writes, “I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster,” and in line 19 she ends the poem with “though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster”. She slightly modifies the refrains keeping the same rhyming word “disaster” in all of them, and this way staying as close as possible to the rules of a villanelle. There is also a small change to the 1st refrain (“The art of losing isn’t hard to master” (1)) in line 18 where it changes to “The art of losing’s not too hard to master” (18). This difference at the end of the poem is due to the speaker’s slight hesitation and change of opinion about her argument.
The speaker commands us in the first sentence of the second stanza with the imperative “Lose something everyday.” (4). She is telling us to put losing to practice, challenging us to accept the chaos of lost things. Then, in stanza number three we are asked to “…practice losing farther, losing faster:” (7). We are told not to try to keep anything, to make it our point to forget names and places. The word “practice” goes back to the opening line, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” (1). To be an expert at the art of losing, all one needs is practice, and with enough attention and dedication, it can be mastered.
It is only until we reach the middle of the poem that the narrator reveals something she has lost herself, a watch that belonged to her mother. The caesura after the sentence “I lost my mother’s watch” (10) gives the reader the necessary time to think how much this loss means to the speaker. It could be assumed that the watch held sentimental value because it belonged to the speaker’s mother, who is probably dead.
In “One Art” the meter can be said to be an imperfect iambic pentameter with the integration of other meters. To create rhythm Bishop mainly alternates 11 and 10 syllable lines, but as seen with her unconventional use the villanelle, she also breaks away from creating a fixed rhythm by making some lines have nine and twelve syllables. These alterations make the lines affected by them exhibit the most drastic departures from iambic pentameter in the poem.
Emotions Seep Through the Cracks of the Speaker’s Argument
On the second half of the poem the speaker becomes more emotional. Her emotional instability starts to reflect in the poem’s structure with a significant increase in punctuation. At the beginning of the poem, punctuation serves to list things that are commonly lost by people and also, the things that we are asked by the speaker to lose in order to embrace the inevitability of loss. As the poem progresses the speaker begins to change her carefree tone to a lament. In the last three stanzas however, Bishop uses punctuation to demonstrate the speaker’s struggle to formulate her words and ideas as she opens herself to the reader.
She moves from mentioning insignificant objects like door keys to talking about the loss of cities and continents she loved, remembering those places brings the speaker to a closer realization of how hard to accept is the claim she has been making. The poem’s heightened emotional moment is found in the last stanza when she reveals the presence of a person whose loss seems to shake the foundation of her argument. For the first time Bishop introduces parenthesis to the poem, which seem to give us direct access to the speaker’s thoughts at that moment. Losing “(the joking voice, a gesture / I love)” (16-17) seem too hard for her to bear; talking to us about loss has surfaced many emotions in her that she thought were gone. After arguing for fifteen lines that “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” (1), the speaker has to yell and order herself to write “…like disaster” (19) and end the poem. Even though it is difficult, she has to end the poem because this way she might be able to deliver some closure on her argument that “the art of losing’s not too hard to master” (18).
The poem “One Art” is oriented around the statement that “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” (1). This first line carries the poem’s theme and incited readers to embrace loss and become experts at losing. By having the poem’s form as a villanelle the writer starts with the intention of using the repetition of the first line to drive the speaker’s argument forward. As the essence of the referenced losses becomes more emotional, the poem’s tone changes from casual to sad. The starting thesis of the poem transforms into the less certain statement of “the art of losing’s not too hard to master” (18), raising second thoughts about how easy is to accept loss. This transformation in the last stanza could have developed spontaneously for the speaker herself, as she delved deeper into her losses. Elizabeth Bishop has written a poem that appeals to human curiosity and drives readers to continue reading, hoping to find a cure from the inevitable disaster of loss.
© Yaneirys Cruz
Bishop, Elizabeth. “One Art.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry. 5th ed. Ed. Margaret Ferguson et al. New York: Norton, 2005. 1527-1528. Print.