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One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

Posted on Sep 6, 2015 by


There’s something about this poem. A haunting kind of repetition. It’s a poem about loss and trying to wrap one’s mind around it—trying to master it. It’s about considering loss as an art—which suggests that somehow the loss can be transformed. Can become something of value? Something beautiful? (And how exactly?) The poem begins with a loss as ordinary as the loss of keys and then begins to expand outward from there—the loss of hours, cities, rivers, an entire continent. It’s a poem, perhaps, best heard because the sound of the poem is so important to its meaning.



I appreciate this reading. I appreciate the shift and sigh in the reader’s voice when she reads about the loss of the mother’s watch–and how her voice sustains that shift through the remainder of the poem. The above reading is a clip from a longer video in which I learned that Elizabeth Bishop lost both her parents before the age of five. Knowing an author’s story doesn’t always change the experience of a poem, but for me this piece of history does seem crucial. (I once had a teacher in high school describe sentimentality as unearned emotion. Here the emotion seems every bit earned.)

The tone of the poem seems important. The seriousness and the lack of seriousness. Both.

It seems just the kind of poem that could inspire writing. What has been lost? One could make a list. It could begin with keys and socks. And it could go on from there. And the list could lead to the question: does the practice of loss carry us anywhere? does the practice of loss make it become any more bearable? any less of a disaster? and what might the practice of loss look like?

I keep thinking that this poem is titled “The Art of Losing,” but it’s actually called “One Art” which for me is a kind of reminder that she’s talking about one art among many.

A full text of the poem can be found at Poetry Foundation

The reading is by M. Mark of Vassar College. The full video is six or so minutes long and is worth watching. It can be found here.

Image is of Paul Cezanne’s Study of An Apple from WikiArt