Note: There used to be a copy of this poem directly above this writeup. I can only assume it was deleted for copyright reasons. It should be pretty easy to find another copy on the internet.
Yet another class paper. Hopefully it'll help whoever placed the Bad Poetry softlink down here understand why this poem isn't so bad.
Modern day custom often forces us to hide our emotions. Even when facing death, propriety demands that we maintain our control and hold ourselves aloof from the event. In One Art, Elizabeth Bishop uses several literary devices to display this mask and to state how she is crumbling under its pressure. Explicitly, Bishop affects nonchalance over the death of the person she loved. Implicitly, the form of the poem, its diction, and its syntax all contribute to demonstrating the falseness of this performance. Only in a parenthetical statement in the final stanza does Bishop openly acknowledge her grief. Although she appears to be indifferent to the death of her friend, Bishop deeply mourns his loss.
Throughout the poem, Bishop writes of loss as trivial. We “lose something every day.”(Line 4) “Lost door keys, the hour badly spent,”(Line 5) are losses much like the loss of a loved one. Neither is a particularly important event. Throughout the poem, she lists things that she has lost and states that in no case was the loss catastrophic. She passes off the death by writing, “Even losing you…I shan’t have lied. It’s evident the art of losing’s not too hard to master.”(Lines 16-18) All of Bishop’s words serve to promote the image that she is indifferent to her loss. Many subtle inconsistencies, however, belie this façade.
This poem maintains a form using meter and a complex rhyme scheme, unlike virtually all of Bishop’s other works, which are written in free verse. This decision serves to illustrate the hollowness of the impression Bishop attempts to create with her words. Her statements are made under tight control, as of one working to maintain her composure. Much work goes into sustaining this complex structure; there is effort in her appearance of detachment. Just as the poem is written using unbending custom, in the same way does she carry herself.
This theme is seen again in the title of the poem, One Art. Coping with loss is an art. This term has several connotations that modify the tenor of managing grief. An art requires intense effort on the part of the artist. Then, too, is the fact that the end result of creating art is a piece of artwork. Artwork is most notable for the fact that it goes on display, that it is made for other people. In the same way, coping with loss requires much work for the sake of producing an exterior equanimity, a work of art in its own way, made for others to view.
This calm veneer is shown by other devices to be imperfect. A notable example of this is the trope upon the magnitude of loss Bishop includes. As the poem progresses, the things Bishop loses gradually become more important. Although she begins with the loss of “door keys”(Line 5), she quickly begins to “practice losing farther losing faster.”(Line 7) She mentions that she lost a name, then a house, then two cities, and finally an entire continent. Each item is more important than the last, a greater loss than the previous one. This culminates with the death of her friend, and by extrapolation we see that he is the most important of all. Thus, while Bishop writes of his loss as inconsequential, the structure of her poem implies that it is much more.
Bishop’s use of punctuation also serves to illuminate the cracks in her composure. The first stanza flows very well, with one natural break. As the stanzas progress, however, Bishop begins using breaks much more often. In the fifth stanza, Bishop uses commas and periods to break the flow of the poem eight times. The end result is that she appears to be losing control. Meter does not flow as well; feet, such as “ones. And”(Line13) are broken by punctuation. Her thoughts seem less organized; she begins to use sentence fragments. Bishop seems unable to maintain the façade of tranquility that she began with.
Bishop repeats two lines several times. She states that “The art of losing isn’t hard master”(Lines 1, 5, 12) four times, as she does the fact that each loss has not ended in “disaster.” These lines become much like a mantra that she states after mentioning each loss. Bishop constantly reminds herself that she has survived loss before, that she is capable of moving on. As she seems to begin to break down, she says one of these lines in order to regain control, and moves on.
Bishop uses other means to prevent grief from overtaking her as well. She reminds herself that “so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost.”(Line 2) Everyone has the intent to be lost; everyone must eventually die. She reminds herself that she knew her friend would not live forever, that she was expecting his eventual death. Then, too, she writes of losing one of “three loved houses,”(Line 11) of having lost “two cities.”(Line 13) Here she attempts to control her grief, to maintain her composure, by reminding herself that she will love others in the future. Although she lost one house, there were others that she still loved. She lost two cities, and will “miss them,”(Line 15) but she may still find others. In order to sustain her self-control, Bishop rationalizes her own grief and attempts to console herself.
All this is for naught, however, as she finally admits her grief in the final stanza. The final stanza represents a clear break from the others. It begins with a dash that none of the other stanzas have. The punctuation again evens out, with only two breaks. It is also the only stanza written directly to anyone. It directly addresses “you,”(Line 16) and the choice of whom to address the poem to also contributes to the notion that here she finally admits her grief. She writes to the person she lost. She admits here that her loss is more than that of “lost door keys,”(Line 4) because the poem is not written for them. She adds a parenthetical reminiscence, “the joking voice, a gesture I love,”(Line 16). In no other case did she feel the need to remember an interesting attribute of the thing she lost. Before she wrote that her losses have been no disaster, but in the last stanza she acknowledges that while it may not be disaster this time, it certainly looks like it, “though it may look like…disaster.”(Line 19) Although the last stanza maintains the form of the other stanzas, although Bishop maintains within it that she does not care about her loss, several clues make clear the fact that she truly is hurt.
This all culminates in the bizarre parenthetical command she gives to herself in the last line. She tells herself to “Write it!”(Line 19). Unable to withstand the constant pressure of keeping her form, she demands of herself that she let go and admit her grief. The word “write” is emphasized with italics (although the version listed here on E2 doesn't show it), stating implicitly that other options are not available to her. Having maintained her composure through her actions, having never intimated her true feelings through her words, she is unwilling to make this same effort in her writing too. She requires some outlet for her pain, and while she begins the poem with the intention of wearing the same mask as she does in public, she ends realizing that she must admit her grief or collapse under the burden of appearing calm. The placement of this parenthetical statement contributes to this idea. Bishop writes of the loss of her friend that, “it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” (Line 19) Taken another way, “Write it!” could mean that Bishop should write the fact that it truly looks like disaster in this case, and that she is not as nonchalant as she seems. Either reading reinforces the idea that Bishop admits her grief in the final stanza. I believe that both readings can be made at once. Thus it is that, while pretending to indifference, Bishop leaves several clues to the fact that she is indeed grieving over her loss.
Throughout the writing of this paper I debated over whether the person she lost was in fact dead. Only loss is discussed, never outright death. I finally made this decision based on the line, “so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost.”(Line 2) The only way that a person has an inherent intent to be lost is through death. Yet this analysis, while I believe it to be firm, is certainly not the only possible one. An entirely different one could be written, using just the examples that I did, stating that a lover left her, and that she was pretending, for his sake, to a lack of concern. She could have written the poem to deny him the satisfaction of seeing her pain. This ambiguity may yet be another demonstration of Bishop’s grief. She refuses to explicitly admit his death because her pain is such that she is incapable of it. From beginning to end, while feigning coolness, Bishop avoids the very subject she seems to discuss. If truly at peace, Bishop would have made the fact of his death more explicit. This possibility that the person she lost is not dead may paradoxically enforce the idea that he is.