18 March 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/12

Here's another villanelle:

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! My last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

-- Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not to hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop

More and more this has become the Elizabeth Bishop poem, the one people know if they know just one, kind of like Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is for Frost or This Be the Verse is for Larkin. The title of this poem was even used as the title for a collection of her letters. And it's very characteristic of Bishop in its refined craftsmanship, its unsentimental specificity and clarity, and its sense of something profound and painful handled with strength and grace. Those familiar with Bishop's life could probably link each line to an event in her life, but that's missing the point; it might add some poignancy to realize that the mother whose watch she lost was herself lost to Bishop through mental illness when the future poet was five, but the real meaning of that line comes when you think of something you've lost of your own mother's, or father's, or grandparent's. She starts out with the everyday loss of little things and then moves out to bigger things: the loss of what you meant to do with your life, and your connection to your past (the mother's watch); then she moves from things that are small or intangible to physical locations, again starting small with houses, then cities, then continents - the losses seem larger, but then in the last stanza the dash signals an abrupt change in focus, shifting from large land masses down to one particular individual whom she loves, and that one person seems like a larger loss than any continent or river. But even the loss of that loved one can be survived, though in the final line the parenthetical exhortation as well as the repetition of "like" after it subtly suggests the emotional cost she pays as she steels herself to survive this final loss. The exhortation "(Write it!)" and the "One Art" of the title point out the connection between our inevitable losses and the creation of art as a way of offsetting them: her loss is something we've all experienced (and that's one reason why interpreting a poem like this purely as autobiography is too reductive to be useful). I'm reminded of Heine's magnificent quip, "Out of my great sorrows I make my little songs."

I took this from my copy of The Complete Poems 1927 - 1979, but that appears to be out-of-print and superseded by Poems.

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