Ezra Pound famously wrote that poetry should be as well written as prose (though he might have qualified, as well written as good prose). Elizabeth Bishop’s poems are certainly that, but they tend to be prosaic in a less positive sense. It’s better written, more clear prose than most novels can boast, and the poems, for example “In the Waiting Room,” which narrates the speaker’s discovery/creation of her own identity as a discrete individual, are frequently very interesting and engaging in their topics. However, they too often lack that essential element of song, of words for music perhaps (in Yeats’ phrase), or words as music.
This is not true, however, of one of her most famous poems, the villanelle “One Art.” This is appropriate, given the musical nature of the form, which was originally a peasant song, though not originally in the form that we now know, with its strictly patterned repetitions. (The word “villanelle,” via a French detour, derives from the Italian word villano, “peasant”). In a footnote to a piece in his Literary Essays on the English Decadent poet Lionel Johnson (a fine writer largely forgotten today), Pound wrote of the villanelle as embodying obsession, the repeated lines bearing that which haunts and torments the speaker. “The villanelle…can at its best achieve the closest intensity, I mean when…the refrains are an emotional fact which the intellect, in the various gyrations of the poem, tries in vain and in vain to escape” (369). That is one way in which the villanelle can work, though not the only way. The repeating content of the villanelle gets stuck in the speaker’s head; he or she can’t get away from it. But at the same time, the villanelle contains (in both senses of the word) the obsession that is so often its subject, subjecting feeling to form. As poet and critic J.D. McClatchy writes of “One Art,” “The villanelle—that strictest and most intractable of verse forms—can barely control the grief, yet helps the poet keep her balance.”
“One Art” deals with loss as an activity, almost an occupation, and the poem both engages in that activity (so many things are lost over the course of the poem) and explores it as an activity (what does it mean to lose all these things?), an exploration facilitated by both the repetition and the variation on the repetition in the poem. It’s not a traditional villanelle, in that the lines containing the word “disaster” are not repeated exactly, but shift their shape over the course of the poem, as the speaker’s understanding of and relation to disaster shifts. The poem can be read as an extended metaphor: “one art” is both the art of losing and the art of writing poems (critic Mutlu Blasing notes that “the [poem’s] title tells us that the art of writing and the art of losing are one”). Here that art is the art of mastering loss, but also the art of surrendering to loss. “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” is, after all, ironic, since what is “mastered” is how to lose things—mastering the art of losing is, in effect, to become so good at loss that one loses everything. Life becomes equivalent to loss, though never quite equal to it. So many things seem to want to be lost that no individual loss need be a disaster. And yet it is, because there’s that word, over and over. One starts with small things, and then moves on to bigger challenges, things harder to lose (places, names, houses, cities, two rivers, a continent) but more painful for the immensity of their loss. The lost objects grow larger and larger, as if to flaunt how lightly the speaker takes even the seemingly greatest loss. And then one returns to the seemingly small, one irreplaceable thing, which is the largest, most painful loss of all: “you.” Beside this loss, all the other losses are insignificant. The speaker won’t have lied (and note the echoes of “I shan’t have died” in “I shan’t have lied”) in saying that the art of losing isn’t hard to master, for look, she’s lost the most important thing in the world, one simple pronoun, “the joking voice, a gesture/I love.” “Write it!” is both an instruction about the proper way to master loss and a command to the one who has been mastered by loss. The voice has stumbled, can’t go on, as evidenced by the stammer on “like.” “Write it!” demands that she go on, that she speak the word “disaster,” admit that this loss was indeed a disaster. At this point the poise the voice has maintained (nothing has been a disaster) breaks down; the rhetorical gesture enacts the visceral pain that the poem’s smooth surfaces heretofore have kept at bay. The voice can hardly say the word “disaster,” yet she must finally admit it, both say it (write it) and admit the immensity of the loss into her consciousness. After all these denials (denials haunted by the repetition of the word), it is disaster after all.
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 too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.