Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Art of Losing

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.

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 too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.


C. Dale said...

When I teach the Contemporary Elegy, I always begin with this poem. If Elegy is a poem of Sadness, Loss, or Regret, then this poem captures all three in a subtle and spellbinding way.

Pamela Johnson Parker said...

"One Art" is a fabulous poem, and I really like your analysis. I hear music (words as song), though, in much of Bishop's work, especially "The Armadillo," "Pink Dog," and "Shampoo."

Mark Granier said...

Very good piece about one of my favourite poems (and possibly the best villanelles in English). Like Pamela, I too find a good deal of music in Bishop (the marvellous 'Sandpiper' comes to mind), though it would be interesting to see you define what you mean by music or 'song' in the context of poetry. I imagine that different poets/critics have very different conceptions of what makes a poem musical.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Isn't that somewhat subjective, Mark? It may be that we hear the music inside us and each a different melody and cadence. Some poems produce this. Some don't.

Mark Granier said...

Hi Alice. I am all for objectivity where possible. But I am not sure exactly where you think I'm being subjective or how to quantify "somewhat"? And what is the "this" "some poems produce"? Is it the facility that allows us to hear "the music inside us"? How does one decide definitively which poems produce this and which do not (and how is the presumption that one can BE definitive less subjective than what I said)? For example, I hear wonderful music in Auden's work, but I doubt Ron Silliman does.

I am, no doubt, being subjective when I say that I find a good deal of music in Bishop's work, and when I speculate that "different poets/critics have very different conceptions of what makes a poem musical". I simply wanted to see what Reginald might have to say about this, because I have no doubt that it would be illuminating, and perhaps also a much-needed (and more objective) clarification.

Alice C. Linsley said...

I guess "somewhat" is akin to "a good deal" and we may be speaking past each other. To Reginald, then?

Mark Granier said...

Agreed Alice, and we may well be speaking past each other. Apologies if I seemed pedantic.

Alice C. Linsley said...

No apologies necessary. Perhaps Reginald is even now working on a brilliant response.

Reginald Shepherd said...

Thanks to all for your comments, and particularly to Mark and Alice for bringing up the important if somewhat vexed question of how to define the term "music" when applied to poetry. I apologize for my delay in responding, but depression, travel, and a brief hospital stay have kept me away from the blog for a while.

I'm afraid that I don't have a brilliant reply at the moment, but if I had one, I would frame such a reply in terms of Zukofsky's famous anantomy of poetry: upper limit poetry, lower limit song. It seems to my mind and ear that Bishop's poems, for the most part, lie quite deliberately closer to this lower limit. The predominant sense is of a very intelligent, articulate person speaking to another. Her work is highly descriptive and discursive, and not always but frequently eschews prominent verbal devices such as rhyme, allliteration, and assonance; the rhythms tend to be those of speech rather than of song (though she has deliberately songlike poems, like "Casabianca," one of my favorites). Similarly, she is quite sparing of figurative language; there is little metaphor in her poems, though similes are much more common (and I at least think of simile as being closer to the prose of fact than to poetry, emphasizing as it does both the similarity and the difference between the objects compared, as opposed to metaphor's equation of two things). All these elements are part of a kind of modesty and propriety the poems exhibit, as if they wish to avoid raising the voice, rhetorically, musically, or emotionally.

These observations are all, of course, overstatements and even exaggerations, but I think that they point to something real in Bishop's poems.

As has been repeated ad infinitum, not to say ad nauseam, the word “lyric” derives from the word “lyre.” Originally a lyric was a poem written to be sung, often to musical accompaniment (this sense is preserved in the use of the word “lyrics” to refer to the words of a song). Lyric has traditionally been defined by its foregrounding of the musical elements deriving from its origin (rhythmic and sonic patterning), though often the concept of “music” is metaphorical. As The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics entry on "Lyric" points out, "lyric poetry may be said to retain most prominently the elements which evidence its origins in musical expression--singing, chanting, and recitation to musical accompaniment" (713). This does not seem to me to be the case with most, though not all, of Bishop's peoms. "In the case of lyric, [although musical elements may play a role in drama and epic,] the musical element is intrinsic to the work intellectually as well as aesthetically: it becomes the focal point for the poet's perceptions as they are given a verbalized form to convey emotional and rational values" (ibid.). This seems to me the meeting point or nexus between the definition of the lyric as a mode of foregrounded verbal music and the definition of the lyric as a mode of foregrounding of the speaker. In this sense, perhaps one might think of many, but not all, of Bishop's poems as lineated prose lyrics.

Or at least these are my thoughts at four thirty on a sleepless Tuesday morning.

Take good care, and thanks again for reading and commenting.

all best,


Mark Granier said...

An excellent response (especially from someone not in the best of health writing in 'the hour of the wolf'). This merits some consideration. Stay well,


Reginald Shepherd said...

I'm afraid that in my frazzled, insomniac state I quite mangled the two poles of Zukofsky's continuum, which is actually, lower limit speech, upper limit song. I realize that as I originally wrote it, it makes no sense. My apologies.

peace and poetry,


Don Share said...

Great stuff, Reginald. Please take care of yourself and be well!


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