Friday, March 17, 2006

Poetry Friday - Elizabeth Bishop

I teach this poem in introduction to literature. It is my favorite poem that I teach in that class for a bunch of reasons, not the least of which being that I love the villanelle form. But I love teaching this poem in particular because it's a poem that students tend not to pay much attention to when they read it independently, and they actually believe that the poem is about how easy it is to lose things. Only in class do they get that the poem is about how easy it is and thus how devastating it is at the same time. But once they get the irony of the poem, they relate to it on a really visceral level. All of them have had some great loss or another, and all of them have tried to gloss over it. All of us have. This poem articulates that better than any other I can think of.

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.

6 comments:

AAYOR said...

This is one of my favorite poems. Thanks for posting it.

a theory said...

The Dutch post-punk band The Ex have a song that sets this poem to music. If you haven't heard it, it's called "Art of Losing" and is on the album Starters Alternators.

K said...

It's also a great poem for talking about revision. Have you seen earlier versions of this poem? They're messy and chatty and funny, nothing like the precise, clean lines we see hear. But you can see her working out her ideas. She couldn't have gotten here without starting there.

zipzap said...

I love this poem.

rwellor said...

Hmmm... but doesn't it get off the villanelle form as soon as the fourth line and then again on the sixteenth? Or am I missing something in the form?

I'm no purist when I write (rabid) doggerel... but this seems to cheat if its real intention was to follow the form. I could be reading the form wrong, as I seem to be hallucinating that my beer is green.

if you're going to follow a form, follow it. If not, don't. YMMV.

It is my commitment to formal purity that compels me to continue to work on my particular poetics.. limericks (in honor of St. Patty's day, I suppose), from the "old man from Nantucket" ouvre.

;-)

Dr. Crazy said...

Hey everybody! I'm glad you all like the poem :)

About the fact that the poem doesn't fit the form perfectly: I actually like this. Why? Well, if you notice, the form breaks apart most noticably just when the tone of the poem turns to become more serious. Also, it's the second line of the couplet that is where the strain is felt most - the line about losing things not being a disaster. To me this underscores the feeling that the speaker is trying to hold things together - quite literally in the very strict form of the villanelle - but really can't manage it. In other words, I think this is one of those cases where the deviation from form is central to the meaning of the poem, and I think it is an artful deviation. Then, by the end of the poem, the speaker can't even keep up the front in the first like of the couplet - by changing that first line from "isn't hard to master" to "not too hard to master" it seems like the speaker is acknowledging that there is some difficulty involved here - the speaker can't deny the pain of loss anymore by the end of the poem.

But I ramble.