Coming to Terms With Loss in Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’

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Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

“One Art” is the only poem I’ve ever lost. My high-school English teacher gave me a wallet-sized copy that I misplaced, along with the wallet, the next year. The wallet I replaced, twice; the poem I did not. Still, a year walking around with it in my pocket was enough to learn the opening lines:

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.

But the poem is only about the loss of commonplace items on its surface. As the poem implies, Bishop’s life was full of losses of all sizes: “my mother’s watch,” “three loved houses,” “a continent.” And though matching art to autobiography can often miss the point, here it illuminates. As she wrote “One Art,” writes Megan Marshall, Bishop stripped draft after draft of references to a pair of “blue eyes” belonging to her lover Alice Methfessel, whose rejection—along with the suicide of Bishop’s previous partner, Lota de Macendo Soares—is believed to have inspired the poem. Meanwhile, the poem’s recurring first line “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” remained the same in all 17 drafts. (This all might sound a bit depressing, but Methfessel and Bishop would later get back together.)

Still, there’s much more to see here beyond coded insights into Bishop’s life (you can read our latest issue for that).

The repeating lines of the poem’s villanelle form capture the obsessive nature of rejection and loss, trying again and again to make sense of an absence through a kind of rewinding. It’s frenetic, it’s rhythmic, but it’s not all that convincing: It strikes the tone of bad and bragging advice given by someone attempting to hide their own problems. (“I lost three houses—I GOT THIS.”)

The rhymes—“master,” “faster,” “disaster”—always give me the sense of building momentum, a force gaining speed. At the same time, each line is tightly bound within the poem’s structure, creating a sense of restraint reflected in the poem’s last lines:

—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.

Bishop’s speaker tries to convince herself that loss is a level playing field: House keys and wasted time are on par with ex-lovers and lost childhood homes. All losses, she insists, are equal and bearable; the feelings of abandonment bound up in grief should roll off a person’s back as easily as a misplaced pen. The idea is clearly false, but there’s a deeply human desire that it should be true.

This is what makes “One Art” a poem worth returning to after a death, a breakup, or any one of the many losses that lack their own established art or ritual: losses of time, of opportunity, and countless others wrought by change and chance. The poem invites the question of how to respond to these events, to begin to understand them. Where, between a key and a continent, do we place a forgotten friendship? Or the loss—as Kathryn Schulz writes—of an imagined future, individual or national?

And, like most good poems, “One Art” doesn’t fake an easy answer. Instead it shows an argument building and undoing itself, as certain lines repeat throughout the poem like an intrusive thought that can fade but never fully be put away.

It’s a compelling, gutting tug-of-war beneath a veneer of sometimes overly elegant restraint, the attempt to control and calm an untamable grief, until the pain finds an escape valve in the two-word command: “Write it!” And ironically, the call to deny the weight of her loss—to write that it is “no disaster”—affirms that, survivable as the disaster may be, it is one.