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Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” appears deceptively simple. She talks about losing and the ease of learning to handle hard things in a person’s life. The poem forces the reader to look at his own life and feel each individual loss. Everyone knows how that feels.
The one art that the poet wants the reader to learn is the ability to face hurt—defeat, demise, failure—and move on with his life. The poem initially tries to convince that she has mastered this art.
Obviously, as Bishop relates each of her own losses, she strives to make the reader believe that is of little concern to her. When a poet writes about something, it is evident that she cares about it intensely.
In the beginning verses of the poem, Bishop’s tone seems offhand or dismissive of the things that she has had to forfeit. Her process attempts to keep from exposing herself to any feelings—"just get over it" would project her mood. The narrator steps outside of her immediate circumstances and tries to look at where she is in life rather than wallow in the defeat she experiences.
Her poem moves easily until the last two versesin which the speaker distances herself from her lost love. Her tone is no longer sardonic. Now the hurt shines through: it has become a disaster.
What has she lost in her life to create the mood of her poem?
Who hasn’t had a day when he cannot find anything…keys, purse, where he parked the car…
A person handles the frustration and counts it as an hour wasted
A person often forgets names, places, and that vacation one meant to take
No problem in these losses…
A little more serious when a person loses his beloved mother’s watch
How does one feel when the houses are repossessed by the bank? Just another day…
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.
When a person cannot go where she loves to go, this is hurtful; however, a person handles it and goes on.
—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.
Uh,oh—it is the big one. The losing of the cities and rivers and a continent point to the idea that in order to master this loss, one has to distance herself from the situation.
Losing someone that one loves—that still is a forfeiture of great proportions and obviously, could be called a catastrophe. Everything has led to this moment when the poet almost admits that this is too much to pass over and go on.
From the poem, the reader learns that no matter how bad the damage felt at the time, a person will get over it and survive. Loss is a part of life; it is how one manages the situation that will make the difference. Yet, there are some things that occur that give a person pause and that seem insurmountable.
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