I've never written a critical essay around a poem before and I now need to write one using the poem "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop. I'm having a tremendous amount of difficulty coming up with a thesis statement.  I'm wondering if it's possible to create a thesis statement around the literary pun that Bishop uses in the suggestion that not only is dealing with loss an art but seemingly disastrous losses can be dealt with through art. Beyond that, I'm drawing a blank on a thesis for this critical essay. Any guidance would be greatly appreciated.    

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The idea you have chosen would make an excellent basis for a thesis statement on this poem. Here are three possible ways you could phrase a thesis statement for a critical essay encompassing the main ideas from the poem and the complex relationship between art and loss:

In the poem "One Art," Elizabeth Bishop uses puns to express the duality of the relationship between loss and art, in which loss is a form of art and art is a form of dealing with loss.

Loss affects everyone, but it is up to the individual to handle it in a way that is artistic and meaningful or to allow it to become a "disaster."

The art of losing is not difficult to master, but the outcome is determined both by the nature of the loss and the way you cope with it.

Elizabeth Bishop is known for her use of puns in the Portuguese language, and the title "One Art" is a pun in and of itself. This pun supports the dual themes Bishop establishes throughout this piece, so it would make a strong topic for an essay. In order to create a solid thesis statement around the pun in the title, here are some important things to consider about the poem:

"One Art" Linguistics and Background

In the Portuguese language, the same word is used as both an article and to denote the number "one." A literal translation of the title in Bishop's native tongue would be "Uma Arte." Due to the gender conventions of Portuguese, uma is the female version of one and um is the male version. In one sense, the title could mean one form or type of art, while in another it could be taken as meaning "it's for you." In this sense, the title is both a reflection of Bishop's call to use art as a means to grieve loss and likely a dedication to her deceased lover.

The lover Bishop is probably referring to is Lota de Macedo Soares, a famous Brazilian architect who was a member of a well-known political family in Rio de Janeiro. Lota and Bishop were together from 1951 to 1967, and much of Bishop's work is dedicated to her. Lota committed suicide in 1967, a tragedy which inspired Bishop to tackle the theme of loss in her work. Understanding the basis of this poem helps us understand the two-pronged and often contradictory approach Bishop takes to describe loss.

Possible Thesis Statements

Using an understanding of the mechanics and background of this poem, it is possible to derive the previous thesis statements I gave earlier from the title. An essay focusing on Bishop's belief that loss is an art while art can be used to navigate loss could expound on the final stanza of the poem:

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

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Write it!) like disaster. 

While brief, this part of the work gives plenty to build off of for a critical essay and it has a strong connection to the title. Throughout most of the poem, Bishop presents loss as something that comes easily and naturally to most people. From losing trivial items like keys to losing an entire continent, likely a reference to Bishop leaving Brazil, the poet considers herself something of an expert at loss. It is in the last stanza that she draws a distinction between the "art" of losing, or the experience of loss we are all destined to have, and the reality of coping with loss. Here Bishop makes the subtle shift from the loss of things and places to the loss of people. She acknowledges, in a somewhat veiled way, that it is harder to lose someone you love than to lose an object. In this sense, we have all been practicing the art of losing on a smaller scale throughout our lives (lost keys and other trivial items), although we reach a level of painful mastery when we inevitably lose someone we love.

When Bishop says the art of losing is "not too hard to master," she is being facetious. This dry humor complements the use of the pun in the title, so your essay could focus on this recurring theme. Bishop uses subtle humor to address tough concepts throughout her works, and this poem is no exception. The parenthetical in the last stanza is also worth noting as it relates to the theme of loss as art and art as a means of coping with loss. When Bishop says "(Write it!)" she is both commanding herself to finish the piece, even though the last line is hard for her to write, and instructing the reader that writing is one possible form of dealing with loss.

To summarize, a critical essay might expound on the following ideas:

  • The pun in the title reflects Bishop's use of dark humor throughout the poem.
  • Bishop draws a distinction between losing things and losing people.
  • Loss is an art, but art can be used to express loss.
  • Bishop's use of duality, including the two possible meanings of the title and the two interpretations of "(Write it!)" in the last stanza.
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