Elizabeth Bishop

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How does Bishop's language use reveal the intensity of feeling in her poetry?

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The poem "One Art" represents the best evidence for the thesis that Elizabeth Bishop's careful choice of language aids the reader in understanding the underlying intensity of her poetry.

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I can think of a number of Bishop's poems that would provide evidence for the idea that her careful choice of language (diction) underscores her poetic intensity. The most powerful example would, I think, be the villanelle entitled "One Art."

In "One Art," the diction is deceptively simple. The speaker insists that the art of losing things is quite easy and no "disaster." Many things can be lost: keys, time, places, names, houses, rivers, and a continent. What matters most is how people learn to deal with the inevitable and growing losses. Readers may adopt the speaker's refrain:

The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Bishop's precise diction also serves to make the losses more palpable for the reader. In the fourth tercet, we learn that "I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or / next to last, of three loved houses went." We imagine this specific treasure lost, as well as all the lost time that the watch symbolizes. A heavy loss leads to even heavier losses.

Additionally, all forms of the verb to lose find themselves in the successive tercets and in the final quatrain—"losing," "lost," lose"—and right after these forms of the verb is the constant repetition of the word "disaster." Although the speaker insists that the art of losing isn't too hard to master, there is a breathlessness in the last quatrain that belies this ease.

For those who are having difficulty with all of the loss in the poem and in life itself, there is one word crisply italicized in the final line: "Write it!" With this italicized, urgent command, the speaker tells readers all they need to know about surviving loss. Writing about loss is one of the only reliable means by which to mitigate the pain of the inevitable. This theme is echoed throughout the entirety of Bishop's collected works.

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