Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Elizabeth Bishop: One Art

One Art looks so easy, so conversational, so devoid of poetic tricks.

A part of why I like this poem so very much is that it is only once you learn a little bit about poetry and its forms that you can truly appreciate what Bishop pulls off with this piece.


It is a villanelle: a French import dating back to the 19th century which is oh-so-hard to do well. I shan't go into the details of the form as it can easily be found on the net or in this blog's growing glossary of terms  Suffice it to say here that one is restricted to 19 lines (five tercets and a concluding quatrain) and two rhymes (the first and third lines) which rotate around each other.

The repeated lines which alternate with each other through the tercets and meet in the quatrain generally slowly acquire new meanings through the progression of the poem by changes in emphasis. It is a form which is restrictive and, if you've ever tried to write a villanelle, you'll know that it is a difficult form to master.

Progression of the poem

The progression of lost objects is significant. First are objects that seem to want to get lost, like keys and time. They are easily and carelessly misplaced.

The next category are memories: names, places, plans and intentions.

The next category are items with a sentimental or emotional attachment: a mother's watch, homes.

From here we enter the realm of the symbolic: the objects being lost are realms, rivers, continents - objects that clearly cannot ever have belonged to the speaker in any physical sense.

Finally we reach the "you", the loss of a person.

The progression obliquely takes us from a physical space into an emotional one. There is no emotional attachment to keys, time or the forgetting of a name. But to say goodbye to a loved home, a continent, or a loved one is an emotionally charged thing. One can only lose a thing which one once had or possessed or owned. You can't lose that which was never yours. Understanding this reveals two things about this poem.

The first relates to that watch. Bishop describes it as "my mother's watch", but for the speaker to have lost it, it must in fact have been the speaker's in the first place. Describing it as her mother's watch reveals what the watch means to her. It isn't just a watch, it is her mother's watch. Although this isn't obvious from the poem, it may be that the speaker's mother has passed away and this watch is the last reminder of her.

The second aspect arises from the fact that a person cannot own or possess or have continents, rivers or realms in the way that you can a watch, house or a key. It is something else that must be lost as far as these items are concerned. One idea you will encounter often in internet postings is that she is speaking about a loss of memory caused by the onset of an illness such as Alzheimer's. I can see how one reaches this conclusion given the opening tercets which seem to deal with forgetfulness or absent-mindedness. But I don't think that this is correct. The closing quatrain (the all important one in a villanelle) makes clear that the loss of this person means the loss of the sound of their voice and the absence of their familiar gestures. Now unless one is losing vision and hearing (perhaps advancing into old age) these things would still be present even though the memory fades. The person is, I think, physically gone. I think that the progression from the commonplace loss to the emotional loss is a deliberate progression of physical loss to achieve a quite clever thing. What Bishop is ultimately discussing the loss of, with this piece, is not a physical thing, but an abstract thing. She has lost someone whom she loves and all of what that means in terms of support, companionship, comfort, friendship and the other positive qualities love brings to our lives.

She takes us to the abstract by first dealing with things that are quite concrete and walks us slowly to items of greater abstraction: greater emotional content and greater symbolic content.

The choice of form

So having unpacked the progression in the poem, let's consider why Bishop chose to use the vilanelle - a form that is notoriously difficult. Why use a form with a repetitive motif if you want to achieve is a progression - a movement in a particular direction? The key, I think, lies in the title. Bishop describes losing as an "art". Practice, in other words, makes perfect. And uniting all the various kinds of losses she describes is the same single art. The title of the poem is "One" art. The same skill which one can develop to avoid being perturbed by the loss of a key can be applied to the loss of a home, a continent and a loved one. So then the question becomes - is she serious? Can one master the art of losing?

The clue is in the form. You can master the vilanelle - Bishop did - but it is very, very hard to do. Losing, she says, isn't hard to master. In other words her form that she has chosen for the poem belies her message.

There is another clue. She's practiced losing (practiced everyday as she commends in the poem) and has progressed from small items to large, emotional and significant ones. She's well practiced. And yet the loss of the loved one, whatever she might pretend, seems to her like a disaster. The little bracketed note to herself there indicates that she needs to force herself to admit that the loss seems like disaster.

A third clue is in the repetends themselves. The first occurence says that the art of losing isn't hard to master. On its last appearance she says the art of losing "isn't too hard" to master. The confidence that was present in the first statement is now gone. Now she's saying it is hard, but not too hard. The art of losing is hard to master, just like the form employed for the poem. She is pretending that the loss isn't so bad as a coping mechanism. And that's the function of the bracketed aside. First to be self-referential and show you that the poet is writing a poem and wants you to know that (alerting you to the unity between form and function) and secondly to show that the writing of the fact that it seems like disaster indicates a method of coping with the problem, that she needs a coping mechanism and hasn't mastered losing, and finally it betrays how much she has to force herself to admit the truth of what she is feeling.

This is brilliant. The poem emulates the way we behave towards others in the face of loss. We try and be stoic and put on a brave face and pretend that we are immune to loss whereas in truth, loss hurts. But the point is, like the villanelle, the art can be mastered, even if only imperfectly. Though it seems like disaster and the feeling of loss can never be purged or avoided, life goes on (another reason for those repetends perhaps?).

Should we take life advice from a poem? 

I think that the progression in the poem speaks to this issue too. The speaker has been around. She has outlived and lost her mother, lived in three homes, two cities and moved continents. This is a person with an experience of displacement and loss. She knows what she's talking about.

Why this is poetry well-done

She's pulled off an enviably difficult form in a way that looks so seamlessly easy that the poem is easy to understand and easy to read. Even if you don't do all the unpacking I have here, you read it and feel the sense of loss that pervades the message. The form which she chose for the work matches the theme beautifully and completes and contributes to the meaning of the piece.

1 comment:

  1. This is beautiful! I really needed help for an English presentation on this poem because no matter how much I loved it when I read it, I was missing some of the deeper points and this explained them perfectly. Thank you!