NPM Curated Poem 2: “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

If you’re a poet, or a close friend of mine, or a student or former student, you’re probably unimpressed by my inclusion of the quintessential “poet’s poet” and Duffey personal icon Elizabeth Bishop.  But her poem “One Art” is really, truly, one of the best poems ever written in the English language.  Here’s the text, which I took from poets.org:

One Art

Elizabeth Bishop, 19111979

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.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant 
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

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.

—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.

I love the way the severity of the losses increases as the poem goes on, and, of course, that wonderful interjection, “Write it!”  The poet could be forcing herself to admit that the loss does indeed “look like…disaster,” but also continues the denial, forces herself to WRITE the denial, that it is “like disaster,” not actually a disaster.  The repetition of “like” mimics the speaker’s thought process in that she might have forgotten her construction after the interjection to herself, but it also reemphasizes the importance of denying that it’s a disaster by asserting it’s only LIKE one, and to be LIKE LIKE one is even one more step removed.  The loss of the “you,” however, inches closer to disaster with every beat.

YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  This poem is a villanelle, a poetic form derived from Italian and Spanish Renaissance dance-songs and fixed as we know it in the nineteenth century (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/villanelle).  A villanelle consists of five tercets (three-line stanzas) and a quatrain (a four-line stanza) in which the first and third lines alternate as the last line of each tercet until they finally appear as the final two lines of the poem.  The middle lines of the tercets must rhyme with each other and with the second line of the quatrain, and first lines of the tercets and quatrain must rhyme with the repeated lines.  Clearer directions can be found at poets.org.

Write a villanelle!  Good luck.  I’ve never done it.  We’ll see if I can today!

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