Yet more ramblings on language: Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’

A couple of posts ago, while discussing e.e. cummings, I wrote about how, by imposing an artificial order upon things, language provides a means of definition – and thereby, possibly, control. In light of this thought, consider the following semi-vilanelle by Elizabeth Bishop, called “One Art”.

One Art

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 a disaster.

I think that the key to this poem – and indeed, what makes this an excellent poem – is found in those two parenthesised words and the exclamation mark in the last line: (Write it!). Let me explain.

The poem itself is a slow progress towards a crescendo, a gradual, modulated increase in the intensity and pain of loss: starting with the near-irrelevant loss of keys or a wasted hour, to greater, deeper and more aching losses, and ending with perhaps the most heart-rending of all, the loss of a lover. And it tells us, through its twin refrains, “the art of losing isn’t hard to master“, and various combinations of words and phrases strung together between some form of “not” and “disaster” – that loss is so fundamental and pervasive a feature of the human condition, that reconciling oneself to it, and accepting it with equanimity, is not only important, but as inevitable as loss itself.

But as all of us who have experienced loss – and all of us have – know well, it simply isn’t that easy. You cannot (indeed, perhaps you should not) reason yourself out of your response to loss, a response that is primarily instinctive, and oftentimes deeply emotional (as it should be). And even Bishop seems less than convinced about what she’s writing. It comes across powerfully in “I miss them and it wasn’t a disaster”, in the aftermath of losing a continent, with its attendant rivers, realms, cities. In the first two lines of the stanza, the attention to detail, with its accompanying sense of gravity, followed by the plaintive “I miss them” in the first half of the last line, makes the concluding “but it wasn’t a disaster” almost an afterthought, and quite unpersuasive.

This sense is sharpened as we move into the last stanza, beginning with the stress upon “even“, and then its recounting of a very direct personal experience. This is something we all know – how, in the loss of a lover, it is the loss of seemingly tiny and insignificant things, like a tone of voice, or a gesture – that, paradoxically, is the hardest to bear. Surely – surely – that is not something easy to master, something that happens often or every day. The refrain, following immediately upon that, now bears a distinct sense of the poet protesting too much. And it is in this context that the last line acquires its significance. For while at first glance, it may seem that the “Write it!“, parenthesised as it is, might be nothing more than an aside, there is nonetheless a sense of stridency and urgency to it – accentuated by the exclamation mark – that marks it out to be far more important than that. What the poet seems to be saying is that it is through writing – through the use of language – that the pain of loss can actually be mastered.

Where words leave off, music begins – so goes Heine’s famous aphorism. Many, indeed have written about how language is the imperfect tool that we use to try (and fail) to capture the essence of lived experience, a perpetual falling-short of an ungraspable reality. Words, Nietzsche’s rainbow-bridges. And this line is, in a sense, a reversal:  the pain of loss is ungraspable, and hence overwhelming, until it is written, until it is reduced to language, to a set of conventional signs. Language becomes, then, a way of setting bounds upon the boundless, of ordering the irredeemably chaotic,  of knowing the unfathomable – and thus, a way of control. And this explains the sheer urgency of the Write it! Write, because otherwise the pain of loss, with all its thousand unnameable pincers of grief, will be too much to bear. Write to define, to conceptualise, to visualise, to know, to understand, to define, to accept and to reconcile. Write to reduce to an order and a system, to a set of known words, familiar symbols, explored territory. And yet, because writing it will force you to come face-to-face with loss in its ungovernable, linguistically-unbounded state even as you yoke it with language, it is not an easy to step to take; hence, again, the urgency of Write it!

And this idea can then, I think, be projected back onto the rest of the work. The poem, as a whole, is an attempt, through writing, to come to terms with the sheer ubiquity and depth of loss in human life. The losses that lie like scattered specks of sand upon the long shores of our lives belong themselves only to the realm of experience and emotion – until subjected to the word.  So Bishop does not – as might seem at first glance, on a reading of the poem – make light of loss, or attempt to render it quotidian and irrelevant; on the contrary, she understands even something as seemingly irrelevant as losing a set of car keys (who knows what significance they might hold?) or a single hour, can nonetheless be an unspeakably profound loss. And the only way to deal with that is to write it.

It is a vision that I find compelling.

1 Comment

Filed under Elizabeth Bishop, Poetry: Miscellaneous

One response to “Yet more ramblings on language: Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’

  1. Very insightful analysis of this poem. Acceptance of reality in of itself can be so very poignant.

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