“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 disaster.

–Elizabeth Bishop

This superb villanelle exposes the rawness of loss. Bishop begins with a didactic tone: she’s got opinions about losing. Losing is an art because art is not easy. Art is difficult. Art must be practiced. She recommends that we learn how to lose things like car keys or some time ill-spent because soon we will lose places and people. We need to practice loss to prepare ourselves for the most shocking losses of all–the loss of love, the loss of dear people and places.

I think that Bishop is deliberately being sardonic. Loss is not at all easy and the way that the poem breaks down the carefully mandated refrain lines indicates her inability to stay strictly within the form. In the same way, she (and her readers) can and do stray from the publicly regulated blueprint for loss. There are indeed losses that can leave one grieving like crazy for a half-century or more! They are the disasters of life. It seems as if no manner of custom or passage of time can make the losses seem less disastrous.

I like the way that Bishop tries to corral loss into the strict format of the villanelle. She knew all along that you can’t limit loss and pin it down and that no number of rehearsals are adequate preparation for life’s big losses.

Accepting loss is indeed an art.  Poets, philosophers, and historians, and your friends and family discuss it all the time.  I’ve stumbled through small losses and then moved on to greater losses.


Author: Gubbinal

Bookish, tea-drinking cat-lady who loves great poetry and music and is in the midst of dying

3 thoughts on ““One Art””

  1. What a cunning poem! That last stanza, like the poem, is highly ambiguous: the syntax shows that it’s not ‘losing’ that’s hard to master, but the ‘art’ of doing so – things are intent on getting lost, and will succeed in being so. It reminds me, this slippery use of ‘art’, of Duncan’s words in Macbeth: There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face’. But why ONE art?!


    1. Thank you for your reply. I have always thought of it as a commentary on “one art”–in this case, the “art of losing.” The implication for me is that other arts might include dying, being ill, prospering, writing, cooking, etc. I believe that “losing” is indeed an art if you’ve had enough of it in your life time. And yes, if it looks like disaster, it is disaster.


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