The Art of Losing Part 2

Part 1 was over here. Some writing prompts are like music albums you listen to over and over again until you get sick of one artist and start playing the next until the same fatigue sets in.

I’ve sat with this prompt for a while. It’s spawned a number of pieces, some fiction, some commentary. There’s a time to create and a time to analyze. This piece was one of the more rare times I wanted to analyze and dig out the English Lit student in me. Holden Caulfield in The Catcher and the Rye talks about how certain works elicit such a response that you want to call up the author afterwards:

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”

The speaker in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” has a similar effect on me. I don’t necessarily wish she was a terrific friend of mine, I just wanted to understand better what she was doing in the poem, and why it’s called “One Art” when a much more obvious title would be “The Art of Losing.” (Yes, I’m going ahead and assuming the speaker is a woman). So I penned some lines in response to her words, which obviously had a strong impact on me and is thus one significant measure of a good poem in my opinion. As a wise person once told me in regards to many, if not all, things in life, “Response matters.” So here is the poem again and here is my response:

One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

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.

Of course it’s a disaster. That’s exactly why she writes it. The whole poem smacks of audacious overstatement—I’ve lost cities, rivers, continents—followed by glib understatements—and their loss was no disaster. And their loss was no disaster? You don’t write it if it doesn’t bother you. That’s why it’s one art. The art of losing is the art of writing. She masters the art of losing by writing it. The loss isn’t such a ghost if it can be kept on paper, recorded like an item on a grocery list.

Yet by writing it, she fails miserably at the very art she’s trying to practice. Writing remembers. Writing says it mattered. Writing says I am losing it all over again. I am losing you all over again. You don’t force yourself to Write it! if you believe it. Even if you convinced yourself it was no big loss, no big deal at the beginning, you’re not convinced anymore.

Loss isn’t an art. It’s loss. Same with the speaker’s art. Looking less and less like a master(piece) and more and more like disaster, the poem breaks down at the end, falls out of sync with the other stanzas, adds a fourth line and parenthetical interjections. The artifice crumbles as the loss gets more real. Art mimicking life, life mimicking art. One art. Another picture of Dorian Gray. She’s not a poet anymore. She’s lost.

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