Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seemed 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.

A visit to Bath over the weekend meant a trip to Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights an independent bookshop with extremely friendly and helpful staff, bowls of cheerful flowers around the store and a reading room upstairs. I also found this beautiful edition of Elizabeth Bishop's collected poems. The poem above is a villanelle called One Art.

I've been meaning to read more Bishop since discovering her poetry on the American Literature module I took a few years ago. Difficult to say whether the attitude to loss in this poem is flippant or sorrowful and the meaning seems to change each time you read it. What do you think?

13 comments:

bookssnob said...

What an interesting poem. I'd never heard of Elizabeth Bishop before.

I went to that bookshop when I was in Bath last summer! Amazing, isn't it? I especially liked the reading booth where you can pay to have an hour's uninterrupted reading!

Study Window said...

I'm ashamed to say that I hadn't read any of Bishop's work until last year, when one of our Post Graduates who was supposed to be presenting a paper on his thesis to the PG forum talked about Bishop instead. It isn't that unusual for a PG not to have done the work they are supposed to have done, it is less common for them to have the aplomb to speak for an hour knowledgeably about another author entirely. I was fascinated and have read several poems since, although this is new to me. Thank you for reminding me again of her.

Hannah Stoneham said...

I have never heard of Elizabeth Bishop before reading your post - but that poem is most interesting and I am attracted by her profile as well. What a great bookshop that sounds. There is a chance that I might bne visiting Bath briefly this summer, so thanks for the heads up!

Hannah

Carolyn said...

I've been interested in Elizabeth Bishop ever since I read this poem of hers titled Casabianca:

Love's the boy stood on the burning deck
trying to recite `The boy stood on
the burning deck.' Love's the son
stood stammering elocution
while the poor ship in flames went down.

Love's the obstinate boy, the ship,
even the swimming sailors, who
would like a schoolroom platform, too,
or an excuse to stay
on deck. And love's the burning boy.

Read the Book said...

I've always found this poem to be highly ironic. It seems that the speaker is trying to convince himself to be nonchalant about loss but is really having quite a hard time of it.

Becky said...

I love that poem, which I first discovered in a rather cheesy collection. I think it's an attempt to be flippant about something serious, but the cracks show deliberately.

alice c said...

I love this poem which is an extraordinarily elegant use of the difficult villanelle form. I have it on the noticeboard above my desk at work.

Audrey said...

I haven't read this poem since I was in college and took a wonderful poetry class...thank you for reminding me about it, and about Elizabeth Bishop. I've just discovered your blog and look forward to reading more.

makedoandread said...

I love Elizabeth Bishop's poetry and this is a favorite. It's such a beautiful way to think with the sorrow of loss, something that happens to you, by playing with the words and phrases of losing, something you do. I suppose I've always thought it was too bittersweet to be flippant.

potterjotter said...

Am new to blogging but glad I came across this post as we are going to Bath for a short break in October and I shall now make a point of finding this bookshop. Have often puzzled over that poem in the past, but concluded that there are serious undertones beyond the surface ambivalence.

Nan said...

Wasn't she married to Robert Lowell, or am I thinking of someone else? Neither of them the cheeriest of souls. I sort of 'get' the poem though the (Write it!) I'm completely missing the point of. Maybe she's telling herself to actually express that it looks like disaster???

Vintage Reading said...

booksnob and Hannah, yes it's worth a trip to Bath just for Mr B's.

Study Window, I came to Bishop as a mature student, too. I'd love to have heard your PG's talk!

Carolyn, I hadn't heard that one - I'm working my way through the anthology - she is an extraordinary writer.

Read the Book and Becky - I can't decide if it's irony or not and what does the last sentence mean? It baffles me each time I read it.

Alice C - I like the thought of having the poem above your desk at work - particularly as I'm very good at losing emails, keys to my desk drawer and yellow stickies with crucial info on them!

Audrey, welcome. Lovely to hear from Bishop admirers.

makedoandread, yes bitterweet is the word I wanted. I've listened to a recording of Bishop reading her poetry and she had a beautiful speaking voice, too.

potterjotter. Mr B's is well worth a visit - along with the Jane Austen centre, the Roman Baths, museum of costume ... and look out for the lion statues! Have fun.

Nan, I think she was connected with Lowell. The last line completely baffles me, too. Just when I think I understand it.

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

I love this villanelle. I do not think it's flippant: I think it comes from a place of great anger and bitterness about loss. The way she forces herself ("write it") to finish the final line is a giveaway.
I think that she may be instructing her readers to get accustomed to loss (loss is inevitable in all life) and to practice accustoming yourself to greater and greater losses until you work up to the loss of a loved one.

She was not married to Robert Lowell, although they were friends.