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Which words articulate loss? “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop was born in 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts. Since her death in 1979, her reputation has grown to the point that several critics have called her “one of the greatest voices of American poetry” of the twentieth century.

Compared to other authors, she did not write profusely, devoting much time to refine her works. However, her second poetry collection, Poems: North & South / A Cold Spring (1955), received the Pulitzer Prize; in 1970 she taught at Harvard, and in 1976 she won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

One Art is perhaps one of her most famous poems, and is partly autobiographical: at the centre, there is the theme of loss, in its various forms, until the most painful and profound.

Which words can give voice to the loss?

While experiencing it, pain is polymorphic: because it can be love, anger, guilt, even tenderness, and often all these things together. Emptiness not only reveals a person’s absence from our life but is often the mirror of what we meant – or did not meant – for this person. Loss is painful also because it forces us to reflect on our less noble part. It reveals what we miss and what we lacked in.

Therefore, is it possible to learn to lose? As Bishop writes, we are surrounded by things that we will easily lose, and yet this won’t be a disaster: keys, poorly spent hours, places, names, objects… Up to a joking voice, a beloved gesture: the crack in the art of losing.

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.
Other poems by Elizabeth Bishop are available at The Poetry Foundation.
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