Wednesday, 17 June 2009

One Art - Elizabeth Bishop

The last poem I looked at, George Herbert's The Collar relied on a steady build up of tension and a sudden jolt at the end to convey its message.

Elizabeth Bishop's One Art is a very different poem but also has a startling and equally successful jolt that is a key part of its appeal


Here is a link to the text


Like The Collar, this is not a poem whose meaning is obscure. The speaker meditates, slightly sardonically about various things she has "lost". Losing things, people and ambitions is characterised as an "art" that you gradually get the hang of. None of the losses individually is a disaster. The final stanza focuses on the loss of a particular relationship which, apart from the "Write it!", to which we will return, is just another loss in a long, and not disastrous, line of losses.


The form of the poem, with its three line stanzas and frequent repetition of rhyme sounds and even whole phrases (a "modified villanelle" if you are interested) is entirely in keeping with the central idea of the poem, namely that losses will keep on happening through one's life.

However, what I think really sets this poem apart is the deliberate hiding of the emotion and the fact that the true emotion, and indeed meaning, is revealed only in a two word "jolt" right at the end.

Note the slightly sardonic, supercilious notion that continued losses are an "art" that can be "mastered". Note the losses that are referred to: the triviality of losing one's door keys is referred to next to the loss, presumably with advancing age, of ambition to travel. Then there is the continued refrain that no loss is a disaster. The overall impression from these stanzas is of a self-assured, dispassionate commentator turning away from the emotion that you might expect someone to feel at continued loss and advancing age.

But right at the end, she speaks about her lost relationship. She is well on the way to concluding that this is yet another "loss" that is no disaster but, at the last minute she can't bring herself to do so. The "Write it!" is a rebellion against the dispassionate tone of the rest of the poem. We realise not only that this particular loss is indeed a "disaster" but that the writer does indeed experience extreme emotion about her losses and that the sardonic tone adopted is nothing more than a front to protect herself. She is in fact, desperately afraid of advancing age and desperately sad about her lost relationship. But she is not going to tell you that. No, you have to work it out for yourself.

Show me a piece of prose that can have that effect in so few words.

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