The opening stanza of Elizabeth Bishop’s’“One Art” reveals the clear statement of the poem; the struggle with mastering the issue of loss. Bishop uses the significance of structure and word choice to further the meaning of the poem. She crescendos each stanza to create a firm foundation for the dramatic conclusion, and incorporates expressive words throughout the poem to illuminate the last stanza’s attitude shift from that of carelessness to seriousness.
“One Art” approaches loss in a rather sidelong manner. It does not dive straight in and attack the large issues, but instead begins with meaningless objects. In so doing, Bishop aligns these unimportant possessions with the more significant ones. As the poem progresses, the objects mentioned become increasingly more meaningful, as does their loss. Bishop not only purposely guarantees opportunities to rehearse this art of mastering loss, but supplies materials branded “with the intent to be lost.” She forces the second stanza to visualize with the ruminations of the first. Readers learn precisely how to master this art, and are urged to practice to make it into a virtuous habit: “Lose something every day.” A further instruction counsels the approval of that resulting disorder—the “fluster”—produced by undue agitation.
Bishop implements a progressively dynamic, almost uncontrollable, schedule of loss in the third stanza then simply shifts the focus to the next lesson. No longer does she express manageable, solicitous incidents; the poem has moved beyond them to overwhelming concerns: places, names, and destinations. The “intent” of the first stanza blossoms into the broader intentions of “where it was you meant to travel” of the third stanza. The reader must supply a relative example of corresponding with this line. After Bishop struggles to induce specific details from the reader she abruptly introduces the lyric “I” in the very next stanza. Her experiential familiarity, suppressed in the first half of the poem, surfaces as she is clearly experiencing aggravation in the reader’s ability to apprehend the previous lessons of loss. She quickly shifts and summons a specific personal item, “my mother’s watch,” making tangible the feeling of irretrievable loss. This registry of loss continues to the next line where she is missing “three beloved houses.” Bishop demonstrates the truth of this loss by exploiting what is, after all, the first true disaster in the poem.
The speaker, further emboldened by self-knowledge, begins the very next stanza again with “I lost.” However, she approaches the unspecified yet concrete type of loss: “two rivers, a continent,” the loss of which suggests the impermanent nature of earth itself. The tercets have logically built up from small, keys, to large, continent, with demonic precision and momentum. Yet the items lost become increasingly personal through each stanza. This movement holds its momentum properly until the final tercet is reached. Bishop introduces the final stanza with a dash, clearly emphasizing breakage and resistance. Loss and love are significantly enjambed within the first two lines of this final stanza. They not only confess how loss and love are bound but give continuing evidence of “I love,” risked with a solitary parenthesis in the line. The most intimate words are not understated by being parenthesized but jump out as a temporary withholding as her most prominent resistance to accepting loss is unfolding. There appears a breakdown, not only in the speaker but in the certainty of the statement “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” by the addition of “not too hard” and an admission of strain with the fiercely whispered “(Write it!)” between the stuttered double “like.” Here conflict explodes as the growing tension between the desire to repeat the poem’s refrain yields to the doubts of its accuracy. The imperative self-prompt “(Write it!)” conveys the immense energy needed to utter the last word of “disaster.” The repetition of “like” postpones, ever so fleetingly, the final word that hurts all the more. The inevitability of “disaster” ironically recalls the fatalism of true loss.
In conclusion, Bishop creates a paradox that is evident by a combination of the poem’s opening and closing stanzas. By embodying uncontrollable emotion in a form meant to control it, and in an utterance meant to deny it, Bishop creates tension, ambivalence, and a poignant recognition of the attempts to control the uncontrollable. Throughout the poem, Bishop tirelessly tries to gain the mastery of loss, but ultimately brings back the recognition that it is not entirely achievable. The final stanza clearly exploits the true cure for the only true disaster: The loss of a loved one.