Which is it: To or Too?
From beginning to end life seems to be a series of losses. We learn to deal with them, and how we deal with them in a small part defines who we are. As we get older and as we experience more, the losses become more regular and have greater impact. In her poem "One Art" Elizabeth Bishop demonstrates these losses and how they affect our lives.
The poem begins almost trivially as the speaker suggests that there are some things that have "the intent to be lost" (2,3). People lose things everyday. It might be something so trivial as a set of keys or maybe a lost hour. Yet losing these things can drive even the sanest person mad. According to the speaker, losing these trivial things "isn't hard to master" (6). Eventually the loss of such things becomes as insignificant as the objects that have been lost. The loss or misplacement of these items occurs so often that living through it becomes second nature. Once again the speaker reminds the reader that the loss "isn't a disaster" (3).
In the third quatrain the practice of losing happens "faster" and goes "farther" (7) and becomes more intense, "places, and names, and where it was you meant/ to travel" (8,9). Everyone has experienced the in ability to remember a name, a face, or a phone number. We often make plans and lists that fall by the wayside as victims of our often-busy lives. Still the speaker insists, "None of these will bring disaster" (9). It is almost as if the speaker is not only trying to convince her reader, but also herself, that the losses she has suffered will not cause her to lose control.
The next stanza seems to become more personal as the speaker mentions the loss of her mother's watch and the loss of a house. It seems that here the speaker begins to lose control so she trivializes the items she lists that have been lost. The loss of her mother's watch could actually represent the time and companionship Bishop lost with her mother when she passed on. It is interesting that the speaker uses the word "houses" (11) instead of "homes," as if using the word "house" takes away the warmth and memories related to the word "home." Again she ends the stanza by repeating, "the art of losing isn't hard to master" (12).
The reader begins to feel the poem build in the fifth quatrain as the losses become more vast and deeper. She says, " I lost two cities/...two rivers, and a continent" (13). Of course she could not have lost these things in reality because she could have never owned them. Perhaps it is the treasured memories or the excitement of a time long passed that she mourns. When she says she owned these places one gets the idea that maybe she was a lady of the world; if this is the case maybe she misses the attention and the acknowledgment that came along with that kind of recognition. These are obviously places that are important to her that she lost touch with, for whatever reason. She admits that she "misses them," but again repeats that their loss "wasn't a disaster" (15).
In the final stanza the tone of the poem becomes more personal. It moves from seemingly inconsequential losses to the loss of something that is the hardest to control: The loss of love. It is here that the speaker begins to lose her composure. As if to get herself through this line the speaker jokingly uses the more proper "shan't" (17) instead of haven't. Then, in the next line she changes the original line by adding the word "too" (18). The insertion of this word exhibits the speaker trying to convince herself that the loss of love will not cause her to lose control. It's as if she is trying to categorize the loss as trivial so that she can handle it with more ease. In the final line of the poem, the speaker is forcing herself on, making herself write the words in the hopes that if she writes it, it will be so. Her internal struggle comes through when she commands herself, "(Write it!) like disaster" (19). Here she finally gives in and briefly allows herself to lose control of her emotions.
"One Art" is a beautiful poem of loss and love. Bishop's ability to create this villanelle may in itself be an exercise in restraint. Maybe Bishop thinks that the constraints of the villanelle will help her to control her emotions. Bishop masterfully builds "One Art" stanza by stanza, repeating over and over "the art of losing isn't hard to master" (1,6,12). In the end she admits that it is harder than she cares to say when she changes the "to" to "too". Perhaps while writing the last stanza Bishop intended to say, " the art of losing is too hard to master" (18).
Copyright © 2002 by Sharon Nassef. All rights reserved.