Elizabeth Bishop was an American poet who was born in 1911. She lost her father when she was just eight months old. Soon after, her mother was institutionalized following mental illness. Elizabeth Bishop had a disturbed childhood; it seems to have been one of the things she “lost”. This poem uses an easy conversational language and tone, making the reader assume that it is light-hearted one. But as it progresses, we are forced to change this view. The poet initially lists things all of us lose or misplace, like keys. Then she moves on to time which is infinitely more precious than keys. The poet then makes us focus on our own losses and our individual reactions to it. For these reasons, One Art is Elizabeth Bishop’s most famous poem.
The poet glibly calls losing an art that is not hard to master as many things are created with the express purpose of losing them. She then exhorts us to lose something every day so that we become expert at it. Things ideally suited to losing according to her are door keys and time. Already there is a subtle shift here; compared to door keys, time is infinitely more precious. At some point we wonder whether she means what she says. Is losing such small matter or does the poet mean just the opposite – that it is impossible to get over losses? Her losses grow with each line – houses, cities, rivers, a continent! Finally comes the loss of a person. This poem is addressed to the person whom she has lost. Though she declares it isn’t a disaster, it is close to being one, it is evident.
The purpose of the poem is boldly stated here: Losing is an art that is not hard to master. Losing stuff is no disaster and many things are meant to be lost.
In this stanza, the poet exhorts us to practice losing so that we get used to the inconvenience and fluster that loss causes us.
We have to now go further in this losing game and graduate to losing or forgetting names of places and people; sometimes even names of places we are going to. Though the last one would be a disaster, the poet assures us that this loss can be overcome.
From names she moves on to other irreplaceable things. She mentions her mother’s watch and the three well-loved houses that she has lost. The poet’s mother had been institutionalized following mental illness. Since then, she has had no contact with her. So her watch would have been really invaluable. Nevertheless she lost it.
Is it possible to lose cities, rivers even continents? Probably she means that she has had to leave them behind though she loved them a lot.
Finally she comes to the loss that all this has been leading up to – the loss of a person – you. This is the person to whom the poem is addressed. Losing a person is a disaster but she hopes to overcome that too.
It is easy to be deceived by the deceptively conversational tone of the poem. The statements are flippant: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master”, “Lose something every day”. But the meaning behind it is profound. Nothing is permanent in this world not even the things that are precious to us. One can only learn to move on with life, the poet seems to say.