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One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled 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.


  by Elizabeth Bishop                         



Bishop was part of what was called the ‘confessional’ poetry movement, a group who tried to approach their subjects candidly, remarking on and responding to their experiences and feelings as honestly as possible.    


       You might notice in the poem above, words – and even whole lines – are repeated. This is because the poem is the form of something called a ‘villanelle’. All villanelles have a total of 19 lines, and contain two refrains and two recurring rhymes. In ‘One Art’, everything either rhymes with ‘master’ or ‘spent’. This makes it a useful poetic form for thinking hard about a single topic, because you end up dwelling on the same sets of words over and over again. 

       In this case, Bishop uses the poem to think about how we might learn to let go, and how we might master loss, by beginning with simple, but sentimental, possessions – ‘I lost my mother’s watch’ – before moving on to those things we could never really own in the first place, like ‘rivers’ or ‘a continent’. Being content with loss is a necessary part of life, but that doesn’t make it easy. This is reflected in the structure: villanelles are notoriously hard to write (why not try and write one yourself?), because you limit the number of different words you can use. Bishop is therefore showing us, via the poem, a way to be happy with what you have.

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