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A Reticent Volcano
"One Art" by Poet Elizabeth Bishop.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master; So many things seem filled with the intent To be lost that their loss is not 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.
Why is One Art by Elizabeth Bishop, a poem often read at funerals? Although One Art is a kind of elegy, the subject that draws mourners to it is only barely alluded to: the expected part of the narrative—the language (i.e., “sad” “grief” “tears”) and narrative behind that language of mourning—does not appear in the poem. The bulk of the villanelle, five three-line stanzas out of the six stanzas (the last is comprised of four lines), argues that loss is not a difficult event to manage. Even more extraordinary: the type of loss is downgraded for most of the poem to losing items, time, experiences, and places.
It is counterintuitive. Why would musing over moderate losses be the way to bring home the impossibility, the “disaster,” of the ultimate loss (of a beloved)? And the only information the speaker offers about the person she has lost, the only clues we are given, is in the last stanza: “the joking voice,” “a gesture I love.” And these phrases, this information about the story behind the poem, although touching, are seemingly personal yet vague, specific yet elusive.
There are only four words that hint at the hidden narrative in this nineteen-line elegy: “lose” / “lost,” “miss,” “disaster,” and “love.” In each case, Bishop devalues the emotion in the word thereby exposing the vulnerability in the poem as the reader realizes that the speaker cannot acknowledge the pain that she feels. Bishop avoids using “lose” and “lost” in relation to the beloved until the end, and even then when the “you” is mentioned for this first time in the last stanza, the narrator insists that it is not “too hard” to “master” losing “you.”
The word “disaster” is only used to say what loss is not (until its final usage in the last word of the poem), and the word “love” is used quietly to not state that the narrator loves the beloved but to home in on a seemingly insignificant detail: it is ‘the gesture’ that is loved. The language of pain or rage is replaced by understatement and a placid, reasoning tone (“isn’t hard,” “seem,” “accept”); detached diction (“shan’t,” “art,” “to master,” “practice”); and a ‘the lady doth protest too much, methinks’ attitude of denial (“the art of losing isn’t hard to master”).
This flat language that covers up a story and undercuts emotion is the very thing that signals the speaker’s vulnerability. One Art is a poem of loss and emotional devastation. Yet the narrative behind that devastation does not appear in the poem. “Pain”—, Emily Dickinson wrote, “has an Element of Blank,”—suggesting that not only is there a numbing element in the midst of anguish but that the act of writing about the subject effectively must include a “Blank.”
Neither emotional words nor a clear narrative can be found in Bishop’s controlled poem. The penultimate words “(Write it!)” which includes the quirky parentheses, italics, and exclamation point, are the closest the poem comes to bursting with grief before the final admission that something catastrophic has happened: “disaster.” However, the story behind the disaster is never revealed. The speaker’s otherness remains intact, and their vulnerability is palpable. The grieving speaker is unknowable yet, like us, fragile.
W. H. Auden wrote that in Robert Frost’s work, “One is aware of strong, even violent, emotion behind what is actually said, but the saying is reticent, the poetry has, as it were, an auditory chastity.” Similarly, Bishop’s words are chaste when it comes to even the most “violent” of emotions. The poem, to use Dickinson’s image and language, is a
”reticent volcano.” There is a sense that it could explode with emotion at any time (it begins to bubble over in the penultimate line), but the poem is mostly dormant. The pain in the poem’s gaps can seep into the reader’s unconscious, and the reader can subliminally empathize with the human instinct to avoid pain. What we know unconsciously becomes a part of us, enters deeply into us.
What is not articulated in One Art puts the reader in a position to accept the alterity of its speaker. When confronted with only snippets of a narrative about loss, there is a growing understanding that the speaker can never be fully understood. These gaps prompt an imagined ideal reader to step back, to accept not knowing, and to turn inward. When the last words appear “like disaster,” the prompt is not to know about the disaster that the poem alludes to; rather, the use of the word “like” hides the facts of the narrative and encourages readers to look inward at their own experience of loss and misfortune.
Bishop’s poem is one of a hidden subject, scant information, narrative danglings, and repetition. In a villanelle, the same lines repeat themselves throughout in an orderly pattern, which gives a sense of narrative circling, rather than a sequential moving forward towards a logical resolution. The poem’s reference to losing time and two cities suggests that it is also about the repetitiveness of loss, using the villanelle form for its encompassing traumatic repetition, and making that repetition—rather than a specific loss—its subject.
Most striking is the lack of information about the story: how was the “you” lost? Was it the result of a break-up? Death? If so, how and why did the break-up or death happen? Was the person male or female? A child or adult? A family member, friend, lover? None of these questions are answered. Very little narrative information (lover, name, gender of beloved, death to suicide, or being left) is provided by the poem. The poem suggests that the teller of this tale, on some level, does not even know the whole story. How can she? It is impossible. Impossibly painful.
This poem is read at funerals because it quietly acknowledges the pain of loss and the vulnerability of the mourner. It also suggests that anyone hearing the poem has felt or will feel similarly. The poem offers a sense of dignity: recognizing “disaster” is painful but we have all experienced loss to some extent. Yet we feel alone with it. The paradox is no one alone. We share this vulnerability, this fragility. So we are all connected in this way; however, we are alone with our own particular and idiosyncratic loss. Alone yet connected. Isolated yet bonded with humanity. Fragile yet part of a linked chain.