The Poetry of Loss: An Analysis of “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop 1934 Vassar yearbook portrait

Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle “One Art” was one of the first poems I read and analyzed at a college level. It’s also one of my favorites. Here is an analysis of “One Art” that can be interpreted from the perspective of wherever the reader is in their own life.

We’ve all, in our unique ways, experienced loss. Countless poems attempt to capture the nature of loss. Elizabeth Bishop was a detail-oriented writer, and the particularity of “One Art” makes the experience of reading it all the more sensitive and meaningful. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind poem.

“One Art” intimately captures the feeling of loss for the reader. Although the poem is mostly autobiographical, it simultaneously acts as a mirror, forcing the reader to reflect on their own losses. This is perhaps why “One Art” is so valuable and memorable. Its relatability makes it difficult to forget.

Elizabeth Bishop experienced loss at an early age. Her father died when she was an infant, and her mother was institutionalized when she was just five years old. Later in her life, Elizabeth lost her partner to suicide. Intense loss followed her through life.

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Elizabeth Bishop

Learn more about Elizabeth Bishop
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In “One Art,” Bishop attempts to reject the severity of loss. The poem begins with her intentionally flimsy argument: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Throughout the poem she speaks directly to the reader; as if to say, “Look, if I can lose, you can lose just as well.”

After reading the first stanza, the reader might begin to search through their own life, finding their own “you” to place within Bishop’s words.

From there, we see a buildup of losses, each arguably worse than the last. Bishop begins the poem with losing common, tangible objects, like house keys. She then urges the reader to lose the intangible; like memories and names. Throughout the poem she tries to remind the reader that “their loss is no disaster.” It becomes increasingly difficult to convince even herself of that towards the end. 

Bishop then urges the reader to practice “losing farther, losing faster.” Almost creating a snowball effect of loss within the poem, in the next few stanzas she begins losing bigger things; her mother’s watch, the cities she lived and loved.

The final stanza is intentionally flustered. Bishop eventually describes the hardest loss, that of a loved one, seeming to speak directly to them.

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One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with 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.

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Elizabeth Bishop wasn’t a particularly prolific writer. Finishing only around a hundred poems in her lifetime, she was quite particular, and her poems were calculated. Her poignant nature reveals something about her intentions within “One Art” — the pieces that appear discomposed are wholly deliberate. She was trying to appear unpolished.

In the last line of the poem, she repeats the word “like” twice. This wasn’t an accident, but rather, an attempt to physically reveal her dissonance within the poem. She is trying to tell the reader, “the art of losing is hard to master.”

I see this poem in my own life, through my own losses. As I write this, I’m sitting in my empty college apartment, actively practicing the art of losing. It’s universally relatable. Elizabeth Bishop simply stated what we all feel. We all want to master the art of losing, even though it never gets easier. She knew this; we all do. That’s what makes the poem so easy to cherish.

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Elizabeth Bishop in her later years

See also: 8 Iconic Poems by Elizabeth Bishop
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Contributed by Jess Mendes, a 2021 graduate of SUNY-New Paltz with a major in Digital Media Management, and a minor in Creative Writing.

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