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Poetry Sundays: Elizabeth Bishop

lost keys

Image by atache on flickr.

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.

(circa 1976)

One of my favorite poets in all the world is Elizabeth Bishop. And this piece of hers is resonating with me and my many anxieties lately (some of which I expressed in my comment on the last Poetry Sundays post). Every time I come back to this poem, I love it more. I love its clear-cut rhymes and easy rhythms—that it feels a lot like a free verse poem in the way it flows without effort—but it is actually following the very strict rules of a poetic form called the villanelle. I can only say that the form of this poem about quadruples my admiration for it.

Please feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments. If you don’t know where to start I have a couple of questions that came to mind as I read “One Art” this time around. When she says “the art of losing,” what exactly does that mean to you? And why do you think she doesn’t ever mention looking for or finding things that are lost?


I am a children's librarian. I have 2 kids. I have a professor for a husband. I obsess about writing and about making things.

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25 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Thanks, Brooke! I had never read this before, and i really liked it too. I also like the relaxed rhythm and rhymes. A little structure is satisfying to me sometimes.

    As for what I see in the poem, I think she’s talking about accepting our weaknesses and even leaning into them sometimes. And that that’s ok. We’re all human and disasters don’t necessarily follow us when we are our human selves. I think that’s why she doesn’t mention finding — she’s dwelling in human foible and finding that life goes on in spite of them.

    • Brooke says:

      Caroline, I’m so glad to have introduced you and some others to this poem!

      I agree that she doesn’t talk about finding things because of what kind of losing she’s talking about. These aren’t the kind of losses that can be restored to the way things were. They happen in time and there is some kind of change, and then time goes on.

      I really like how you say “accepting our weaknesses and even leaning into them sometimes.” Because there is probably an art to that kind of action–the vulnerability in acknowledging that we are weak and allowing that to be visible.

  2. Deborah says:

    Oh, Brooke. I have this whole poem memorized. First in college because I liked the sound and thought the progression from small to large — from keys to love — was clever. Later because I finally began to understand the bitter, beautiful irony of how ordinary losing is. How ordinary death is. How ordinary the disaster that breaks you apart is.

  3. Emily U says:

    I don’t know very much about poetry but I’m learning to appreciate it, and want to know more of it. For example I’m not really sure what makes free verse different from prose, other than it’s shorter and divided into very small paragraphs? I do admire the ability to work within a form, like Elizabeth Bishop has done here.

    As far as what the poem means, I hate losing things! And I lose things fairly often, especially my keys. So I have to think hard about how I could learn see losing as an art. Maybe it’s knowing what matters and what really doesn’t? Probably the list of things that really matter is very short.

    • Brooke says:

      Emily, I think you have a great point. I can see the art of losing as being able to distinguish between what matters and what doesn’t, and then letting go of the things that don’t matter. Maybe also letting go of the things that will inevitably be gone.

      As far as separating free verse and prose, I think the lines can get especially blurry. Since there’s also prose poems and poetic prose and ambiguous distinctions like that. But if it’s broken up into lines and stanzas, tries to say something “important” in fewer words, and maybe takes liberties with the conventional Strunk and White guidelines, I would call it poetry. And, now that I’ve written this description, I’m completely second-guessing myself because there are all kinds of poems that do all kinds of things with words and language. It’s just one of those impossible definitions, I guess? (Sigh)

  4. spunky says:

    I’ve not read this before, Brook and it is striking it me. It really tells such a truth — about how easy it is to lose something. Easy as in common, often. It is not something to work at. It made me wonder of the paradox of women– always trying to “lose” weight… and the art of losing being the art of not mourning or even seeking replacement, but giving the way for the loss to anxiety, anger and frustration.

    I love this. I need to think more on it. Thank you.

    • Brooke says:

      Yes, Spunky. Because maybe there are some things that shouldn’t be replaced with anything, and trying to fill the void can only make things worse.

  5. Aimee says:

    I confess that I’ve always struggled with this poem–probably because I have never been able to embrace the notion of loss as “art.” Loss feels like chaos and reinforces my deepest fears about the heartless immensity of the universe. I know there’s an argument to be made about the virtue of surrendering to that which we can’t control, but I’m not wired that way.

    Reading it now, though, I wonder if I’ve misunderstood it all these years and this poem isn’t about surrender after all. She’s speaking of losing as though it were a command–that the way you face down the terror of ordinary entropy is to make yourself a part of it. I don’t know what I think about that either, but my temperamental predisposition might be able to work with that.

    The one thing that’s still true about this poem a couple of decades since I first encountered it is that I feel all weepy and alive. Thank you for giving me a moment to think about it again today, Brooke.

    • Brooke says:

      Aimee, I love what you said here! I sometimes am surprised when I re-read the poems that have stuck with me for one reason or another, at how different my reaction is than my last encounter with them. I know that my reaction will be different, and I shouldn’t be surprised when it is, but somehow it still jolts me a little (or a lot) when it happens.

      I’m so glad you read and commented. You are wise and I’m lucky to read your wisdom when you share it.

  6. EmilyCC says:

    I love the part about the lost cities, which then moves into “some realms I have owned.” I think of the places I’ve lived in and had to leave–how in some geographic areas and in some times in my life I have felt like I owned them and was comfortable in them, only to have to leave and give up that ownership.

    I’m always grateful for the poetry you give me, Brooke. Thank you for this one.

    • Brooke says:

      You’re welcome, EmilyCC. I think you would like lots of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. Much of it geography themed, with a readable, conversational tone. And some of her descriptions of observing or encountering animals are both quirky and solemn.

    • Rachel says:

      I love that part, too, Emily. I have lost so many cities–very charming ones!

  7. Jessawhy says:

    The part that really gets me is losing an hour (or two). I always feel like I need to be really efficient. When I’m not, I’m disappointed in myself. Or, I have anxiety about getting stuff done.

    Thanks for doing these poetry posts. I really like them. You choose great poetry 🙂

  8. Rachel says:

    Dear Brooke, I am so glad you chose this poem. It has long been one of my favorites since my older sister introduced me to it years ago.

    But now I can’t read it without also wanting to read this: http://www.nereview.com/vol-34-no-1-2013/lisa-van-orman-hadley/

    It is a short story by a dear and talented friend.

    • Brooke says:

      Rachel, I know this story. So so wonderful. I heard Lisa do a reading of it at the Exponent II retreat. Thank you for reminding me. I love the connection.

  9. SNeilsen says:

    For the cinematically inclined, there is the movie “Reaching for the Moon “.

  10. Suzette says:

    Thanks for sharing. I’ve never thought of things quite like this. And I’ve read it a few times over. I bring some interesting musings.

  11. Jordan says:

    I have loved this poem for years and have analyzed it many ways. Coming back to it now, my thoughts go from the art form of losing, loss, and the gradual exploration of space and weight of things in our world to what is actually disastrous to us. For Bishop, at this moment, it was not losing keys, or realms, or continents, or even losing “you.” And because love is in the past tense, she makes us question if love is a things that brings disaster at all — “I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident” And if love, the biggest object Bishop places in this poem, can’t then what can?

    • Brooke says:

      Jordan, I like your comment and how it made me look at the poem more closely. I like your questions of “space and weight of things in our world” and “what can bring disaster?” How much weight and space does love take up? And disaster–a completely relative term. Is something that looks like disaster actually a disaster? And disastrous to whom?

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