The curious thing about losing is that it’s indiscriminate. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are – “The art of losing ” is something everyone can master. You can be a teenager who has lost their self-confidence, a mother who has lost her husband. It doesn’t matter what country you are from, who you are fighting for – or who you are fighting against, everyone experiences loss.
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) wrote a poem, “One Art “. I connected with this poem recently. I had read it once or twice before – but a few days ago I read it again, and it really struck home with me. It’s about, “the art of losing”.
I tend to like to have a conversation about a poem in person, that way we can both discuss how the poem first hit us, and how it hits us again each time we read it. I don’t want to staple my feelings onto the front of this poem before you’ve read the poem yourself. So now, you may want to read “one art” below, so we can continue this discussion.
by 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 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.
(A few moments later…it’s a short poem)
Loss doesn’t always have to do with losing someone precious to you, or “the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent”. In my case, as I may have mentioned to you before, if I have to take a break from my painting lasting three days or more, not only do I go stir crazy – but upon my return to the studio, I have lost the ability to paint. I know that sounds dramatic.
To paint I need a certain balance of emotion, a certain balance of movement in my body, and a large dose of confidence mixed with an even larger dose of no pressure. Painter’s block deflects all of those states and replaces them with fear. The writer Elizabeth Gilbert gave a Ted Talk about the environment of working in a creative field. She recalls that when she first told people she wanted to be a writer, they always met her with a fear-based reaction. Wondering if she will be okay, wondering if she was afraid of never succeeding. They were all nervous for her. And, that fear is real. She explains that her father was a chemical engineer. And, not once did anyone approached her father and say “are you afraid of being a chemical engineer? Are you afraid you’ll die penniless without ever being known? Do you have chemical engineers block?” We install fear into our cultures creative fields, leaving me wondering, is it the creative field of work that is actually scary or the way society looks at that field of work that leaves me fearful that I will never succeed.
When I first read, “One Art” I liked it. Liking it usually leads me to think about memorizing it – then memorizing it, and then learning more about the poet. I had to take a break from painting to go do the family thing two weeks ago. The whole time I was gone I was internally freaking out that, upon return to my studio, I will have lost the ability to paint. The whole time I held that feeling, simmering inside of me, I didn’t mention it to anyone, but carried it on my shoulders everywhere I went. I know that worry doesn’t get you anywhere, and I know that losing the ability to do my job sounds dramatic, but this has happened so many times before – and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And, of course, when I returned to my studio after the dreaded break – I had lost it – the ability to paint. The following days were agony. I couldn’t stop thinking about painting, how badly I was painting, to the point where I was dreaming about it. Parts of the landscape that I was particularly sucking at kept flashing before my eyes, keeping me up at night. Visions of what went wrong in the studio that day, and how I can fix it were bombarding me in my bed. In my mind I would take my palette knife, cutting away parts of the highlights in certain clouds, seeing what I really wanted to create, instead of what was sitting on my easel in the studio while I lay in bed.
Finally, I painted a painting that I didn’t hate (which in the world of painting means it might be pretty good). Upon re-reading “One Art” I appreciated Elizabeth Bishop’s observation about losing something more than I ever had before. Which may go something like- everyone is accustomed to losing things. We lose things every day, insignificant items – that can be easily replaced, or loved ones – that we may never see again. And, this poem distinguishes between the two. Preparing yourself to lose is an art amongst its own. It takes observation and practice to master. And, loss may help you appreciate when what was lost returns, and that experience may help you distinguish between insignificant losses and permanent losses -as well as how to keep your wits about you in between. And, although in the poem Elizabeth has been discussing with us how one can deal with loss, and that loss is not a disaster, at the end of the poem she admits to the reader, she is still trying to cope with a loss of her own. Her experience with loss, revealed in the last line of the poem, makes the poem that much more authentic, because she truly understands what loss can do to someone. My husband kept assuring me that, it will come back – you will be able to paint again. It was not a disaster.
If you’ve read the poem, you’ll understand that we all need to, “accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent” so that we can better prepare ourselves for future losses, the bigger ones. If you liked “One Art”, I may suggest googling Elizabeth Bishop to learn what she had lost in her lifetime. I am aware it may seem trivial to compare the weight of this poem to the weight of my belief that I’ve lost the ability to paint. Although, it truly is agony when that happens – it’s like I’ve lost the ability to breath. But, it’s back now. And, you should all read that poem.
Side Note: The Library of America is publishing a collections of Elizabeth’s work. They’ve only done this for nine other poets. Among them are Walt Whitman and Robert Frost. Bishop will be the first woman.
To watch a short video about Elizabeth Bishop, click this link to the PBS news hour – poetry. Elizabeth Bishop
To watch the Ted Talk with Elizabeth Gilbert, “your elusive creative genius” click, Elizabeth Gilbert
To see my new seascape oil paintings (the rebirth of painting after the dreaded break) visit, New England Landscape Painter