"One Art," by Elizabeth Bishop

June 18, 2021

Oh this is sort of fun—a close reading of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.”  But it is a tepid analysis of a great poem, missing some obvious things.


First of all, let’s allow that it’s not a great reading, seeming to circle around the sink-drain of biographical reductionism, which EB would have probably found dispiriting.  It basically then drops that theme to look at the technicalities of the poem, leaving the biographical uncomfortably hovering in the background for the rest of the piece.

And then, the exegetical murders began.

What does “mastery and disaster are woven together and can’t easily be disentangled” even mean? Overly general; disaster isn't necessarily woven with mastery. Mastery may face disaster, maybe it always does; but why not say that?  B-minus stuff, a sophomoric lunge for profundity. Harrumph.

Otherwise, on the granular mechanics of the poem, the analysis is not very interesting.  It approaches recognizing the snowballing semantic densities of “disaster,” as it trundles through the stanzas, but it doesn’t quite get there.

The piece fails to see the way that examples of "lost things" are both concrete and yet also abstract, able to be inhabited by different readers in different ways.  Keys, cities, continents--we all can have them.  Also "you"s.  And finally it fails to see how the form itself is interrupted by (anticipatory?) grief.

(Note here: the poem is _entirely_ open to the idea that the loss has not happened yet, that it is addressed to the "you" who WILL be lost.  This is totally obscured by the biographical reductionism they flirt with at the beginning. I'll get back to this.)

This last, most important fact--the interruptive structure of the final stanza--is central to the title of the poem itself, which the authors loosely gesture at but about which they have nothing solid to say.  It’s not quite about the entanglement of disaster and mastery, but about the human struggle between comprehension and grief, and how they are, finally, one art, a human art, maybe the only "art" we have. 

The final stanza is, again, exemplary here.  The villanelle is among the most tightly-woven of poetic nets; the final stanza is supposed to bring it all together, cinching all the other lines taut in a dazzling display of skill.  In general, poems are often about one thing, while seeking to be available for their many readers; the villanelle as a form often (though not always) represents the melancholic repetitions of grief while still exhibiting our transcendence of the grief by our capacity to make of it a kind of beautiful and communicable artifact, crystalline in its symmetries and structures of sound and time.  But whatever its putative topic, it is about understanding, comprehension, our transcendence of the droning force of the immanent, and the possibility of communicable beauty amidst the scandal of particularity.

It is good that they notice the way the parentheticals in the last stanza interrupt, just as the stanza’s inaugural dash interrupts, what is supposed to be among the “tightest” of structures.  But they miss the point: The interruptions are a kind of staggering to the finish line, that leaves (to my mind) wholly indeterminate the possibility not only (1) that the loss may NOT be disaster (she's written it!) but also that the loss hasn't even happened yet.

This is the point of the "shan't", which is indeed a word that calls attention to itself rather dramatically, in its preciousness.  Even in EB's generation, who says "shan't"?  They say the import of the word is in its weakness: it is "a paltry attempt at keeping up appearances, holding things together."  This is a sad (paltry?) example of eisegesis, of finding what you want in the text, and nothing besides.

Read the poem with "won't" instead of "shan't," and you see the way that "shan't" is actually more semantically dense, more metaphysically and psychologically ambivalent, more terrifying.  

What does "shan't" literally mean?  It is a contraction, of "shall not."  So, the line is--"even losing you, I shall not have lied."  What the "shall" signifies is possibility--it may be in the future, or it may be in the present.  But it is possible.  Not inevitable.  But real.

Real?  Yes, in the way possibility lurks in quasi-existence.  I am tempted to say, melodramatically: Possibility is more ominous, and vertigo-inducing, than the real.  As another Elizabeth, Elizabeth Anscombe, once wrote, "possibility is the destruction of contentment."  "Shan't" is not braggadocio, it is disquietingly perilous.  Readers notice the italicized "Write it!" but skip over the "shan't."  They shouldn't.  Nor should pros at the NYTimes.

In short, this piece is better at saying than showing, which is true of a lot of NYTimes book stuff these days.  I suppose I should just be glad that they reminded us all of Bishop and her poem.  And I am.  You should be too, for the poem.