The Art of Losing: Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

Patricia Adelman

27 October 2004

BRLSI Member (referred to in text as PA)

The talk began with a brief biography of a poet who is perhaps less known in this country than she deserves, (J.C-J. could only find a handful of her poems in several anthologies) as follows.

Elizabeth Bishop was born in Massachusetts in 1911. After the death of her father before she was a year old, her mother suffered a series of mental breakdowns, and a few years later entered an asylum. Elizabeth was never to see her again. She spent a year with her maternal grandparents in Great Village, Nova Scotia, where she found, in her own words, ‘warmth, acceptance and un-self-consciousness.’ She was then claimed by her father’s wealthier parents, in Worcester, Mass. Here she was far from happy, feeling she had been ‘kidnapped’ and suffering the first attacks of the bronchitis, asthma and eczema which were to affect her throughout her life. A second move brought her to the Boston home of a maternal aunt, from which she could return to Great Village for summer vacations. Her health improved, but she was left with a lifelong sense of loss and insecurity. At Vassar, she majored in English Literature, including 16th and 17th century, and modern poetry. She sang in the choir, and although never a church-goer, she loved hymns, especially George Herbert’s poems.

Her life was devoted to poetry, travel and friendships of all kinds. Of the latter, the poet Marianne Moore had a great effect on the development of her poetry; and Lota de Costello de Macedo de Soares with whom she lived for twenty years - by far the longest settled period she was to know - gave her emotional sustenance and stability. Travel was a major theme in much of her poetry and, significantly, each of her collections bears a geographical name, although the poems are on a range of subjects. A substantial number are translations from French, Spanish and Portuguese.

Alongside her writing, Bishop taught Creative Writing, mainly in American universities, although this was never a comfortable experience. She had doubts about poetry as a subject for formal learning, and suffered from lack of confidence in herself as a teacher. She was meticulous and highly critical of her own work, taking many years and many drafts to complete a poem, which accounts for her relatively small output. Much of her writing, including all her prose, was only published after her death. Nevertheless, her public success was formidable, with numerous prizes including four Guggenheim Fellowships, the Pulitzer Prize and the International Prize for Literature.

Eclectic in style, form and content, her poems can take time to know and understand. They show a remarkable observation of the minutiae of whatever environment she happened to inhabit, and are to a greater or lesser extent metaphoric of her life and are described by Seamus Heaney as, ‘indirectly stated grief.’ Heaney also notes her ‘gift of observation that is more than mere watching.’ This has been accounted for both by her childhood trauma and by, to quote her biographer, Brett Millier, ‘the direction it was to lead her, forcing her to take nothing for granted, to see meaning beyond the obvious, and to be meticulous about her work, this resulting in the kind of creative honesty that allowed her to leave in a poem a corrective statement for all to read.’ 1

Several poems were then studied, by being displayed on the OHP, and read aloud, either by PA or by volunteers, and in two cases, on tape by Bishop herself. Audience comment on the poems was quiet, but appreciative.

In ‘Questions of Travel’ Bishop, albeit the great traveller, debates the use of going from place to place to see things:

What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life

in our bodies, we are determined to rush

to see the sun the other way around?

But she puts the other view too, ‘It would have been a pity/not to have seen the trees along this road . . .’ - with many other sights and sounds, evocatively described.

‘One Art’, quoted below in full, and which PA read before playing EB’s reading on tape, gives the title for this talk from the line repeated throughout. The poem explores loss with irony, and an attempt at stoic acceptance, but with inescapable sadness. The repetitions which are part of the form (villanelle) are used to emphasise the understated, controlled emotion.

The art of losing is not 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, 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.

Elizabeth Bishop’s voice, on tape, was surprisingly light, and unemphatic - with a slight breathlessness, perhaps the result of her asthma. In some poems, a smile could be heard in the voice, but her reading of ‘One Art’ was full of feeling. Apparently there were 17 drafts of this poem. (The villanelle is technically a difficult form. Many students at creative writing classes attempt one - and can master the technicalities, but it is much harder to achieve a fine poem, and not a mere exercise J.C-J.)

Finally, PA and two volunteers read the long poem, ‘The Moose’ (evoking in one member of the audience her experience of moose-accidents in rural Canada and North America) which took Bishop twenty years to write to her satisfaction. It tells with humour, affection, and exact description, of a long bus journey in Nova Scotia. Sleep and quiet gossip at the back of the bus are interrupted when a moose walks out of the woods. The bus stops while passengers gaze at the huge beast - which gazes at them.

Taking her time,

she looks the bus over,

grand, otherworldly.

Why, why do we feel

(we all feel) this sweet

sensation of joy?

It is impossible to capture fully the effect of these readings, but the audience left feeling they knew more of a fine poet who is rather under-appreciated - at least on this side of the Atlantic.

Janet Cunliffe-Jones

1 Brett Millier, Elizabeth Bishop, life & the memory of it.