16 April 2009

Elizabeth Bishop - One Art

Elizabeth Bishop's poetry was not in the curriculum when I was taking my undergraduate degree. Except for her friendship with Robert Lowell, I remained ignorant of her until I read
Breathless, by Louise DeSalvo, a memoir of her own struggles with asthma, and an examination of how asthma affected herself and several literary figures.

I was fascinated, in a purely selfish way, since I am asthmatic, and I know how enervating the disease can be. What I had not thought about, until I read DeSalvo's book, was how the disease can affect the rhythms of one's creativity and art. If writing is like breathing, an asthmatic's phrases may be as acute and self-absorbed as one's precarious breath.

One of the ways DeSalvo began to cope with her extreme sensitivity to her asthma triggers was to rethink the pleasures she was forced to curtail. Eating in a restaurant, for example, became difficult when she never knew when someone's perfume, or a whiff of smoke would cause a fit of coughing and breathlessness. She and her husband learned to cook wonderful meals at home - creamy risottos, for example - and to enjoy the small actions of preparing a meal: chopping, rinsing, seasoning. She learned to focus on details that can enabled joy, and strengthened the close observation of her life -- and the subjects of her writing, her art.

So, too with Elizabeth Bishop, whose writing now enables my own joy, and my own sense of proportion.

One Art
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.


amy said...

That poem is one of my favorites.

Anonymous said...

That's so interesting. I'm asthmatic too. I'd never thought of how it could affect a writer, particularly a poet.

avisannschild said...

This sounds like an interesting book. Have you read DeSalvo's other memoir, Vertigo? I highly recommend it. I love love love that poem by Elizabeth Bishop! (I was already familiar with it.)

By the way, pop by my blog; I've given you an award!

Jennifer said...

What a thought filled poem, very good for meditating on.

Denise~ said...

Thanks for introducing me to Bishop and DeSavlo!

KSD said...


Paula said...

Perfect! Just what I needed today to pass along to my Sister!