Being one of the most awarded American poets of her generation, Elizabeth Bishop was anything but prolific. A total of thirty-one years amounted to the intervals between her publications, each of which merited her a major literary award: from the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry to the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. In 2021, Meryl Streep transformed into Bishop in Sarah Ruhl’s virtual play, Dear Elizabeth, where she recited “One Art” with stately and poignant intensity.
Starting as an exhortation on the necessity of confronting the transitory nature of being, “One Art” reaches the opposite conclusion. What might sound like sarcasm, is actually nothing short of hysteria spawned from the inability to live in the world of replaceable ephemera; the world, where relationships, too, have an expiration date. We know that Maud Gonne was behind Yeats’s Second Troy and Vita Sackville-West behind Woolf’s Orlando, but the turn Bishop’s love life had taken a decade before her death has yet to cross into common knowledge. “One Art” not only gives us an insight into all her losses, but it tells the story of the loss that ended up not happening, a loss that the poem forestalled.
—I really hope I die first
Long after Bishop’s death, her readers became aqcuainted with the person behind the conveniently ungendered “you” of the villanelle’s last stanza. It was Alice Methfessel, a 27-year-old secretary Bishop had met during her professorship at Harvard. Bishop was 61 when they began living together, and their entire affair was saturated with the constant anticipation of its end. After the death of both correspondents, Bishop’s love letters were promulgated and “One Art” suddenly acquired a new color.
Even on the onset of their relationships, Bishop was petrified of what she perceived as inevitable disaster—Alice’s withdrawal. She wrote,
“I’ll have to see you going off with someone more suitable… You’ll be dying to get away & go skiing or swimming or love-making with your young man—I really hope I die first.”
These revelations were never meant to become public, and during the time when they were stored in Alice’s drawer, critics tried to make sense of “One Art” with speculations of Bishop’s past affair with a Brazilian architect, Lota de Macedo Soares. When, in fact, it was the threat of Methfessel’s absence, that inescapable loss of any May December relationships that fueled Bishop’s inspiration.
—Even losing you
Biographers often point out that Elizabeth Bishop was bludgeoned with losses from the very beginning, losing her father in infancy and her mother in early childhood. Then, losing Soares with whom she had lived for 15 years forced Bishop to leave her second homeland—South America—and one of the “three loved houses” mentioned in “One Art”. Loss, much like death, is something people are not designed to get used to, let alone, master. The extreme sadness that loss entails is a biological reaction to separation that is rooted in the evolutionary value of togetherness. On our own, we are less likely to survive and certainly less likely to reproduce. Since we feel loss so acutely, it seems that there should be a limit to how many losses one can handle, and for Bishop, losing Alice would have been one loss too many.
It wasn’t from the start that Bishop decided to sustain the sarcasm throughout the poem. The eleventh draft of “One Art,” just like all preceding ones, is less persistent in self-delusion and features the tweak in Bishop’s anaphora:
“My losses haven’t been too hard to master / with this exception (Say it!) this disaster.”
Her original intention was to isolate this particular loss—the loss of Alice—as the one impossible to master, but the editing process turned “One Art” into a stubborn reiteration of one lie.
Writing was that one art that Bishop mastered. Writing was her escape, her path to glory, her means of attracting people. Soares was in love with Bishop’s writing way before they met, while Methfessel, after being engaged to a man during the time “One Art” was published, broke off her engagement and returned to Bishop. “Write it!” she concludes the poem and it is both a self-instruction to deal with loss in a therapeutic way—turning one’s pain into art—and an intent to fight the disaster with the only available to her weaponry—words. And it worked. Elizabeth and Alice maintained a romantic relationship up until Bishop’s death from a cerebral aneurysm in 1979.
In 2023, “One Art” still reaches out and grabs hold of some imminence in our lives, a fear that has no resolution and no cure. “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” Bishop tells us and even though we don’t believe her, we have to try anyway.
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