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“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop Essay

Can one ever practice losing enough to master it? Is it possible to become a master at losing such as an artist can become a master painter, writer, or sculptor? The speaker in the poem “One Art” presents this question and provides an answer.

The poem is an illustration of a common human affliction–grief and regret caused by the loss of another human. Through the use of value progression and the interweaving of denotative and connotative meaning, the speaker shows that no matter how much a person tries to prepare for the loss of one he or she loves, grief and regret are inevitable.

By comparing the phrase “the art of losing isn’t hard to master” with the frequently used word “disaster,” the meaning begins to take shape. This phrase is used four times in this nineteen-line poem (lines 1, 6, 12, 18). Considered closely with the word “disaster,” also used four times, one sees the speaker is making a point of rhyming the words master and disaster to emphasize the denotative point that many losses are not disasters–they can be accepted without grief or regret (3, 9, 15, 19). Yet the phrase “the art of losing…” throws a connotative meaning into the mix by indicating that losing, an uncontrollable event, can be a learned skill. Taken together, the phrase coupled with the word “disaster” provides foreshadowing to the paradox of trying to prepare to lose a person.

The Oxford English Dictionary can shed light onto this interweaving of denotative and connotative meaning.

Art

1. Skill in doing anything as the result of knowledge and practice.

Human skill as an agent, human workmanship. Opposed to nature.

2. An industrial pursuit or employment of a skilled nature; a craft…

Losing

1. The action of LOSE. Perdition, destruction; the being lost or … to be in process of being lost.

2. The fact of losing (something specified or contextually implied). The being deprived of, or the failure to …

Denotatively the phrase “the art of losing” means that a person has acquired skill in being deprived of something or someone. This is directly opposed to nature; in other words, it is not natural for humans to have the skills of losing.

The poem illustrates this process of acquisition of skill through value progression in the second though fifth stanzas of the poem. The speaker describes instances of losing beginning with the insignificant and working toward the significant. He or she maintains that by “practic[ing] losing farther, losing faster” the art of losing will be mastered, therefore it will not bring disaster. Yet, in the last stanza the connotative meaning becomes clear.

The final stanza is the only one to have four lines instead of three, which places particular significance upon its message. The final sentence is the key to the connotative meaning of the poem “It’s evident the art of losing’s not too hard to master though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster” (line 17b-19). Due to the speaker’s need to tell him or herself to “Write it!,” the connotative meaning of the poem shows that the speaker has been trying to convince him or herself without success that a master loser will avoid the disaster of grief and regret associated with the loss of a loved one. By combining the denotative and connotative meanings, the universal meaning of the poem becomes clear–it is impossible to acquire skills, no matter how much you practice, that will prevent the natural result of grief and regret when someone is lost.

In the value progression of loss shown in stanzas one through five, the speaker is trying to convince him or herself that developing the necessary skills can protect one against major grief and/or regret. It is in the last stanza that the desperateness of the speaker to convince him or herself that it is possible to accomplish this becomes clear. This is where the paradox begins. The speaker is still unconvinced that it is not a disaster to lose a person regardless of the preparation other previous losses may have provided.

Stanza one sets the stage of the value progression of loss. It is here that the speaker states what he or she wants to prove. “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” (line 1-3). This is the thesis statement of the poem, but instead of proving it true the speaker ends up proving it false. The key idea is that if something intends to be lost then their loss will not cause regret once a person has become a master of losing.

The last stanza, particularly the last sentence of the poem, shows the paradox between the thesis and the connotative meaning–humans cannot prepare for the loss of a person. “–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident the art to losing’s not to hard to master though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster” (lines 16-19). The old idiom “if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and looks like a duck; it must be a duck” aptly applies to the last sentence here.

If it walks like a disaster, talks like a disaster, and looks like a disaster; it must be a disaster. The speaker even has to force him or herself to write the word disaster as evidenced by the parenthetical phrase “(Write it!)” which indicates that the speaker wants to believe that “even losing you” isn’t hard to master, yet he or she cannot quite convince him or herself that it is true. In actuality, the loss of a loved person is a disaster because the very act of love requires an attachment that when severed will inescapably cause pain. The OED has this denotative meaning for love:

That disposition or state of feeling with regard to a person which (arising from recognition of attractive qualities, from instincts of natural relationship, or from sympathy) manifests itself in solicitude for the welfare of the object, and usually also in delight in his or her presence and desire for his or her approval; warm affection, attachment.

Connotatively love carries the concept that its removal will not be positive, for anytime a person whom one is solicitous of is removed from one’s life; his or her absence will leave a negative affect, in other words, pain will result.

The poem “One Art” effectively uses connotative meaning, denotative meaning and value progression to present a paradox of human nature–the desire to find a way to avoid the pain of losing a loved person. This is a universal truth that crosses cultural and temporal boundaries for all of human kind.

This essay adheres to the formalism approach to critical analysis by focusing solely upon the text to derive meaning. It analysis the poem’s use of value progression, meaning of words and phrases both connotatively and denotatively. It shows how the thesis is made into a paradox by the last stanza, which in the end provides the ultimate meaning of the poem. The formalist approach has its strength in that it takes a text at face value forcing the analyzer to think for him or herself without commentary from others.

But formalism disregards the author’s mindset at the time of writing as well as the effects it may have emotionally upon the readers. In my opinion, this is a major drawback particularly in regards to the poem “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. This poem seems to come from the heart–the soul–of the author. It would have been interesting and meaningful to know what she may have been dealing with at the time she wrote it. But regardless of Bishop’s mindset, the readers’ reaction has a major impact upon the meaning of the poem. Several friends of mine read this poem. The impact upon all of them was, to say the least, profound. Anyone who reads it has either experience a long-term loss of a person such as long-term illness resulting in death or can empathize with the concept. I think that formalism, by removing the emotional element of the reader, greatly diminishes the power of the poem.


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