Elizabeth Dodd on "One Art"
"One Art" is Bishop's one example of a villanelle, a form she admired and tried to work with for years. It is widely considered a splendid achievement of the villanelle. . . . Loss is its subject, but the poem begins almost trivially. The first line, casual and disarming, returns throughout the poem. The natural-sounding contraction helps to create the semblance of real speech even within this complex form, and the details and examples that follow immediately do not, indeed, seem like great losses. Door keys, a wasted hour, even forgotten names certainly do not warrant the term consistently invoked by the rhyme: "disaster." But the poem builds, until "cities" and "realms" -- of great import to this geographically inclined poet implied by this and all her books -- have been lost.
Not until the final quatrain, bringing the villanelle to the completion of its required form, does the real occasion of the poem appear. Here the loss is very personal, a person, "you." Yet the details and attributes here too are muted. Only parenthetically does Bishop reveal the importance of the you: "(the joking voice, a gesture / I love)," yet love is evident through the speaker's difficulty in revealing herself. There is a slight change, too, in the refrain line: "the art of losing's not too hard to master," qualifying that original assertion that loss "isn't hard to master." And in the final line the speaker must even exhort herself to complete the rhyme – (Write it!) -- since disaster looms very large indeed. Yes, says the poem, this is a great loss, which I am still working to master. After the suicide of Macedo Soares, Bishop returned to the United States, and so the loss of lands and love compound one another. At least in part, "One Art" is a deeply felt elegy, but Bishop uses both a strict and difficult form and a casual, conversational tone to hush the emotional intensity. In this fine poem, her attempt to mute serves also to heighten the poignancy.