Brett C. Millier: On The Drafts "One Art"

. . . There is no doubt that the crisis behind this poem was the apparent loss to Bishop of Alice Methfessel, the companion, caretaker, secretary, and great love of the last eight years of her life. Although its method is the description of the accumulation of losses in the poet's life, its occasion is the loss of Alice.

"One Art" is an exercise in the art of losing, a rehearsal of the things we tell ourselves in order to keep going, a apeech in a brave voice that cracks once in the final version and cracked even more in the early drafts. The finished poem may be the best modern example of a villanelle and shares with its nearest competitor, Theodore Roethke's justly famous "The Waking"—"I wake to sleep and take my waking slow"—the feeling that in the course of writing or saying the poem the poet is giving herself a lesson, in waking, in losing. Bishop's lines share her ironic tips for learning to lose and to live with loss.

[Millier quotes the poem]

More than once in the drafts of Bishop's published poems, one finds that she came to express in the final draft nearly the opposite of what she started out to say. As Barbara Page (1981-82) has pointed out, for example, in the seven available drafts of her poem "Questions of Travel," Bishop develops the key line of the final stanza from an early "The choice perhaps is not great . . . but fairly free" (box 31, folder 436, VC) to its final "The choice is never wide and never free," as the poet comes to realize restrictions that bind the traveler by articulating them in the poem (CP, pp. 55-57). The very late poem "Santarém," which describes from an eighteen-year distance a stop on Bishop's 1960 trip down the Amazon River, offers a similar development. In the final version of that poem, Bishop describes the confluence of "two great rivers," the Tapajos and the Amazon, and remembers that she was enchanted by this coming together. The last lines of the central stanza read in the final draft:

                    Even if one were tempted to literary interpretations such as: life/death, right/wrong, male/female --such notions would have resolved, dissolved, straight off in that watery, dazzling dialectic. (CP, p. 185)

The earliest drafts of this poem (box 31, folder 470, VC) show that Bishop was at first concerned, in trying to articulate the emotion she felt in seeing the conflux of two great rivers, with choosing between them, between the literary interpretations she dismisses in the final version. The poem originally evaluated, as "Questions of Travel" had, the traveler's possibility for "choice"; the resolution the conflux first offered was the chance to decide: "Choice—a choice! That evening one might choose," she wrote in the first draft. In the final draft, even the idea of choice has disappeared and the place offers only resolution, as the poet lets go of her need to choose.

Something similar occurs within the seventeen available drafts of "One Art" (box 30, folder 456, VC). Bishop conceived the poem as a villanelle from the start, and the play of "twos" within it—two rivers, two cities, the lost lover means not being "two" any more—suggests that the two-rhyme villanelle is a form appropriate to the content. Bishop told an interviewer that after years of trying to write in that form, the poem just came to her. "I couldn't believe it—it was like writing a letter" (Spires 1981, p. 64). A letter with seventeen drafts, perhaps. The poem does seem to have been written over a period of about two weeks—ending on 4 November 1975—much shorter than her usual period of composition.

The first extant draft is a series of partly worked-up notes, apparently a basis for developing the rhymes and refrains of the final version. Its overall thematic shape is familiar in the final poem, with the evidence of the speaker's experience at losing followed by a somewhat strained application of that experience. In its unedited catalog of losses, it is heartbreaking to read.

The draft is tentatively titled "HOW TO LOSE THINGS," then "THE GIFT OF LOSING THINGS" and finally, "THE ART OF LOSING THINGS." (The title "One Art" appears to have been arrived at very late in the process.) This draft begins with the suggestion that the way to acquire this art is to "begin by mislaying" several items that remain in the final draft—keys, pens, glasses. Then she says,

--This is by way of introduction. I really want to introduce myself—I am such a fantastic lly good at losing things I think everyone shd. profit from my experiences.

She then lists her qualifications: "You may find it hard to believe, but I have actually lost / I mean lost, and forever, two whole houses." Among her other losses: "A third house, . . . / I think, 'mislaid' . . . / . . . I won't know for sure for some time,"

one peninsula and one island. . . . a small-sized town . . . and many smaller bits of geography or scenery a splendid beach, and a good-sized bay. . . .

a good piece of one continent and another continent—the whole damned thing!

In the end, she writes:

One might think this would have prepared me for losing one average-sized—not especially exceptionally beautiful or dazzlingly intelligent person (except for blue eyes) (only the eyes were exceptionally                                   beautiful and the hands looked                                   intelligent) the fine hands But it doesn't seem to have, at all. . .

The draft trails off with "He who loseth his life, etc.—but he who / loses his love—neever, no never never never again—."

In Elizabeth's handwriting in the margins of this typed draft are notations about possible rhymes for the villanelle, including "ever/never/forever," "geography/scenery," and a version of her final choice, involving "intelligent" "continent," "sent," "spent," and "lent." This catalog served to set the terms for working into the form. By the second draft, the poem is an incomplete villanelle with "The art of losing isn't hard to master" as the first line, and the "no disaster" play in the third line. The final stanza is crossed out, although legible under the scoring is "But your loss spelt disaster." The marginalia, handwritten like the draft, consist of more work on rhyme and suggest other directions in which Bishop might have taken the poem. One set—"gesture," "protester," "attestor," "foster," "boaster"—suggests a possible angry, almost litigious response to loss, and the words evident and false are set to one side of the scribbled-over final stanza, ready to be worked in.

The following drafts work mostly on the first four stanzas, whittling the catalog of losses into a discreet and resonant form and setting the rhyme scheme firmly. It is not until the fifth draft, which consists othe wise of a simple list of end-rhymes, that Bishop once again breaks her controlled tone in the final stanza. Here the original refrain is dutifully repeated, but the poetic frame, for a moment, won't bear the emotional weight:

The art of losing's not so hard to master But won’t help in think of that disaster No—I am lying—

This transformation of the "false"/"evident" play into "lying" is Bishop's first major change aimed at solving to her logical, emotional, and aesthetic satisfaction the problem of how the experience of losing car keys, houses, and continents could apply in handling this truly, as she perceived it now, disastrous loss. In the sixth draft, the final stanza reads: "The art of losing's not so hard to master / until that point & then it / fails & is disaster—." The poem bogs down here; the seventh draft stops short of the final stanza, and the eighth is sketchy, with such lines as "losses nobody can master" and "the art of losing's not impossible to master / It won't work . . ."—most of which are crossed out.

It appears that some time passed between the eighth and ninth drafts, for all of the later attempts are typed and contain completed versions of all six stanzas. In the ninth draft Bishop develops in the last stanza a more complete version of the "lying" theme:

All that I write is false, it's evident The art of losing isn't hard to master. oh no. anythng at all anything but one's love. (Say it: disaster.)

The formalized spontaneity of "(Say it: disaster.)" enables the poem to accommodate the overflow of emotion that had, to this point, disarrayed the final stanza and made the villanelle's ritual repetitions inadequate to manage the emotional content. Bishop was fond of this technique of self-interruption or self-revision in a poem. She learned it from Gerard Manley Hopkins and from Baroque sermon writers and spoke of it as "portraying the mind in action" ("The Baroque Style in Prose," box 27, folder 395, VC).

The next version of the final stanza begins with the first real exploration of possible code words that might stand for "you," a phrase or aspect that would bring the lover wholly into the poem. The line is: "But, losing you (eyes of the Azure Aster)"—recalling the "remarkable" blue eyes of the first draft. This awkward and self-consciously poetic phrase would hang in through several drafts, until both its awkwardness and Bishop's need to generalize caused her to discard it for the more discreet and more melodious "gesture," which had been haunting the edges of the final stanza in the previous few drafts. Here, in the tenth, the idea is still that "I've written lies above" (which she has crossed out in pencil, with "above's all lies" written in) and "the art of losing isn't hard to master / with one exception. (Say it.) That's disaster." In draft eleven, the final stanza is reworked five times and the last line becomes, as Bishop had written and crossed out in the previous draft, "with one exception. (Write it.) Write 'disaster.'" Here both words in the phrase write it are italicized, as they would be until the poem was collected in Geography III—a slight but significant alteration of tone. The change in her means of affirmation or validation from "say it" to "write it" is the crux that, once solved, let the poem speak its curiously independent truth.

For midway through the twelfth draft, quite abruptly, "above's all lies" becomes "above's not lies" and then "I haven't lied above." And yet, still, "The art of losing wasn't hard to master / with this exception (Write it!) this disaster." This draft reworks the last stanza four tortured times and clearly wavers on whether or not "above's all lies," and on whether this loss is an example or an exception. Versions of both feelings are tried and crossed out and even the parenthetical outburst, "write it," alternates with "oh isn't it?" a disaster. What remains is the idea that whatever the brave speech or the possibilities for mastery, this loss still looks like disaster.

The thirteenth draft is the last that thoroughly reworks the final stanza, and it is at this point that the "gesture" becomes a "special voice," then a "funny voice," and finally the "joking voice." There are two tentative versions of the ending. First:

And losing you now (a special voice, a gesture) Doesn’t mean I’ve lied. It’s evident the loss of love is possible to master, even if this looks like (Write it!) like disaster.

And, mostly crossed out,

In losing you I haven't lied above. It's evident . . . The loss of love is something one must master even if it looks like (Write it!) like disaster.

Firmly in place is the idea that this apparent disaster does not mean that losing cannot after all be mastered, even though when Bishop sat down to write the poem the first time, it must have seemed that it did.. In the fourteenth draft, the words "not too hard to master" indicate Bishop's approach to the final version—the colloquial tone is a trademark of her polished style. The fifteenth draft makes few changes in the poem—notably in line two "So many things seem really to be meant" to be lost becomes "so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost." The draft is typed and has an almost-finished version of the final stanza—though handwritten notes show Bishop still struggling with how to express the "above's not lies" idea—"these were not lies" is the typed version; the handwritten notes offer "I still do can't lie" and "I still won't lie." The draft that Frank Bidart has seems to be a cleanly typed carbon version of draft fifteen with changes dictated to Bidart over the telephone by Bishop. The two major changes are the "filled with the intent to be lost" change, and, as is not in the version labeled draft fifteen at Vassar, in the second line of the final stanza, "these were not lies" becomes the now seemingly inevitable "I shan't have lied." What is odd about this late change is that "I shan't have lied" is technically in the future perfect tense. The phrase retains the past-tense sense of "I haven't lied above"— referring to the list of mastered losses in the rest of the poem—yet also poses a possible resolution in the future: "after I come to terms with this loss, then I won't have lied, but right now I don't know." The most significant ramification of the change to "I shan't have lied" is that it reminds us forcefully that this poem is a crisis lyric in the truest sense—"Even losing you" comes to mean "Even if I lose you"—and we know that this is not emotion recollected in tranquility, but a live, as it were, moment of awful fear, with relief only a hoped-for possibility.

One way to read Bishop's modulation from "the loss of you is impossible to master" to something like "I may yet master this loss even though it looks like disaster" is that in the writing of such a disciplined, demanding poem ["(Write it!)"] lies a piece of the mastery of the loss. Working through each of her losses—from the bold, painful catalog of the first draft to the finely honed and privately meaningful final version—is a way to overcome them or, if not to overcome them, then to see the way in which one might possibly master oneself in the face of loss. It is all, perhaps, "one art"—elegy-writing, mastering loss, mastering grief, self-mastery. The losses in the poem are real: time, in the form of the "hour badly spent" and, more tellingly for the orphaned Elizabeth, "my mother's watch"; the lost houses, in Key West, Petrópolis and, the one still in doubt, Ouro Prêto, Brazil. The city of Rio de Janeiro and the whole South American continent were lost to her with Lota's suicide. And currently, in the fall of 1975, she thought she had lost her dearest friend and lover, she of the blue eyes and fine hands. Yet each version of the poem distanced the pain a little more, depersonalized it, moved it away from the tawdry self-pity and confession that Bishop disliked in many of her contemporaries. The effect of reading all these drafts together one often feels in reading the raw material of her poems and then the poems themselves: the tremendous selectivity of her method and her gift for forcing richness from minimal words. An example is how, in the first draft of "One Art," the lines "I am such a / fantastic lly good at losing things / I think everyone shd. profit from my experiences" introduce her list of qualifications. In the final version the two words "And look!" serve the same purpose.

Elizabeth's letters to her doctor, a brilliant woman then in her seventies, describe the despair of the fall of 1975. Elizabeth was sure that she had lost the last person on earth who loved her. The letters agonize over her prospect of a lonely old age, crowded with fans and students and hangers-on but empty of love. Out of this despair, apparently, came the villanelle "One Art." But my reading of the poem still wants to make it Bishop's elegy for her whole life, despite its obvious origins. Elizabeth apologized to her friends for the poem, saying "I'm afraid it's a sort of tear-jerker" (December 1975, PU)—she was clearly somewhat uncomfortable with even this careful approach to the confessional. It is well known that her friends remained for a long time protective of her personal reputation and unwilling to have her grouped among lesbian poets or even among the other great poets of her generation—Robert Lowell, Roethke, and John Berryman—as they self-destructed before their readers' eyes. Elizabeth herself taught them this reticence by keeping her private life very private indeed and by investing what confession there was in her poems deeply in objects and places, thus deflecting biographical inquiry. In the development of this poem, discretion is a poetic method and a part of a process of self-understanding, the seeing of a pattern in one's own life.

The poem arose from an immediate crisis, but Bishop's papers and correspondence reveal that its elements had been with her for a long time. Her letters to Frani Blough Muser reveal that the two teenaged, then college-aged, girls had a kind of running joke about losing things—a letter of 5 September 1929 (VC) includes the following lines, apparently written by the eighteen-year-old Bishop, parodying Longfellow:

Lives of great men will remind us We can mold life as we choose, And departing leave behind us Towels, safety pins and shoes.

A couple of years later, as Elizabeth contemplated a walking tour of Newfoundland, she had hopes of visiting the remote village of St. Anthony, "for after all, isn't St. Anthony the patron of lost articles?" (letter to Muser, 8 July 1932, VC). As it turned out, they couldn't get there; the village was "practically inaccessible." To Ilse and Kit Barker, Bishop wrote, referring to letters missing in the Brazilian mails, "I have a feeling some things have been lost in both directions—but now probably we'll never get it straightened out until all things are straightened out in eternity—at least that might be one way of filling up eternity, finding lost and mislaid articles" (6 October 1960, PU). More humorously, after the poem was published, Elizabeth temporarily lost her writing case in a Boston taxicab. To the Barkers she wrote, "Oh why did I ever write that cursed villanelle?" (28 August 1976, PU).

The joking voice, which people who knew both women tell me evokes its owner as surely as blue eyes would have done, is as well something that recurs in Elizabeth's life, that she loved in nearly all her friends and lovers, all the people whose loss had schooled her in the art of losing, and whose losses are implied in the catalog of "things" in the poem. A letter written to Anne Stevenson predicts the poem: "I have been very lucky in having had, most of my life, some witty friends,--and I mean real wit, quickness, wild fancies, remarks that make one cry with laughing. . . . The aunt I liked best was a very funny woman: most of my close friends have been funny people; Lota de Macedo Soares is funny. Pauline Hemingway (the 2nd Mrs. H.) a good friend until her death in 1951 was the wittiest person, man or woman, I've ever known. Marianne [Moore ] was very funny—[e.e.] Cummings, too, of course. Perhaps I need such people to cheer me up" (8 January 1964, WU).

The "joking voice," the gesture Elizabeth loved (and, in fact, employed), she loved in Alice, she had loved in Lota, she loved in these other friends dead and gone—the phrase brings them all into the poem. In Bishop's distillation of immediate crisis into enduring art, the lesson in losing becomes even more a lesson one learns over and over, throughout one's life. The tentative resolution offered in the poem was not, alas, a real one; Elizabeth struggled terribly with this loss for months afterward. Only the lost one's return solved it. The poem is a wish for resolution or a resolution in the sense of a determination to survive—"I will master this loss; I will."1 It is also a means of assessing the true magnitude of the present disaster in the middle of the crisis, a kind of "How bad is it?" question. And it explores the means of having one's loss and mastering it, too, which is the privilege of the elegist.


With exceptions as noted, all Elizabeth Bishop manuscripts quoted in this essay are among her papers at the Vassar College Library and are reproduced exactly as she left them. The collection holds seventeen drafts of "One Art," which Vassar has numbered.

1. The Oxford English Dictionary devotes several closely printed pages to the distinction between will and shall and reports, significantly, that "In the first person, shall has, from the early ME period, been the normal auxiliary for expressing mere futurity, without any adventitious notion a) of events conceived as independent of the speaker's volition. b) of voluntary action or its intended result. Further, I shall often expresses a determination in spite of opposition, and I shall not (colloq. I shan't) a peremptory refusal" (p. 152). 

From "Elusive Mastery: The Drafts of Elizabeth Bishop's 'One Art.'" The complete essay is available in New England Review (Winter 1990) and in Elizabeth Bishop: The Geography of Gender. Ed. Marilyn May Lombardi. Copyright © 1993 by University Press of Virginia.


Title Brett C. Millier: On The Drafts "One Art" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Brett C. Millier Criticism Target Elizabeth Bishop
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Elizabeth Bishop: The Geography of Gender
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