The Art of Losing

The modern poet Elizabeth Bishop begins her villanelle “One Art”: 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.

As Bishop notes, our lives are “filled with the intent” of loss. What I find curious about Bishop’s contention here is that she views loss as deliberate and purposeful, when I think we usually feel like it’s futile, unjust, or, indeed, disastrous.

I recently taught this poem in my intro poetry class. On an online discussion board I required the class to post to weekly, my students clung to this poem, which actually surprised me, as it was the poem I was least invested in for the week. But they offered provocative responses and helped me think more deeply about this work. It has stayed with me. One response that struck me, in fact, was a student’s contention that the poem is comforting. Oddly, I’d never considered that possibility. I’d perhaps too easily read Bishop’s lines as ironic, especially because the end of the poem seems to reify the idea that loss is a disaster when we are forced to come to terms with it:

“—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.”

That parenthetical note – the citational force of the memory of a lost love, “the joking voice, a gesture” – was, to me, absolutely heartbreaking. Who hasn’t experienced a moment where the smallest thing – a sound, a word, a place – reminds you, unwittingly, of a person you’ve lost? I read it as devastating intrusion. And yet maybe my student is profoundly right; maybe the comforting thing about the poem is precisely that loss is so universal. More than that, Bishop’s poem builds up to this ultimate loss. She enjoins us to “practice losing farther, losing faster” – from losing “keys” to “cities” to “continents” and then to that ineluctable, but now cruelly absent, “you.” She somehow helps to carefully and almost tenderly prime us for that final, most important of losses. She may even intimate earlier that this loss, no less than losing keys, is something we are made to contend with or, almost impossibly, to “accept.” Though we cannot truly “master” the “art” of losing (as she does drily notes) we learn to reconcile ourselves to it.

And we learn to reconcile ourselves to it – gradually, maybe uncomfortably – because “loss,” as Bishop portrays, is incontrovertible. That loss is not just a daily but a necessary experience is a truism, of course, but one delicately crafted in this poem. I don’t mean to suggest that loss isn’t devastating, but we might also imagine, as another student rightly pointed out, that our losses are only attenuated by our gains. Bishop’s own loss produces – (Write it!) – a poem. Formally, the last stanza of the villanelle form she employs (ironically in this case) gains a line [the first 5 stanzas are tercets, the final is a quatrain]. Figuratively but similarly, our own losses create new spaces, produce new situations, and grant us new understandings. Losses, then, are never finalized – they are merely matters of shifting perspective.

I’ve found myself generally contemplating the nature of loss lately. Perhaps, and like last year, as the semester comes to an end, I’m prone to reflection. It seems like I’ve been experiencing and am bracing myself for losses of all different magnitudes. I have to recognize, very, very fortunately, that my losses are not significant ones. Given my own past experiences and an awareness of ones outside my own life, I’m certain of that. But what I have begun to consider is that Bishop gets it exactly right: loss is always registered on a sliding scale. Everyone experiences losses from the most mundane to the most earth-shattering. Even then, however, we carry on, knowing that we can only continue to lose.

At the most trivial level, I recently lost a book. I realize this is an utterly insane thing to write about. But as I’ve been known to literally carry books in my coat pockets, this was startling. I’m sure I left it behind somewhere incidentally – on the T, at a coffee shop. Yet, I very rarely misplace things; admittedly, and I’m not proud of it, I have a tremendous need for control. I was (needlessly) frustrated with myself. But I started to realize that even this loss - trivial and inane as Bishop’s “keys” – might also have “intent.” I may be too eager to read significance into casual signs (English student here), but this exceptionally minor loss shifted my perspective. It was a small reminder to check in with my relentless urge for everything to be perfect all the time (easier said, of course, than done). I needed to remember that losing something, even a bit of control, isn’t always a “disaster.”

Building outward, I’m about to lose a stage in my academic/professional life. I have one more week of class – ever. The end of coursework certainly registers as loss, and I will sorely miss it. Still, I get to embark on an exciting new phase of the PhD journey in which I can really delve into my own literary interests. Simultaneously, I’m about to lose my first class at BU. Teaching my 18 students this semester has been incredible and I’m exceptionally sad to see it end. I knew after my experience at Drexel that I wanted to teach at the college level, but this semester has totally reanimated my passion for what I’ll (with any luck) get to continue to do for a long time. I’m absolutely going to miss my students, each with his or her unique personality, and I’m going to miss the sometimes frustrating but more often than not rewarding feeling I get from interacting with them, learning from them, and hopefully imparting something in turn. Certain classes and students stay with you. But I know, too, that I have more to learn as a teacher and that this loss paves the way for pedagogical improvement and, again, fresh perspective. Luckily, I have a whole new class and a fun new topic (basically, my dream course: contemporary TV meets gender/queer theory) awaiting me this fall. Every loss has its gain. I just have to deal with the transition.

Most significantly, though speaking abstractly, I’ve experienced interpersonal losses – that string of receding “yous” in my memory, as in everyone’s (those joking voices, those gestures that we come to intimately know and love). We are always losing people: colleagues, teachers, friends, parents, significant others, ones who got away. This is, of course, the cumulative effect of Bishop’s verse. We lose people in small ways and in large ones, sometimes piecemeal, sometimes (and often more devastatingly) all at once. I’ve been thinking especially about our contemporary age, one in which connections seem to be too readily created and sustained virtually, where new relationships build haphazardly and sometimes not at all. I think we’re becoming increasingly accustomed to easy losses. I feel, regrettably, like people have become more elusive and personal connections more transient. Sure, there are exceptions and you value and work hard for relationships that are important. But it often seems far easier to lose people than to keep them. And I know from recent conversations with friends that I’m not alone in this sense; at time in our lives when so many of my peers feel, appropriately, “lost,” we may find that these interpersonal losses begin to too rapidly accumulate. They demand, eventually, to be felt. Yet, Bishop is instructive, because she again reminds us that we were and are always going to lose people. In a way, she offers us warning - not that losses become easier but that we might come, through them, to better appreciate what is gone, what we have now, and what we stand to gain.

Perhaps, then, the truly difficult  art to “master” is not that of losing but of embracing loss and, by extension, more clearly recognizing both its definiteness and, ultimately and hopefully, its generative promise. It’s a counterintuitive conclusion, in some ways, to draw from this poem. But maybe that’s the thing: maybe Bishop teaches us, most of all and if anything, that if loss is certainty, we can only learn how to properly let go.