Elizabeth Bishop would not have liked to be included on a list of lesbian poets. Or women poets, for that matter — she declined invitations (even from Adrienne Rich) to have her work appear in a collection of women poets. “Why not Men’s Poets in English,” she protested, “Don’t you see how silly it is?”
I admire Bishop for this very reason: her resistance to sentimentality. Along with Rich, she refused to join what she called the “School of Anguish,” her epithet for the Confessional Poets who made art out of the raw materials of personal pain. But unlike Rich, Bishop didn’t retrieve her poetry from watery depths, preferring to keep desire at a calculated distance. There’s an airy chill to her poems, though occasionally she goes electric. Bishop, it goes without saying, was an Aquarius.
Bishop’s biography is filled cohabitation and separation, lost loves and locales. For however much she bristled at identifying as a lesbian, she was, at minimum, a serial U-Hauler. She traveled from Europe to Key West with unfaithful heiress Louise Crane. She lived seventeen years with modernist architect Lota de Macedo Soares, who died by suicide. Leaving Brazil for Harvard, she fell in love again at fifty-nine with the twenty-seven year old Alice Methfessel, who left her, briefly, to marry a man, or perhaps to escape Bishop’s drinking towards death. Before Alice came back to her, she worried the loss like a stone in her palm, and drafted and drafted a poem:
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.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—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.
The poem itself is chiseled, the cuts going deeper as it goes down. It’s a stone that wants fingertips tracing its grooves, but it cannot feel the touch.
“One Art” is a villanelle, a fixed form of poetry wherein the first and third lines are repeated alternately throughout the poem until they both appear in the last two lines, which you may otherwise recognize from the telly. Her first draft was in free verse, but she must have found that form helped her build boundaries around her despair so that it wouldn’t overwhelm her, or anyone reading. Even in the last two stanzas, when she gets down to losing her lover, her pain needs extra punctuation: a dash to suggest it’s all an afterthought, and two sets of parentheses, one to hold everything she wants to remember of her lover, and another to contain the exigency that commands her to have written the poem to begin with.
Bishop wrote seventeen drafts of this poem, so that’s one hundred and thirty six iterations of master and disaster. The losses pile up in a life, and each time you survive them, you have proven to yourself you can withstand more. Losing’s not too hard to master because you simply go on, until you meet your last disaster.
I think of my girlfriend, an Aquarius. We have an air sign love and are accustomed to losing things: metrocards, keys, favorite shirts, friends, coastlines, our cool. We’re moving in together, and soon I’ll lose an apartment, a neighborhood, the borough I wanted to live in my whole life. I’ve lost, like Elizabeth, lovers that I knew wouldn’t last, cities that I knew weren’t meant to be mine. I’ve comforted myself: “So many things seem filled with the intent/ to be lost that their loss is no disaster,” that line break after “intent” assuring me that it was in them all along to be lost. But it occurs to me that, when I move out, it will be the first time I leave a place with more than I had than when I arrived.
Alice went back to Elizabeth. Losing isn’t our one art. We must write that, too.