There’s a certain staleness that literary analysis/criticism acquires in the early years of education—I remember, in high school, thinking that writing essays was such a dull task. If “creative writing” (poetry, fiction) was freedom, then literary analysis essays were the handcuffs. I don’t think the five-paragraph drill helped in lessening the apathy.
But, no longer! The change came as a wholly unexpected thing—perhaps as a result of the classes I’ve taken, the books I’ve read, the professors I’ve met—but there has been a shift in the air. This past semester, I’ve realized that the structure of essays does not need to be strictly formulaic in order to work well. Rather, there can be a certain flexibility and elegance to the process, an elegance only achieved after embarrassing drafts and relentless practice. In each essay, there is a soft spot, a hidden area of the unknown. I think that spot is where the writer’s voice shines brightest. Within that little area, imagination can run wild among the harvested fields (the close readings) and drift along the river (the thesis)—nothing is left out of reach of the possible.
I’ve also finished reading Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet, which is itself a shining example of literary criticism. Carson references Plato’s Phaedrus: “Socrates conceives of wisdom as something alive, a ‘living breathing word.'” This is a tricky thing to embed in written text, especially literary analysis, which is essentially dead written words about a dead written work. But I like to think that literary analysis is also gifted with the ability to breathe life back into text: it is a conversation between minds, an exploration of microcosms and brave new worlds, a reach back into history to assemble a space for voices to sound, a space for those voices to continue echoing gently into the distance.
Nowadays, when I write fiction and poetry, it’s less so with the ambition of creating a polished, finished product and more so with a desire to feel the thrill of creation. Literary analysis and criticism, though? I’ve been doing it for years (granted, poorly at first), yet I have only begun to probe the surface. There’s so much space to learn and grow. There are so many intricate complexities to explore, each offering a taste of more life, more answers, and enough questions to last beyond lifetimes.
Construction and Deconstruction in One Art
Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, One Art, unfolds deliberately like a paper fortune teller with a hidden message, ready to instill a catch in one’s throat. It is a poem about loss, but it is also a poem that is afraid to confront loss. Although tightly woven in form, this little villanelle reveals glimpses of instability, specifically regarding the speaker’s psyche. The poem is a simultaneous act of construction and deconstruction: line by line, as the poem unfolds, we bear witness to the collapse of the speaker’s emotional architecture. At the same time, the speaker attempts to create a world where loss is an art, only to find that that world has its limits. The revelation at the end, then, is that the poem redefines “loss” as not only the process of losing something or someone, but also as a process of accumulation, of collecting and re-organizing the heaviness of experience. It is within the liminal space of poetry that one can understand how the speaker, through an attempt to create an art out of losing things, ends up deconstructing and re-contextualizing herself to confront a significant loss.
The opening phrase, “the art of losing,” implies a practice. “To master” an art can only be achieved through steadfast repetition and work. Indeed, the word “art,” though nowadays commonly associated with that of the visual and expressive type, denotes a certain technical proficiency and skill in doing something as a result of continual practice (OED.com). But why the art of losing? It is rather odd to talk about loss in the context of practice: practice implies the addition of something, whether it is a collection of experience or an accumulation of skill. Loss, conversely, implies subtraction from one’s life. Already, there is a tension in this attempt to turn “losing” into a building of skill and technique.
Such is the tone set by the first line, and from the start, the poem is stripped of a particular emotional luster: the speaker sounds detached and somewhat didactic, expressing a matter-of-fact attitude, especially in the following lines: “so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” There is an an air of indifference, and the speaker affirms that things will disappear at some point—it is to be expected. That expectation is taken a step further in the phrase “filled with intent,” which implies the potential of construction within the space of loss. In the next stanza, the art of losing is reduced to a quotidian task: “Lose something every day.” Thus begins the practice. Here also emerges an interesting feature: the formation of the poem runs concurrently with the speaker’s explanation of the art of losing. As the speaker builds a case for the “art,” a literal “art” is being created before the eyes of the reader. The form of a poem emerges, one word after another. This relationship between content and form allows the speaker to appear as though she is constructing something. Therefore, the art, or practice, that the speaker introduces isn’t simply an accumulation of skill in losing things—it is also an act of creation out of loss.
However, there is a peculiar quality to the construction of this practice within the space of the poem. In the third stanza, the speaker instructs, “Then practice losing farther, losing faster: / places, and names, and where it was you meant / to travel. None of these will bring disaster.” What’s significant about this is that there is no consequence involved. Spatially, none of it is real (i.e. not physically present in the speaker’s immediate physical space). The “places” and “names” all exist in the mind, in imagination, and so naturally, none of it “will bring disaster,” because imagination, in and of itself, has no consequence. This allows the speaker to distance herself both in presence and in emotion from these things.
Even when the speaker introduces the “I” perspective, there is considerable restraint in showing any sign of personal sentiment. No sooner after confessing, “I lost my mother’s watch,” the speaker interrupts herself with an exclamatory “And look!” It is as if the speaker doesn’t allow herself time to linger on the mother’s watch and simply presses on with the examples. Following that, the speaker says, “My last, or / next-to-last, of three loved houses went.” What’s odd about this line is the use of the word “houses”—the speaker opts for an impersonal description, rather than a more emotionally layered word such as “homes.” There is something being repressed on the speaker’s part, and later we find that this repression is the key to unlocking the deconstruction of the speaker’s emotional architecture.
The only substantial hint of personal sentiment, up until the last stanza, is when the speaker says “I miss them,” referring to the “realms” once owned. But even this is unconvincing and seems offhand with a “but it wasn’t a disaster” tacked on afterwards. The “realms” and “continents” are so removed in scale that it’s difficult to understand how an ordinary person would miss them. Unless, of course, the speaker is imagining herself on a larger scale as a ruler or an all-powerful figure. Perhaps the speaker tries to take control of the situation by amplifying this practice of loss into an act of creation at its greatest potential, on the scale of rulers and sovereigns. “Cities” and “rivers” and a “continent” are difficult to lose in a single day. These possessions would take weeks, months, years, to slip out of one’s grasp, and the temporal expansion brings to mind the acts of divinities, perhaps even of a God-like being (because losing a few cities and rivers wouldn’t be so terrible in the grand scheme of things). Naturally, the space of writing and poetry allows for the construction of these imaginings. This also hearkens back to the first line of the third stanza, which says, “practice losing farther, losing faster,” as if that advice was intended not only for the reader, but also for the speaker. However, the speaker’s attempt at assimilating this perspective of grand-scale creation is not strong enough to uphold the true weight of the poem. With what follows, we are faced with an inevitable collapse—
—and at last, we arrive at the heart of the matter. The speaker hesitates. A single dash, like a breath caught in midair, punctuates the beginning of the final stanza before words begin to fill the silence: “Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture / I love) I shan’t have lied.” How strange, and how heartbreaking, it is that speaker can only confront her own loss after talking of cities and continents. In a way, though, it is still an expression of expansion: the “you” is greater in meaning than a city or a continent. This “you” character is also enough to shake the speaker’s once-consistent voice. Repeated lines and phrases are changed, such as “the art of losing’s not too hard to master”—the addition of the “too” adds a note of uncertainty. In the last line, it is as if the speaker struggles to complete the poem: “though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” The stuttering “like”s and the interruption of a self-encouraging “(Write it!)” both emphasize the speaker’s wavering belief. It is possible that the art of losing “may” actually appear to be a disaster.
Additionally, the “you” and the “I” are physically separated by a caesura in parentheses, and a spotlight is cast upon the subjects: why insert an interlude between the two? Perhaps the speaker, in mastering the art of losing, must first separate herself from the “you” character. This suggests that loss is about redefining oneself in the context of what’s no longer there. One must deconstruct the self and all of its associations in order to cope with loss: it is like disassembling a machine to figure out how to get it running again without a certain part. Through the first five stanzas, the speaker tries to show that even though certain things are no longer present, it is no matter—there is no fear of losing one’s identity. But the last stanza hints that the speaker has not quite figured out how to re-contextualize herself without the “you.” Thus, it is only through the creation and construction of this long, winding list of detached, withdrawn losses that the speaker can steadily build enough repressive energy to break down her own emotional barriers. In other words, the speaker had to go through the course of this construction, to concoct this “art of losing” in her mind in order to arrive, ultimately, at the heart of the matter. The significance of this journey, then, is that it remains within a fixed poetic form (the villanelle) that offers something rigid for the speaker to try to organize a reaction to an insurmountable emotion, and that, in turn, allows the reader to witness, within the containment of the poem, a deconstruction and a revealing of something deeply intimate.
Loss, aside from any metaphorical sense, is a physical subtraction. In terms of one’s own experience, loss becomes addition. Someone may lose a pair of keys or even a house, but when those physical objects are subtracted from that person’s life, what replaces them is the consequence of dealing with those losses. Unfortunately, the repercussions are often messy, unbearable, and disorienting. Especially losing a person: the gestures and physicalities of the body no longer exist, save for in memory, and that absence translates into burden. The feat of this poem, then, is that it provides a structure for meaning to be organized in the aftermath of loss, even if it ends with the confession that, inevitably, we are gracefully broken by the absence of what once was.