Book Review: Poet Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art,” Complete Poems 1927-1979

By, Afua Serwah Osei-Bonsu

Poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote in “One Art,” a compelling poem where within the 19- line villanelle, she described loss or lost.  She utilized the form and instances of alliteration and assonance to embed or bury in the poem coded items such as beauty lost, or love lost or in the end how all life is lost.  Lost may be all these little codes, where like Shakespeare, the piece is full of pockets.  Alliteration and Assonance enable you to accent not only a word, but an idea.   Bishop’s use of alliteration and assonance enables one to hide or build within a piece a greater meaning. Close reading and un-coding, begins to unveil for the reader a dynamic structure. 

The poem is structured as ABA CBA ABA DBA ABA EBA A.  Villanelles are typically 19 lines, two rhymes throughout, five tercets, a quatrain, 1st, and 3rd tercet recurring and both repeated in the closing quatrain.    Line three demonstrates assonance with consonant sounds of “lost and loss.”  Line 7 demonstrates assonance with “farther and faster.”  Line 10 demonstrates alliteration, “look and last.” Line 13 demonstrates alliteration with “lost and lovely.” From this juncture it becomes evident that life may indicate a loss of beauty and a sub poem forms where not only sounds are illustrated but ideas are accented, and one may gather all the accents to form a sub theme. 

The poem ends with a quatrain and the end repetition, “though it may look like (write it!) like disaster.” I wondered at first, if it was about aging and even about losing one’s memory or having a kind of dementia. I think it is intended as a classic burial ground, typical of English sonnets and poets like Shakespeare.  It may reflect on the deep despair one experiences at the loss of their beauty when aging. It buries within itself this idea of loss or losing or now completely lost.  Loss and lost are played upon in the poem. 

I am not certain why it has title “One Art.” Perhaps it is to demonstrate the inherent power available in poetry or within the villanelle structure.  Perhaps it is to demonstrate how aging can be an art form as well.  Ms. Bishop wrote a wonderful and classic poem that showed off the villanelle structure.  Its imagery was that of curling tongues with the word lovely. The words master and disaster are played upon, which may suggest another kind of imagery of flux and out of control versus order and control.

Works Cited:

Bishop, Elizabeth, “One Art,” Complete Poems 1927-1979, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979

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