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October 2018

Drafts of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”

October 23, 2018

Ever since I first read Bishop’s “One Art,” I’ve suggested that the villanelle form be retired, like a star basketball player’s jersey. That’s my way of saying that her poem feels like such a perfect mesh of form and content, how could anyone write a compelling one in its wake? I can’t read it–to myself or in a class–without choking at the end. The tension between the emotions and the form’s restraint exactly balances the two. There is great grief but no self-pity, no blame (except of herself), and nothing that makes me feel as if I’ve intruded on something too private, despite the powerful emotions.

The poem is a perfect translation of personal experience into art, and the result is so seamless it never occurred to me that there was any intermediate stage until the drafts were published in Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, edited by Alice Quinn. The first draft is the most surprising, closer to notes than to a poem, and full of all the ranting and whining that are so beautifully left out of the last draft. By the second draft, she starts to work with elements of the form, and it begins to take shape as a poem. I’d read discussions of the drafts, but never all the drafts themselves, because they appear in the book as typescript with indecipherable handwritten changes. But last year I came across an essay online that prints them all legibly and also discusses them in thoughtful and interesting ways. It’s from a blog I want to point you to, bluedragonfly10. The writer uses only her first name, Beth. The blog began in 2007 and continued until 2013, with nothing since. Beth is a writer, artist, and teacher, lived or lives in Colorado, and is incredibly smart about literature. Her essay on Bishop’s drafts is the best thing I’ve read on them, and the only complete printed versions I’ve found so far. (I’d be interested to know if there are others.) I highly recommend you read around in her entries–I’ve just started myself, and they’re fascinating.

Here’s the first draft of “One Art,” followed by the final version. You can find everything in between in the bluedragonfly10 blog post. Seeing the process gives me hope, and makes me more willing to write the bad stuff on the way to the better stuff.


One might begin by losing one’s reading glasses
oh 2 or 3 times a day–or one’s favorite pen.

The thing to do is to begin by “mislaying.”
Mostly, one begins by “mislaying”:
–these are almost too easy to be mentioned,
and “mislaying” means that they usually turn up
in the most obvious place, although when one
is making progress, the places grow more unlikely
–This is by way of introduction.
I really want to introduce myself–I am such a
fantastically good at losing things
I think everyone shd. profit from my experiences.

You may find it hard to believe, but I have actually lost
I mean lost, and forever two whole houses,
one a very big one. A third house, also big, is
at present, I think, “mislaid”–but
Maybe it’s lost too. I won’t know for sure for some time.
I have lost one long [crossed out] peninsula and one island.
I have lost–it can never be has never been found–
a small-sized town on that same island.
I’ve lost smaller bits of geography, like
a splendid beach, and a good-sized bay.
Two whole cities, two of the
world’s biggest cities (two of the most beautiful
although that’s beside the point)
A piece of one continent–
and one entire continent. All gone, gone forever and ever.

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
But it doesn’t seem to have, at all…the hands looked
the fine hands<

a good piece of one continent
and another continent–the whole damned thing!
He who loseth his life, etc…–but he who
loses his love–never, no never never never again–

And the final version:


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.