Thursday, October 22, 2009

Midterm Essay

English 30C: Contemporary American Literature

Midterm Prompt

Perform a “close reading” of the poem on which you presented in class—“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. Develop the reading from the text, not a biographical reading. Look at the syntax, word choice, punctuation, rhyme, and rhythm (i.e. Form of the poem) in your reading. Also account for the ironic tensions set up in the poem and its tone. Does the poem unify or balance the tensions? You must use one other text we have read in class to contextualize and support your reading.


T.S. Eliot might have been afraid of his emotions—“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but a escape from personality”—but it helped him to write his commandment to new American poets about depersonalization in poetry. As an American poet, Elizabeth Bishop was no doubt aware of this manifesto and puts into words this revolutionary notion. In “One Art”, Bishop tells the story of loss, ranging from small and miniscule things to vast continents to her own personal voice and ability to joke about tragedy. Bishop’s work, although seemingly very personal, possesses a universal way of relating to others about loss, and succeeds in conveying what T.S. Eliot described in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” as significant emotion—that is “emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet”. The only way one can achieve such a thing, Eliot claimed, is to turn away from actual emotion and to depersonalize the poet from the poem. Bishop understood Eliot, in that the poem she wrote is all about the loss one experiences, and how this can be likened to the loss one experiences when creating art.

If the “Art of Losing” is taken to literally mean the “Act of Writing”, because of the loss of personality when writing poetry, it makes sense with Eliot’s dictum about the nature of the poet: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality” (1008). However, and this serves to counter Eliot’s statement as well as to relieve an ironic tension in Bishop’s work: Writing is a way of recapturing or regaining the loss, because it places the loss onto page, and reverses it. The loss is now immortal, and can never be lost. The “mother’s watch”, the “two cities”, and “vaster realms” will now be remembered whenever the poem is read. This is Bishop’s intention when, on the very last line, she quite abruptly tells the reader—or herself—almost as an urgent aside, to “Write it!” and not to forget it.

Another ironic tension throughout the poem is the tone. At first glance, it is a melancholy look back on the fleetingness of life and life’s possessions. A somber reminiscing of all things that are inevitably lost, “the mother’s watch” and other relics of people that serve as physical memories, “door keys” or other opportunities lost, and “you” which can be the reader, the actual poet herself, or a third party. However, an inkling of a sardonic tone permeates the poem with word choices such as this: “And look! My last or next-to-last, of three loved houses went.” She quips that the “art of losing isn’t hard to master”, which embodies the joking tone about the process of writing. In the last stanza, her acknowledgement of the loss of her “joking voice, a gesture I love” sets up an irony that creates a new tension—Bishop is talking about the loss of her personality in her poetry, in the same way Eliot has commanded, but the poem is actually filled with her joking voice. It is a contradictory move, but it proves that, although Bishop has a respect for Eliot’s work, she is also her own person with an individual identity who can break some rules. Ironically, this is what Eliot wants in new poets anyway—to continue the tradition of non-tradition: “the business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all.”

The understatement of tragedy suggests that there is no real significance in the loss, even though there obviously is. Bishop’s main goal here is to assuage any deep remorseful feelings connected to loss, because the loss is always bound to occur—but she is losing the ability to joke about disaster. By the end of the poem, she admits what she believes to be her flaw, and this is the same flaw within Eliot’s statement of depersonalization—that the art of losing (personality and emotion) “isn’t too hard to master”—which means it actually is, to a degree, a disaster. A certain detachment is required to be a poet and Bishop is commenting on the fact that it is indeed disastrous and heartless, but she is also aware of the fact that her craft requires the loss—she has already lost things, so this is her appeal and apology. Her inclusion of the statement “though it may look like like disaster” serves to further separate herself from the tragedy, it is a thrice removed simile, which is another strategy of depersonalizing oneself from ones poem.

Bishop was clearly aware of Eliot’s instruction that poets must be aware of those who are dead, in a traditional context of that which is already living, however, she was also able to finish Eliot’s declaration and to continue the statement into the future. Bishop’s use of the future perfect tense in the last stanza: “Even losing you…I shan’t have lied”, shows her awareness of the present’s context in the future, the way that future historians will look at our present as the past. It is in this sense that Bishop, and all great writers and poets, are predictors of the future that have an awareness of “what is already living”, and are able to make poetic statements about what will be regarded as true and as part of the tradition. The future belongs to the poet.

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