Saturday, October 15, 2016

Some thoughts on Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”

I’m remembering a moment in my past: I’ve told someone that I write poetry and in response she tells me, ‘Oh, I love poetry’. I’m taken aback. In my memory, the speaker of this perplexing statement is a young woman, fresh and glowing. I remember her distinctly, or at least I believe I do; I have so completely attached her statement to a memory of a particular physical person that she has become iconic. Other women and men have told me something similar, only perhaps not as directly. They have been less startling in their clarity, and perhaps because of that, my memory of their faces, the shapes and positions of their bodies has disappeared. I remember only that I have heard this same passionate declaration on several occasions.

Even in this very moment, her statement makes me wince: Has she read the same poetry I have? I wonder. Has she read postmodern poetry, the Language poets, for example? It seems unlikely. My own feelings about poetry are less definite. There is some poetry I love, some that I hate, and much that I dislike or am unmoved by. For me, the problem with this young woman’s professed love is that it’s generic. What I imagine she loves is an idea of how poetry should be, of how it should function in the world. She seems to me like any entranced lover who has projected her desire onto the impassive face of the unknown beloved. If I were to place her sense of poetry in a world of dualistic discourse it would be ‘good’ and therefore ‘at rest’ and ‘light’.

Such lovability, poetry’s lovability, seems entwined with the musicality of the lyric, whose function – because it is fuelled by eroticism – is to uplift, to present a world awash with beauty and optimism, even while lamenting love. Lyric poetry seems to eschew the dark side of life – those aspects that are attached to injury – and are found in cruelty, the impulse to hurt others or the self – or it uses these darker impulses as a plaything, a rhetorical device to enlarge its stance and throw its imagination of love into high relief. 

Consider Shakespeare’s many cleverly framed sonnets, some playful and others philosophical, even mystical, such as Sonnet 53 with its collision of metaphysical and modern viewpoints in which multiple perceptions of those who surround his beloved become images or ‘shadows’, or death-like shades, and the lover the locus of some intangible but dark substance:

What is your substance, whereof are you made, 
That millions of strange shadows on you tend? 
Since everyone hath every one, one shade, 
And you, but one, can every shadow lend. (93)

The use of sonic lyricism to lighten sorrow or pain is also found in Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’, her well-known poem on a lost love. For the reader, her wit and careful use of the villanelle form mediate the pain that she feels over that loss. Besides the sounds that soothe, the formal techniques of irony and a complex traditional structure of rhyme require and suggest intellectual detachment, which in turn competes with the emotional chaos intrinsic to deep loss. The lines may be laced with ache but the self-consciousness of the piece as art suggests that the pain is managed, converted into a rhetorical device. There is something almost insouciant in the overall metaphor, the repetitions of the third line of the last stanza and the repetitions throughout the poem. In the last stanza the irony is kept on the side of sorrow only by the parenthetical remarks, which break into the rhythmic expectations of the lines by their implied sotto voce:

– 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. 
(Poems, Prose, and Letters 166 )

In her book, American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms, Mutlu Blasing comments on ‘One Art’, suggesting that the poem, which depends on repetition, is linked to loss because of its formal need to devise distinctions within words that are the same. Every word contains within it, Blasing remarks, shapes of Otherness:
Writing and losing are one art because the formal repetition of loss, which promises mastery, simultaneously finalizes disaster: ‘(Write it!) like disaster.’ Repetition duplicates and divides, both masters and loses, and thus makes for ‘disaster.’ The division-by-duplication of the ‘aster’ is the ill star that governs poets. (112)
As seductive as Blasing’s idea is, it doesn’t address poetic forms that use repetition and its potential for shifting lexical meaning into humour and play, such as limerick and children’s nursery rhymes. Nor does it address current linguistic theory, such as that described by Michael Arbib in How the Brain Got Language, which posits that recursion (168–169), which is the structural repetition used to create complex syntax, is intrinsic to all language grammar – poetry or prose, Indo-European or Hmong-Mien – and that repetition is a feature of the neurological basis of learning and the development of language. What the success of Bishop’s poem’s emotional tenor depends on, I believe, is not the lyric form or repetition but the reader’s experience of loss in love, which allows for a shared emotional experience – a sympathy for the pain of lost love and the seeming impossibility of assuaging the grief caused by that loss. 

This is not to say that a reader needs to have experienced the exact same kind of love that Bishop has lost, but rather needs to have known the loss of something loved – an experience than can be written into much more removed incidents, such as a child’s despair over the loss of his pink blanket when his mother temporarily confiscates and condemns that blanket to the laundry. Our childhoods – and life in general – give us a thorough enough understanding of potentially dire situations, especially when they are placed relatively on the spectrum of experience. That is to say we have the imaginative capability of extrapolating painful moments. Form, also, mediates the reader’s experience. For example, I find Bishop’s poem cold and unfeeling because of her form. Other’s would disagree on both the effect of form and its influence the reader’s empathy. Neither stance can be denied by the other, really. What I believe is accurate in Blasing’s implied understanding of poetry is not about the effects of form but rather that the poet is most often engaged with and compelled by darker emotions, and that loss is primary among them.