May 19, 2011


Does he looks as if he's lost something?
It’s been a while since I’ve ranted about a poem’s obligation to offer gifts along its way to completeness. So, for a couple of days, I’m going to offer only chunks of Elizabeth Bishop’s deservedly famous and masterful villanelle, “One Art,” in the hope of demonstrating that this is a poet who earned her time on earth—not just with one poem, but with individual lines and stanzas. On the third day or fourth day, I’ll provide a link to the whole poem (as if you can’t find it on your own—but try to restrain yourself).

First, let’s remember just how difficult the villanelle is as a form. It’s a French invention, comprising five three-line stanzas (tercets) and a concluding quatrain.  In those 19 lines, there are only two rhyming sounds, which occur in a pattern of aba five times, followed by abaa in the quatrain.  Mind you, that’s not just a first and third line rhyming in each tercet, but the same a and the same b sounds throughout.

As if that’s not enough, Line 1 is repeated (verbatim or nearly so) in lines 6, 12, and 18, while Line 3 is repeated in lines 9, 15, and 19. 

By comparison, the Shakespearean sonnet, a rigid form in its own right, permits seven—SEVEN!—rhyming sounds: abab cdcd efef gg.   Viewed beside a villanelle, it’s a downright flabby hippie of self-indulgence and ought to be ashamed of its lack of discipline. 

Redwing: Lost in the Branches?

And one more thing! Speaking of people who might be mistaken for self-indulgent hippies, Dylan Thomas in the famous “Do Not Go Gentle” and Theodore Roethke in “The Waking” go still further and impose a rather chanting iambic pentameter upon their admirable villanelles. Bishop's iambics in “One Art,” are less emphatic and thus might seem more natural, conversational. The poem contains more variations upon the iambs, and most of its a-rhymes are feminine (that is, their final syllable is unstressed—the “er” in “master” and “disaster,” for example).

The inner nuns, the ascetic souls in these three poets are alive and well, bent on self-flagellation and various other forms of abuse (even as they perform good works for the rest of us hooligans).

So here is Bishop’s opening stanza in “One Art,” in which she commands my attention, astonishment, and admiration. After completing the first tercet, or just the first line, the poem is hers to . . . lose (no pun intended).

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.

Bishop’s labeling of losing as an art is well on its way to being a poem in itself. Also, the almost good-natured, self-effacing, chatty tone—the tone that personifies and accuses “things” of having the “intent/to be lost”—almost holds its own against the dark weight of “losing,” “lost,” “loss” and “disaster.” Almost . . . . 

We hear her irony, her almost light-hearted invitation to us, along with the (perhaps) blithe accusation of herself. However, we also hear the poem's potential for turning grave any minute, if it hasn’t already.

Note also the enjambment (unpunctuated running on) between lines 2 and 3; things are filled with "the intent" . . .  and we pause slightly for the end of a line.

Wait! What intent? We have to go on to Line 3 to be answered, to hear the (suddenly?) ominous "to be lost." It's little-big situations (tricks?) like this that push me to insist that good poems are as suspenseful as mystery novels when we take the correct, patient approach.

So, what's coming in the poem, do you think?  Next post, the second tercet, maybe more if I'm convinced you're hungry by then.



Brenda's Arizona said...

Oh man, you took my thunder away. I once wrote a love letter to a boyfriend, and it defined the verse form.
Terza Rima...
Spenserian Stanza...

I met the guy in Dr. Battle's English class (college). He ditched class the day Dr. Battle led us in stanza analysis. Most serious, most lascivious. Most lovely.

I got a good grade and dumped the guy. Kept the love letter. Still love the letter.

Banjo52 said...

Lascivious stanza analysis! Bravo, Dr. Battle! Love letters that define verse forms? Brava, Brenda!

But the guy dumps the course and you dump the guy. Sounds like a dumping pattern. A dumping motif?

Nice word play on love in your conclusion, Brenda. I think you should devote a whole post or more to a lengthier narrative about this romance.

Lovers' Lane