By Heart My koans One Art

By Hearting One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

Every assertion made in this poem is mendacious.
How do I know this? I know this because I have spent a week and a half easing the poem into my head and heart and it all adds up by not adding up.



I know this because when one has finally absorbed not just the words of the poem (“The art of losing isn’t hard to master”), but also its regular, though slightly “off” end-rhymes that both soothe and stall, balancing-unbalancing the ear (master…faster… last,or….vaster….gesture) you know.

And when you know, the poem becomes even more glorious. Glorious because the un-mastering Bishop, the I’m-not-really-OK that sits kvetching in every blithe logical-mastering-positivism, strikes to the very heart of the piece and to human nature itself.

One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

The final proof spills out in that last parenthetical outburst “(Write it!)”, as if language itself has finally refused to have the wool pulled over it’s eyes and lies. It’s also at this point in the poem that the ten/eleven syllable regularity unravels into twelve syllables and four lines. The poem can no longer contain its own platitudes.

Which is dynamite. More powerful than a thousand scarified you-broke-my-heart-and-left-me-for-nowt songs and poems about loss. Even very good ones, like this one.

These are the fruits of “formal poetry”, I guess. Just being able to hold that level of emotional nitroglcerine steeped in multivalent word-play{{1}} [A] in one tiny package [B]. And then, needing only the blasting cap [C] of a reading or a by-hearting to detonate this universe of meaningful innerverse.

I think I first learnt about the notion of the “unreliable narrator” at the age of sixteen from my beloved O and A-Level English teacher Mr Baglow. I’m looking now to see if I might have used the term in my blog-post-sized essays I wrote on that neverending supply of A5 paper the comprehensive school system doled out to us – gratis (I didn’t)

One of things I loved about Mr Baglow is that he gave me so many ego-boosting A-grades. I needed those ego-boosting A-grades, don’t we all? My Andrew Marvell essay though got a B and this comment: “I’m glad you wrote this, Steven. It highlights elements of your writing that should be avoided in AN EXAMINATION answer (I’ll see you about this). If you’d written this as ‘just another piece of work’ I’d have given you an ‘A’ for humour and perception.” This, in a nutshell: the power and enduring influence of a caring teacher.

But I’ve grown bored with the idea since then. This poem reminds me of the psychological import of the unreliable narrator. Sometimes it’s just too painful to write, read, or listen to what the “reliable narrator” has to say. Often the reliable narrator sounds gauche or corny.

So let the unreliable narrator predicate and purport. Beneath the disingenuous bluster of “losing stuff is a doddle, my friends”, the wounded heart communicates what it needs us to hear.

I love the possible allusions to mothers and fathers in the poem, without saying anything declarative. “Practice losing farther”, she urges us. But said aloud, this could also be “practice losing father”. Bishop claims to have lost her mother’s “watch”, the timepiece, but also perhaps the care and vigilance, the selfless holding-in-mind that we expect from parents and which they are not always able to give us?

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