Kevin’s Much-Loved Poems: “One Art,” “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and “Driven by Love”

This is one of a series of columns that feature a much-loved poem, and a couple of other poems that speak to, or resonate with, that poem. This week’s primary poem is “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop, written in 1975. The other poems are perhaps the most famous villanelle ever written, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas, and a poem of mine in tercets, “Driven by Love.”

I’m re-writing this column as I’m reading Michael Sledge’s “The More I Owe You,” which “novelizes” a trip of Elizabeth Bishop’s to Brazil. Of the novel, the NY Times says, “Novels about poets — imaginary gardens with real toads in them — inevitably trigger comparisons between the invented poet’s language and that of the real poet, usually to the novel’s disadvantage. Exceptions are rare: Pat Barker’s Siegfried Sassoon, Penelope Fitzgerald’s Novalis, David Malouf’s Ovid are characters who speak authoritatively in voices we accept — and so, to a large extent, does Sledge’s Bishop.”

Of Bishop, The Poetry Foundation states, “During her lifetime, poet Elizabeth Bishop was a respected yet somewhat obscure figure in the world of American literature. Since her death in 1979, however, her reputation has grown to the point that many critics, like Larry Rohter in the New York Times, have referred to her as ‘one of the most important American poets’ of the twentieth century.”

As I searched for a video of Elizabeth reading “One Art,” I came upon this hour-long video of her poetry life: Extended Video on Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry The video ends with this poem, so you may want to move the slider at the bottom to 53:40, where the poem starts, although I found the entire video worthwhile.

One Art” is a poem that follows an exacting French form—it’s a Villanelle.

Bishop’s is not an easy poem because it contains self-contradiction—the poem seems to fight with itself. At some level, I read it as a eulogy to the “you” in the poem, Lota de Macedo Soares. “One Art” seems to conflate losing and writing, mastery and disaster, and small losses—trivialities—with larger losses, growing to envelop the loss of the love of one’s life.

That a poet who seldom wrote in proscribed forms could bring all this conflating together in a villanelle, a nineteen-line poetic form consisting of five tercets followed by a quatrain, infuses the poem with a mythic quality. The form requires two refrains and two repeating rhymes, with the first and third line of the first tercet repeated alternately until the last stanza, which includes both repeated lines, all of which Elizabeth used to great effect.

She interrupts the last quatrain with an unexpected parenthetical rejoinder, “(Write it!)” which, for me, adds to the poem’s sense of immediacy, complexity, and art.

One Art

Elizabeth Bishop

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.

 

The notes that represent the first draft of this poem show how much can be gained by diligent work through sixteen or seventeen drafts. Here’s the link to an article on her drafts, “One Art: The Writing of Loss in Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetry”: An Essay on Earlier Drafts of “One Art”

The article states, “The poem in its original state is all over the page emotionally. It took fifteen more drafts for Bishop to arrive at the understated tone she needed to give the poem power.”

For example, the first draft was tentatively titled “HOW TO LOSE THINGS,” (caps hers) then “THE GIFT OF LOSING THINGS” and finally, “THE ART OF LOSING THINGS.” While these earlier titles would help ease the reader into the poem, the final title, which seems to have been arrived at very late, consolidates the poem’s multiple themes and ideas, suggesting they are all—writing and all the various forms of losing things, from the banal to those of dramatic significance—of a whole.

***

The first poem I’ll include with Bishop’s is by Dylan Thomas, 19141953. Written twenty years before “One Art,” I it is perhaps the most famous Villanelle ever written.

Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

***

I’m painfully aware that the poem of my own that I include here falls far short of Bishop’s magnificent art and form, and of Dylan Thomas’s as well. However, my poem’s’ theme is nearly identical to Bishop’s. I had initially written it when I had been through an experience that echoed the loss of the “you” in Bishop’s poem, Lota de Macedo Soares, who was lost to suicide.

Driven by Love

Kevin Arnold

Perhaps one love is like another when it ends:
only the one who wanted it to last
understands what was at stake.

At least once you must have lived in that lovesick daze
and glanced up to see someone who looked
almost exactly like the lover who had scorned you,

and didn’t you jump up from your table just to make sure,
and run full-tilt wherever this phantom took you,
driven by adrenaline, driven by hope?

And when, panting, you overtook this stranger,
what did you do then?  Were you apologetic,
did you say, “Sorry, I mistook you . . . ,”

or did you find the righteous power of the jilted lover
and set things straight right then and there,
describing the monstrous treatment you’d received,

you, who could have made it all work!  Did you seize the moment
and tell the tale in that wonderful, out-of-control,
desperate way that we only get to perform a few times

in real life, standing squarely at center stage for once,
stating, of all the people on this planet,
you are one of the handful driven by love?

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