Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop and the Villanelle: What a very confining traditional form can do for a poem Air Date: October 24, 2009

“Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;/ and hermits are contented with their cells” are the first two lines of a sonnet by William Wordsworth. My Intro to Poetry students almost never realized at first that the poem is in praise of the sonnet form—that there is “solace” as he puts it, and a strong energy to be gained by holding the poem within a strict form.

But it’s not Wordsworth I want to talk about. It’s the poet Elizabeth Bishop, who lived from 1911-1979 and published only three books of poems in her lifetime, every poem virtually perfect, perfectly considered and crafted to make it be exactly what she wanted it to be.

The literary critic Randall Jarrell wrote that “all her poems have written underneath, ‘I have seen it’.” Jarrell was referring to Bishop’s talent for vivid description. I want to look at a first draft of a poem describing her personal losses, looking for a vivid way to do that.

She had a lot to write about—the early loss of her father, then her mother through mental illness, then her home in Boston when she moved to Nova Scotia to live with her grandparents, then later, the loss of her long-term relationship with Brazilian socialite and architect Lota de Macedo Soares, then Lota’s suicide—one could go on and on. As she begins to write, she’s turning the losses around, dealing with them ironically. Here’s the art of losing things. I’ll teach you how. She begins with the simple losses, but we find that instead, she really wants to introduce herself as an example of someone really good at losing things. The clunky lines at the end of the first stanza feel entirely self-indulgent, but are how most poems begin to take shape, spilling ourselves out, then posing as a person who has answers for others, based on personal experience. “I think everyone should profit from my experience” is her actual line.

Well, I’ll read one of the first drafts:


The only thing to do is to begin by “mislaying”: keys, reading-glasses, fountain pens these are almost too easy to be mentioned, and “mislaying” means that they usually turn up in the most obvious place, although when one is making progress, the places grow more unlikely –This is by way of introduction. I really want to introduce myself—I am such a fantastic lly good at losing things I think everyone shd. profit from my experiences. You may find it hard to believe, but I have actually lost I mean lost, and forever, two whole houses, one a very big one. A third house, also big, is at present, I think, “mislaid” –but maybe it’s lost, too. I won’t know for sure for some time. I have lost one peninsula and one island. . . . a small-sized town on that same island. I’ve lost many smaller bits of geography or scenery a splendid beach, and a good-sized bay. Two whole cities, two of the world’s biggest cities (two of the most beautiful although that’s beside the point) a good piece of one continent and another continent—the whole damned thing!

In the end, she writes:

One might think this would have prepared me for losing one average-sized—not especially exceptionally beautiful or dazzlingly intelligent person (except for blue eyes) (only the eyes were exceptionally beautiful and the hands looked intelligent) the fine hands But it doesn’t seem to have, at all. . .

The draft trails off with “He who loseth his life, etc.—but he who / loses his love—neever, no never never never again—.”

She continues, like a diary. Dear diary, I’ve lost these two houses and I may yet lose another one. I’m not sure yet. She’s lost also a peninsula and an island. Now she’s off in her private world, feeling sorry for herself. We don’t know about the peninsula and the island. Nor do we know about the town. And how does all of this help us to profit from her experience? Then she turns to the smaller bits of geography she’s lost. The beach, the bay, and two beautiful cities. When she says in parenthesis that they’re two of the most beautiful, and tells us that’s beside the point, well, it is in a way. When she says “all gone, gone forever and ever” we don’t really care. The poem at this point is a personal feeling that hasn’t turned outward yet into art. It’s still more like a journal than a poem.

The line endings seem arbitrary, the movement of the poem forward seems arbitrary.

We don’t have the drafts between this supposedly first one and the final villanelle, but in a way, we don’t need them to see what’s happened to the poem, and how her choice of the villanelle form shifted the sense of the poem. The villanelle—an Italian form—has 19 lines and 5 stanzas. Each has three lines except for the last, which has 4. The lines rhyme in an aba pattern, so that there are only three rhymes available throughout the poem. And, to make it worse, the first line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the second and fourth stanza. Then the third line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the third and fifth stanza—kind of a braiding. Then the two refrain lines follow each other to become the second-to-last and the last lines of the poem. Complicated! And hard to write.

One Art

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.

Ah, perfect for the subject. Hard to write, hard to do. So Bishop ironically uses this difficult form to tell us that losing isn’t a hard thing to master. But ha! of course it’s terribly hard, as is the form.

She begins as she had at first, with the easiest losses, the little things—keys, hours badly spent—they all seemed to want to be lost. She’s still talking to us, her readers, but she’s come up with a plan, now—to build up, telling us how to work up from dealing with the small losses to the large ones. She’s keeping her focus on telling us. She doesn’t come into the poem until the fourth stanza, her losing her mother’s watch. Look at the difference in how she tells us about the loss of the houses.

I said that the first draft was more like a diary. Notice in the final version how she’s still in it, actually in it more forcefully and obviously than she was in the draft, but the control of the form mirrors perfectly the control she’s trying to hold over her grief over what she’s lost. When she gets to the end—she’s been steadily building up the seriousness of the losses—the real pain comes out, the loss of “you.” It may look like disaster, she says, but it can be mastered. Even writing the word disaster is hard.

Here’s a poem that’s become much more deeply personal. It’s not hiding behind a teacherly voice; it’s not hiding at all. The pain is all out there, (the joking voice, a gesture/ I love). But even that part is in parentheses! The speaker is not going to let herself pour out onto the page. She’s remaining controlled even here, where the loss strikes home. And the control makes us feel much more deeply.

“After great pain, a formal feeling comes” is the first line of one of Emily Dickinson’s poems. It’s often true that a tight form provides a structure for the strong emotion, makes it safe, in a way.

And, too, the frequent and very repetitive rhyme patterns create a song out of the disaster, which allows it to sing in its chains like the sea (now I’m quoting Dylan Thomas). Hear where the rhymes land—master/disaster//fluster/ master// faster/disaster// last,or/master// vaster/disaster// gesture/master/disaster. We can’t help but feel master and disaster as the opposite poles of the poem, pulling at each other. And then the mid-rhymes in the 3-line stanzas, intent/spent/meant/went/continent/evident—here are the rhyming words that are struggling with understanding between the more frequent poles of master/disaster.

Brilliant choice, to use this form. But I wouldn’t say that she picked it out of a hat. I’d suspect she began to feel the repetitive, almost keening, rocking movement of grief under even the first draft. And then her own need to hold on, to maintain control in the face of grief, led her to a form that controls enough so that the real grief can emerge. At the end of the villanelle, her last line’s parenthetical (Write it!)—with write in italics and an exclamation point after it—is the second and most intense of the momentary breaks into grief. Most intense because instead of mentioning the attributes of her lover, as she did in the first parenthetical aside, here she demands of herself that she write the word disaster.

This is the fourth time in the poem, according to the form’s requirements, that she’s written the word. She’s been denying the disastrousness of the loss, more or less, until now. But how many times can a person write the word, even in irony, without finally having the meaning of it break through?

This is what form can do, at its best. It can focus us somewhere besides our own personal diary, and it can break us through while it’s carrying us through.

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry