Greetings! Yesterday, I had a brief exchange with the graphic novelist Belle Yang (check out pages from her new book on her blog beginning here), in which she mused on the tendency we humans have to hoard things, in the face of the inevitability of loss. I told her it reminded me of an amazing poem by Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), one of the best villanelles I've ever seen and both wise and emotionally powerful on the subject of loss. I offered to share the poem with Belle -- and then thought I'd do it here, so that others could enjoy it, too:
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.
I am among the hordes of folks who love this poem, written (I believe) not long after the death of Bishop's life partner. But it popped so immediately to my mind yesterday because I'm in the middle of reading a book called Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Lowell (1917-1977) was another mid-century poet who, like Bishop, has had quite a bit of fluctuation in his reputation, during and after his career. Both have at (different) times been marginal or even obscure, and at other (mostly different) times been widely read and influential. They corresponded for decades, beginning in 1947. I'm enjoying reading their letters to one another immensely! They (the letters) are witty, revealing, wonderfully descriptive, and full of the kinds of details that provide a window onto what the poetry world was like back in the day, at least for two poets who were both at the top of their game and had enough money that they didn't have to work "day jobs." (Imagine being able to go and spend half a year or more at Yaddo!) They talk about what they're reading and writing, about their travels, about their households, and their personal demons. You wouldn't have to be knowledgeable about their poetry to find their letters interesting, I think -- though you might have fun doing what I'm doing, which is (re)reading some of their poems as they come up in the exchange -- nor would you know more about their lives than what the book's introduction tells you. You really get to know them through their language, the things they share, the stories they tell one another, etc., etc. Engrossing! I'll close this short post with one of Lowell's poems, which I've chosen mainly because it's a representative one that has just been mentioned in the letters I read today (and not because it also deals with mortality!):
Terminal Days at Beverly Farms
At Beverly Farms, a portly, uncomfortable boulder
bulked in the garden's center --
an irregular Japanese touch.
After his Bourbon "old fashioned," Father,
bronzed, breezy, a shade too ruddy,
swayed as if on deck-duty
under his six pointed star-lantern --
last July's birthday present.
He smiled his oval Lowell smile,
he wore his cream gabardine dinner-jacket,
and indigo cummerbund.
His head was efficient and hairless,
he newly dieted figure was vitally trim.
Father and Mother moved to Beverly Farms
to be a two minute walk from the station,
half an hour by train from the Boston doctors.
They had no sea-view,
but sky-blue tracks of the commuters' railroad shone
like a double-barrelled shotgun
through the scarlet late August sumac,
multiplying like cancer
at their garden's border.
Father had had two coronaries.
He still treasured underhand economies,
but his best friend was his little black Chevie,
garaged like a sacrificial steer
with gilded hooves,
yet sensationally sober,
and with less side than an old dancing pump.
The local dealer, a "buccaneer,"
had been bribed a "king's ransom"
to quickly deliver a car without chrome.
Each morning at eight-thirty,
inattentive and beaming,
loaded with his "calc" and "trig" books,
his clipper ship statistics,
and his ivory slide rule,
Father stole off with the Chevie
to loaf in the Maritime Museum at Salem.
He called the curator
"the commander of the Swiss Navy."
Father's death was abrupt and unprotesting.
His vision was still twenty-twenty.
After a morning of anxious, repetitive smiling,
his last words to Mother were:
"I feel awful."