On Losing Stuff. And Loss. And Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.”

How much time might you have spent in the past, oh, month, looking for items you misplaced?

The keys, the glasses, the purse, the shirt, the notes, the credit card you removed from the wallet to make a purchase, online or in the store, suddenly gone. (Lucky for you if the checker or bagger chased you out to the parking lot, smiling, bless their heart, your card held aloft in their hands in the kindest possible reproach.)

With your misplacements at home, you begin flipping over the dish towels, the junk mail, the pillows and post-its and papers and gadgets.

Minutes of wandering and purse-lipped memory-searching pass, and you begin muttering, the plaintive question emerging almost involuntarily, rhetorically, in increasing desperation, “Where could it be? Where the hell could it be?”

You resolve to stay calm.


Studies of such matters (who resolves to study such matters anyway? bless them, too!) reveal that we spend some six months of our lives looking for lost stuff. I don’t know whether the studies also detail how much of those six months we spend muttering expletives, our blood pressure rising in unison with our clenched jawbones as we open and close our desk drawers or peer behind the couch pillows for the sixth time, rewarded just often enough in such repetitive ventures in the past to try, try again, in lieu of any more promising options.

Elizabeth Bishop

In a lovely and moving essay gracing a recent issue of the New Yorker (“When Things Go Missing”), Kathryn Schulz gives passing mention to an Elizabeth Bishop poem with the initially misleading title, “One Art.” (You can read the entire poem at the end of this post; skip to it now if you’d like.)

In it, Bishop describes, in a tone with a playful veneer that barely contains a deeper dead seriousness, the “art” of losing things, claiming, in a masterful bit of poetic misdirection, “that their loss is no disaster.” 

She exhorts us:

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Bishop appears to be shrugging her shoulders through the poem’s 19 lines in a highly structured form that includes a particular rhyme scheme and is known as a “villanelle.” (I’ll spare you any further technicals.)

But the losses escalate in importance stanza by stanza, even as the poet continues to say, in so many words, “Bah! That’s still no disaster.”

Her mother’s watch. Three houses. Two cities—lovely ones. (She doesn’t name them; why would that matter?; it’s still no disaster.)

And then: two rivers? And a continent?

“I miss them,” she allows….”but it wasn’t a disaster.”  (Bishop had lived 15 years in Brazil and several in France; she was a lifelong traveler and lover of all things geographic.)


But then we get to the heart of the matter, the loss that stabs, rips, lingers, though she denies it still. The giveaway is the change to second person: no more “them” of keys and rivers and cities, but instead:

—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.


A person, a beloved. She stammers and stutters here, starting this last stanza with a strangely placed long dash, installing two sets of parentheses, two “likes,” which appears to be a misprint but isn’t, instead representing the struggle to complete the (false) claim that even such a grievous loss is “no disaster.”

But she kids not even herself, which is quite the point, in the end.



Such loss devastates, as it did Bishop in losing the two great female loves of her life in whose shadows this poem’s 17 drafts worked their way to a halting conclusion. “Write it!” she commands herself. (But only parenthetically….)

The first was to suicide, the other a 32-years-younger longtime companion who had left her and intended to marry a man, only to later return and take up with Bishop again until Bishop’s death three years later, in 1979.

These losses are of no mere key sets, though they reflect keys of the metaphorical type—to Bishop’s heart, and to her past.

Bishop lost her father to kidney disease when she was eight months old, then her bereft grieving mother to insanity when she was 4. She was subsequently shuttled among sets of grandparents and other relatives, not always happily, through the rest of her childhood, loss and dislocation a dark wellspring that fueled this poem’s mournful sensibility under its cool icing of rhyme.

“It makes everyone weep, so I think it must be rather good,” Bishop wrote to an editor after she had sent the poem to select friends.

Writing for her life, for her survival, for the sense-making of otherwise inscrutable, almost unbearable loss upon loss—this was the “One Art,” all of a piece, that Bishop fused together and mastered as her poetic vocation. And that, my friends, was no disaster.


And a postscript: I put part of this post together at my neighborhood summer pool, and as I packed my laptop away and prepared to take a swim, I…yes…couldn’t find my goggles. (Though I was quite certain I had carefully placed them in my backpack and even handled them when I settled in poolside.) They revealed themselves five minutes of meticulous backpack unloading later, when I suddenly remembered I had moved once across the grass…and there they lay in my previous spot.

Minutes later, post-shower, I searched for my bike lock key in the small pocket where I always leave it. Not this time. That search took only two minutes or so, disaster, of whatever minuscule scope, averted yet again.




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.


One can find, sometimes, terribly devoted and feelingful works amidst the dross that also competes for attention on You Tube…

Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for daily, 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied always by lovely photography.


Twitter: @AndrewHidas

Deep appreciation to the photographers!

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com   

Keys photo near top of page by Megan Amaral, The Bahamas, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mamsy/

Fall gingko tree photo by Andrew Hidas, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/

6 comments to On Losing Stuff. And Loss. And Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.”

  • Rev. Robert Gutleben  says:

    Bishop, how right she is. I used to lose things and get crazy mad. But that was during my younger days when I only occasionally lost things, usually little things like keys, a wallet, and then my patience. But those were the days of when youth was demanding, and being crazy mad was an easy thing to fall into. But since those fast paced and urgent days of living life for all it was worth, I have lost mother, father, houses, cars, precious class rings, beloved friends, and much more. Most impactful, I lost my youthful energy and my health. Today I no longer rage when I lose things, mainly because I am losing things almost by the minute. I can’t leave the living room to go get my wrist watch in the bedroom without getting there, then suddenly, I can’t remember why I needed go to my bedroom. Patience has become my, shall we say, tranquilizer. I think patience is an art, at least something to be carefully thought out in times of frustration. Thank God for patience. If not for patience I would be a raving lunatic continually with no peace to focus, to think, to read, to write, or to simply be a normal human being. So I think Bishop makes a good point about loss being not hard to master. It’s not. It’s the patience to accept loss as a part of life. Unfortunately, mastering patience doesn’t seem to become an artform until we have lived many, many years of loss and frustration. Thanks for your thought provoking blog.

  • joan voight (@shapelygrape)  says:

    Nicely written Andrew. I feel sorry for Bishop’s early years. Her losses were staggering. Personally, I figure it only matters when I lose my mind…which is entirely possible.

  • Jay Helman  says:

    The big losses and setbacks,if effectively reflected upon, help mitigate against the internal frustrations and rage of where-the-hell-did-it-go moments with keys, goggles, etc. Recovery from a traumatic brain injury (TBI) whereby i lost swaths of cognitive function has proven to be a guide that has cultivated patience for the “small stuff” of daily living; for those things that seem meant to be lost.

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Wonderful post and comments- something every human who reaches some level of reflective maturity (say mid-20s) can relate to – losing stuff, from the mundane to profound as in Bishop’s poem… in some sense our lives are a usually slow, sometimes catastrophically fast, process of losing __ and letting go, learning to live without or with less or different… I totally relate to Robert and Jay’s comments re: developing patience… to me this is also linked to gratitude – being consciously thankful/grateful for what we have (while patience with and acceptance of what we have lost)… at the level of simple cliche it is choosing to focus on the proverbial “half-full” part to the metaphorical glass… (even if in some objective sense it is way less than half – we experience life in the subjective)… great poem – never heard of Bishop… thanks!

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Robert, I really like the notion & image of “patience as a tranquilizer.” Quite literally, too: a willed and effective patience actually makes us more “tranquil.” And it’s under our internal control, doesn’t require a doctor’s prescription or cost a penny. Wonders!

    Joan, I think I have long under-appreciated just how difficult and loss-filled everyday life has been throughout history. How modern medicine and dentistry, modern food storage and prep, modern plumbing and electricity, have all made long lives and decent health & vitality normative and childhood death a rarity, rather than fully expected. It’s a testament to human resilience that people like Bishop could psychically survive the losses they did and go on to live productive lives, though as in her case as well, they tended to pay fearsome prices in substance abuse, fractured relationships and the like.

    Jay: well there you go, yes: perspective! Suffer some serious losses, flirt with death and debilitation, and we can maybe laugh rather than curse—or at least stay calm with our self-administered “tranquilizer”— while we’re peering under the couch for that damn key or rifling for the 16th time through the file where our passport absolutely HAS to be—but isn’t….

    Kevin, strikes me that it’s the relentless, sustained pace that most characterizes loss as we age. We realize this is how it will be, feeling the absence of loved ones who have preceded us in death, until we ourselves pass on. I’m not sure I want to be the last one standing (or sitting in a wheelchair) in my age cohort, ya know?

  • joan voight (@shapelygrape)  says:

    Thanks for the notice that we can now be alerted when there are new comments on your posts. Love that idea.

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