I have just finished reading a biography of the poet Elizabeth Bishop (by Megan Marshall, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 2017). It has put me in mind, aided by a new Chris Hedges piece, of what poets might have to offer us in this time of political chaos and the sorrow that comes with having a psychopath in charge of our nation. In fact, what such a time does is not only to bedevil us with constant anxiety over the daily outrages emanating from the White House, but also to incite in us deeper fears about the long-range prospects for our nation, ourselves, and those close to us. The rumblings, that is, involve not just this one term of this one absurd president. They go deeper to arouse fears about the entire democratic project that is the United States, and about its reigning orthodoxy of imperial capitalism as the one and only economic/world system worth thinking about. Is our empire fraying at the edges, and beginning to come apart? Is our short reign as leaders of the “free world” about to come to an end? And has the system known as corporate capitalism grown so obscene, so unbalanced, that it, too, must begin to totter on its foundations, and yield finally to some new system as yet unimagined?
The truth is that even were such eventualities to be desired by those of us critical of them, no one can look forward to breakdowns in society, in culture, in systems of banking and trade and hegemony without dreading the pain and dislocation that always accompany such fundamental changes. Systems do not simply evolve easily and smoothly into new systems. Systems in the early days of change usually sputter and misfire and explode—as our financial system did in 2007—and cause great hardship and pain to millions. And even beyond another implosion of our economic system, it is impossible not to imagine that other, deeper systems are also beginning to show ominous signs of collapse. The global climate system; all ocean systems including bleaching reefs; the food systems that have brought unparalleled prosperity to the western world; the global ecosystem that has, over billions of years, managed to precisely balance itself regarding predators and prey, trees and grasses, land and shore, forest and plain and desert, ice caps and torrid zones. All are at risk, mostly due to the interference of our human-centric systems of travel, transport, manufacture, agriculture, animal husbandry, and dangerously-expanding habitation patterns. Are they all tottering in the same way as we sense our political system is? And what can possibly be the result?
No one really knows. All we know for sure is that fake optimism of the kind preached by our redoubtable leaders—fake hymns to the success they (and Donald Trump is the hyperbole of all hyperboles when it comes to ranting about “winning”) assure us are right over the horizon if only we agree to their reign—are just that: fake. Whistling in the graveyard. Public relations bullshit designed to achieve a short-term end: power to one faction, and more profits for those already bloated with criminal profits like the president himself.
Yes, we all know the story. And that is why I here present something diametrically opposed to bullshit and bluster. Something we can feel is true, and needed, and because of its beauty—notwithstanding its subject matter of loss—because of all the life making up its beauty, comprises something real to treasure in these fake, plastic times.
So here it is, without comment, Elizabeth Bishop’s late poem, One Art. It was written in 1975, at a time when she was generally recognized as one of America’s great poets, but also a woman who had lost, or thought she had, the last love of her life, Alice Methfessel. It is in the form of a villanelle (note the repetitions, the intricate rhyme scheme, both part of the form).
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 ( it!) like disaster.
Perhaps what we’re losing, and will soon lose, won’t be (though it may look like it) a disaster either.