The art of losing

Opinion by Gillie Collins
July 19, 2014, 9:57 a.m.

Halfway out the door, I remember what I’ve forgotten: lunch. I circle back to the kitchen to fix myself a peanut butter sandwich. Tucked into a Ziploc bag in the front pocket of my backpack, my sandwich helps me feel a bit more prepared. There is comfort in looking like the morning person I’m not.

At the end of the day, after classes, after coffee, I find myself outside my building once again.  Digging into my backpack, I realize what’s happened — that I left my keys on the kitchen counter, beside the peanut butter jar. Even as I turn my backpack upside down and shake its belly empty, I know that I’m performing, consoling myself. The loss has already come crashing down on me. I am locked outside of an essential, beloved possibility — the chance to end up where I started.

Depleted, I plop down on the curb and fish out Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Complete Poems, 1927 to 1979” from my book bag. Bishop’s poems are about the loneliness and revelation of transitions, the quest for a prospective home. One of her most famous pieces, “One Art,” begins:

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.

If there is “One Art” humans practice — one art we are poised to master — then it is “the art of losing.” We are trained to cherish and designed to squeeze, but we also learn, early on, to let go. Children wail when their parents leave the room; parents cry when they drop their children off at college. We hold on to external materials, people, ideas, but these objects of affection and dependency are always “filled with the intent / to be lost.” When life forces us to relax our grips, we discover the shapes of our own hands. As college students, standing at the threshold of adolescence and adulthood, our job is to do more than survive the loss of our childhoods. Now is our chance to use loss to discover what exactly we value in ourselves and others.

I practice the art of losing so often that I’ve begun to see particular objects as placeholders for their absence, stopgaps before an elegy. Loss gives my days a sense of symmetry. I spend a morning attending classes, talking to friends and eating lunch, only to realize, rather abruptly, that I’ve lost my cell phone along the way. I retrace my steps and review my choices. Where did I begin? Which way did I turn? When did I stop? I revisit the places where I was most distracted, most immersed in the moment. I go back to the table where my friend cracked a joke, the counter where I poured my milk, trying not to spill. These are the sites where I let go of the essential details, where I leave my “valuables” behind.

Mostly, my recovery process depends on the prosthetic memory of witnesses. I contact the friends who monopolized my attention, who cost me my missing belonging. Did you notice where I put my phone? When was the last time I texted you? The barista at the coffee shop remembers last time; she asks if I “left it near the garbage, again.” Green’s librarians know my name because they’ve retrieved my ID cards too many times to forget. Public Safety is tired of my act. When I left my keys on a park bench one day,  I came back, hours later, to find a Post-It note card in their place. Creased down the middle, the yellow paper stood up on its own: “Hi Friend!” it read, “Looking for your cellphone? Please call or visit the campus police.” I haven’t lost the note yet; it’s pinned to the bulletin board above my desk.

My ability to lose and recover, lose and recover — my access to second, third and fourth chances — is a working definition of privilege, the idea of a cushion between my actions and consequences, especially on Stanford’s campus. One day, I’m sure, I will lose the wrong thing at the wrong time — no Samaritan will save me. For now, I have a long list of strangers to thank.

When I am sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk, waiting to be let inside my own house, I tell myself that Bishop would call my bad habits rehearsals for larger loss:

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.

Bishop speaks of the potential that we forget not only past experiences and acquaintances, but also our fantasies for the future, “places, and names, and where it was you meant / to travel.” She advocates not only “the art of losing,” but also the art of being lost. The poem urges us to abandon our stubborn and specific definitions of yesterday and tomorrow.

College is the time to lose our assumptions about who we are and will be. Inevitably and luckily, plans fall away. The reasons I came to Stanford are not the same as the reasons I’ve stayed or the reasons I’ll miss college afterwards. We only use the word “loss” when we know, exactly, what was lost; but, in point of fact, we move through the world choosing one thing out of another. It is through loss-shedding visions of our past and future and that we begin to define our adult selves.

—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!) disaster.

Most critics assume that this last stanza is dedicated to Bishop’s late lover, Lota de Macedo Soare, but I think Bishop is less interested in the particularities of their relationship and more concerned with what is generalizable about her mourning. Loss is familiar to everyone. We live lives “filled with the intent / to be lost,” suddenly or slowly. Our loved ones are always and irreversibly aging. In “One Art,” though, Bishop manages to encase even this fact of mortality in a “closed form,” using the villanelle’s strict rhyme scheme to organize grief and deprive loss of its infinity. Her refrains, like a lover’s laugh, are unforgettable.

The subject of Bishop’s final paragraph is the kind of loss that does not submit to remedy or repair, the cosmic “disaster” we all fear. While we tend to rationalize any irrecoverable loss as a sacrifice, a prerequisite for progress and growth and art, surely some loss is unnecessary and useless — and permanent. At its core, “One Art” is an elegy for this type of disaster, which comes from loving other fragile, fallible humans. What makes “One Art” a good poem, though, is that Bishop knows what she is doing, and she acknowledges the limits of her methods. Her elegy is a site of commemoration, not a means of resurrection.

Stanford does not turn its students into masters, but our campus is a space to live bravely, with the audacity to look loss in the face, to “Write it!” We are here to grasp and gasp and, unexpectedly, discover ourselves whole. For as long as we remember to remember — so that each new elegy is imperfect in a new way — Elizabeth Bishop will stay unlost for keeps.


Contact Gillie Collins at [email protected].

Gillie Collins works as the Chief Film and Visual Arts Critic at The Stanford Daily. A New York City native, she enjoys snacking on pumpkin bread and reading. At Stanford, she studies International Relations and English Literature. Contact her by paper airplane or email at gcollins 'at'

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