Apathetic Obsession

Ellen Gwin

Dr. Anton Vander Zee

American Poetry

4 October 2022

Apathetic Obsession

    Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil, 1954.

Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil, 1954. Estate of Elizabeth Bishop

     Elizabeth Bishop has been described as someone who did not write prolifically but rather spent her time polishing her work (Elizabeth Bishop). This type of writing fits in perfectly with the coming of the New Criticism in the 1920s and the 1930s. 

     One central idea in New Criticism was that the author, background, or other possible sources of work, while they may have informed the work, should not have complete influence on how one interprets the work— one should attempt to read poetry without attempting to apply their knowledge on any of these contextual matters. In the New Criticism Ransom says poetry should function for “the autonomy of the work itself as existing for its own sake” (Beach 138). Because readers, within this ideological framework, should not consider author biography, historical/sociological context, or psychology, one must become reliant upon “an understanding of [the poems’] words, images, figures of speech, and symbols (Beach 138). This was the first idea of close reading as a way of reading in a more “scientific,” “precise,” and “systematic” manner in order to further understand the “complex interrelations of meanings and ambiguities within the text” (Beach 139). Past a dislike for intentional fallacy, New Criticism was also against affective fallacy, “the idea that work should be judged according to its emotional effects on the reader” (Beach 138). New Critics believe poetry should consist of elements such as “‘tension, “irony,” and “paradox’” (Beach 139). Ransom argues that a poem consists of the dramatic tension between two elements: structure (“argument or logical discourse”) and texture (“imagery rhythm, sound, diction”). 

     Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” is a villanelle that tracks that art of mastering loss.  The speaker begins by proclaiming that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master” but comforting themselves by stating no loss causes disaster. The speaker goes on to describe items they lose regularly such as car keys before describing the loss of their thoughts and memories, still noting none of this should cause discomfort. The losses grow in stanzas four and five with the loss of loved ones, entire cities, and even entire realms; the speaker notes although they miss them, everything still remains alright. In the last stanza the speaker introduces “you” saying “even losing you.” This makes the poem suddenly seem personal and for the first time like the speaker has a stake in the loss, especially when the expression of remorse comes in “I shan’t have lied.” Before each loss was almost blasé and like it’s okay because there’s no disaster and life goes on but this is the only stanza with remorse. The speaker goes on to remind themselves of their mantra, now interwoven with their life as expressed in throughout poem, that “the art of losing’s not too hard to master,” only this time the speaker recognizes that there may be some disaster, even having to convince themselves to admit that small fact by stating “(Write it!).”

     Bishop’s poem “One Art” is in the form of a villanelle: “the villanelle is a highly structured poem made up of five tercets followed by a quatrain, with two repeating rhymes and two refrains” (Villanelle). The use of the villanelle is interesting for multiple reasons. The first being that Bishop had a leaning towards form and was a perfectionist, because of this any break in form is highly significant. For example, in the last stanza when, instead of repeating some form of the iteration that no impending disaster exists as a result of loss, she states that there just might be a disaster. By breaking the form the speaker indicates that this stanza is special and different indicative of an internal tension. Another reason the villanelle is interesting is when read with Phillip K. Jason’s idea from Modern Versions of the Villanelle, which states “the villanelle is often used…to deal with one or another degree of obsession…the mind…may not be in full control, and yet it still tries, still festers and broods…towards a resolution that is at least pretended by the final couplet linking of the refrain lines” (Mandy). This idea that a villanelle copes with elements of obsession coupled with the idea that New Criticism should bring tension through both structure and texture showcases Bishop’s talent in manipulating form to cause this dramatic tension Ransom claims acts as critical to poetry under the ideas of New Criticism. Although Bishop’s poem is a villanelle that does repeat lines, the speaker is not concerned or obsessed with their loss or the disaster. The speaker is noticing these losses and the fact that they get better and better at losing these things but their attitude towards it is uncaring. This tension creates a great juxtaposition so when even the slightest suggestion of caring is introduced at the end, the moment becomes incredibly powerful to the reader in a way that makes the poetry feel”affective” but in a manner that almost feels unaffected– like the fact one should feel unaffected by the loss and disaster and the blasé-ness of the poem is what causes an affect of emptiness, sadness identifiable without it getting pushed upon the reader.  The feeling of apathy and unaffectedness in the poem then becomes even more powerful than any emotion surrounding grief or frustration could have been. Lastly, this poem is an excellent example of paradox, another element of poetry in the New Critic style according to Ransom. Bishop’s poem focuses primarily on the art of gaining loss, the implication being the speaker could also lose the art of loss. 

     I know, I know, I know that the whole point of the New Criticism is to close read without context of the poet, however, this context added such a wild layer of tension, drama, and grief. Elizabeth Bishop suffered a lot of loss early in her life: her father died before she was a year old. Shortly after her mother began to suffer from mental illness and was committed to an institution by the time Bishop was five years old. Ripped away from her birth city of Worcester, Massachusetts, she went to live with her grandparents in Nova Scotia (Elizabeth Bishop). Her poetry can be described as containing “precise descriptions of the physical world and an air of poetic serenity” (Elizabeth Bishop). She was both a painter and a poet, fond of visual art; her poetry contained the ability to set one inside a scene. Ernie Hilbert described Bishop’s poetry as “distinguished by tranquil observation, craft-like accuracy, and care for the small things of the world” (Elizabeth Bishop). 


Questions for the class: How do you feel Bishop works against the idea of obsession within the poem to cause tension? Do you feel apathy was a more powerful emotion to present than grief, frustration, hatred or other emotions?

For anyone interested, here is the link to Jason K. Phillip’s article on villanelles on jstor.




Works Cited

Beach, Christopher. “The New Criticism and Poetic Formalism,” from the Cambridge 

     Introduction to Twentieth-Century American poetry (2003).

“Elizabeth Bishop.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 


Mandy, et al. Villanelle, 2000,


“Villanelle.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, https://poets.org/glossary/villanelle. 


4 Responses to Apathetic Obsession

  1. Hanna October 5, 2022 at 6:05 pm #

    I love this deep dive into Bishop’s poem “One Art”! Being that I am on the fiction track, I don’t get too much exposure to the techniques and forms of poetry outside of what we discuss in class, so I enjoyed learning about the villanelle form and how it relates to New Criticism and Formalism.

    To answer your second question, I feel as though the speaker’s apathy to loss works in “One Art” since we know, due to the final couplet, that her obsession with mastering loss is a state of self-denial. Her tone throughout the poem is slightly pedagogical as well in its use of imperatives, telling the reader that they ought to master loss now because at some point they will have to confront it. She’s telling the reader to give up on their emotion and master this apathetic tone toward loss so that they will avoid the disaster of feeling that is inherent with loss. I think it works too due to the villanelle form and the repetition of denied feeling.

  2. T October 5, 2022 at 10:25 pm #

    I have always had an affinity to this poem, since I first read it years ago. It seems to heighten the catastrophe of losing the beloved to the level of everyday loss. In this way, it reminds me of Lauren Berlant’s work. They write about the flatness of writing: how it is a place to return to where the self can regain composure, or just settle. That’s not what writing always does, of course. But it is one thing it can do–which makes me think that Bishop’s poem is also an Ars Poetica of a sort. Perhaps the “disaffected” thing you pick up on is that this is a poem for people who write, or at least who wonder what it means to write. Perhaps concealing the painful truth of this poem is that catastrophe of losing the beloved, acting flat, even writing about it: to refuse those stultifying melodramas of the I/you, and let writing, after it has proven to be such a stabilizer, be the final interruptive force. In this way, I am reminded of Sonia Sanchez’s poetics statement (my favorite from today), where she says that form exists even in “free verse.” The forms of a writing practice, its metaphysical properties, exist as a watermark on every poem.

    Berlant blog post here: https://supervalentthought.com/2015/12/17/time-out/

  3. williamss11 October 5, 2022 at 10:33 pm #

    This is a great analysis! I like how you relate the forms Bishop uses to New Criticism and Formalism. Adding the context of Bishop’s life was helpful in understanding her work here. Apathy can sometimes be all consuming and in a sense garner its own sense of grief within a person, of the loss of feeling. Her tone, while slightly pedagogical, does seem also very casual and unaffected, as if there is nothing to do about it and nothing more to discuss. Or perhaps she is really just warning the reader of the dangers in not dealing with emotion.

  4. Isaac October 6, 2022 at 12:14 am #

    I really enjoyed this poem Ellen and your deep dive into it as well! The idea of using the villanelle to create that tension between obsession and unaffectedness or maybe even contentment is brilliant of Bishop. It also reminded me of Plath a little. It felt domestic with the keys a bit and then of course it took on whole cities (which interestingly required the loss of a watch before having, the loss of time) and realms with the repeating mantra. What a great idea! This gave the mantra more and more power as the poem progressed. This idea is something I will probably steal for my own writing haha. I also love that the speaker is saying that the art of losing isn’t difficult, but that it requires practice like any other art, how sad!

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