Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Bibliotherapy: What to read when you lose your purse.


Recently, when I lost my purse – or rather, just after it was stolen from me – I felt a momentary version of the grief that accompanies far greater loss. Numbness, shock, anger, denial, acceptance, played out in half an hour, and then it seemed unseemly to care. After all, no one had died; it was only money that had been stolen from me; the loss was of an inanimate object.

And then a friend reminded me to re-read ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop, with its beautifully controlled opening stanza: ‘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.’ The poem comes from Bishop’s final collection, published in 1976, three years before her death; and, like its title, appears to suggest that the art of losing is reflected in the art of writing, and vice versa. If, as in life, every loss reminds us of a previous sorrow (the vanished purse, the missing lover), then Bishop (a Pulitzer Prize winner and US Poet Laureate) offers mastery of language to contain the messiness of long-lost or looming disaster.

Bishop herself was no stranger to loss: her father died when she was a baby; her mother suffered from mental illness and was confined to an asylum; and one of the great loves of her life, a Brazilian woman with whom Bishop lived for 15 years, committed suicide. A self-confessed opponent of self-confessional poetry, unlike many of her contemporaries (‘Art just isn’t worth that much,’ she wrote disapprovingly to Robert Lowell, after he used his wife’s letters in his writing), Bishop nevertheless gave some clues to the grave losses she suffered. ‘I lost my mother’s watch,’ she writes in ‘One Art’, as if in passing; though the material loss of a watch was also an echo of her mother’s absence in childhood; of the loss of both parents to watch over her.

‘One Art’ emerged out of 17 drafts, evidence of the tension between a poet’s artfulness and the artlessness of grief; of what happens when words fail us (‘it may look like (Write it!) like disaster’), as does love; not that we ever stop searching for what we have lost, and what we might still be looking for.


NB: for more (far more), on Elizabeth Bishop's drafts, there's a very good article at Slate.

13 comments:

enid said...

One Art - selected letters of Elizabeth Bishop is a glorious and moving read. Do get a copy. It is a favourite of mine. I love reading letters!!!

Justine Picardie said...

Will definitely get hold of a copy. I like letters, too -- have been reading Charlotte Mosley's excellent edition of the Mitford letters: 'Letters Between Six Sisters'. It's brilliantly edited, and their voices leap off the page.

kairu said...

I will have to find those letters - I love literary letters (am currently reading the correspondence of Nabokov and Edmund Wilson) and am always looking for more.

Fantastic column, Justine, and not just because I love "One Art" so much.

Justine Picardie said...

Thanks. Virginia Woolf letters also v. good -- there are brilliant ones about her going shopping for clothes, which I love.

Sarah Standalone said...

Just checked out your piece on Coco/Kaiser from My Mothers Wedding Dress again, I can't wait for the book. I hope your writing sustains you as much as it has me.

Justine Picardie said...

Thank you so much -- what a lovely message.

oxford-reader said...

I always have a hard time finding poetry I like, but this seems just my cup of tea - thanks Justine.
Also - speaking of Mitford letters, have you read 'In Tearing Haste' - which are the letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor? They are wonderful, and all the more unique for the fact that both correspondents are still alive, and therefore still writing to each other!

Maria Strüder said...

Hello Justine.
I'm reading your book "Wish I May" and i'm loving it.
Congratulations :)

Justine Picardie said...

Oxford Reader: thanks for your suggestion. What a perfect match -- I plan to read it on holiday later this month.
Maria: I'm glad you're enjoying 'Wish I May'. It was my first novel, and seems like a long time ago, but it's nice to know it still has a life of its own.

Vintage Reading said...

Lovely post. On of the pleasures of studying for an English degree in my forties was discovering the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop.

Recently lost my purse in M&S and that heart-stopping moment when you realise it's not there is awful.

Justine Picardie said...

How heartwarming to do a degree in English in your 40s -- I'm sure you appreciated it more, and brought more the subject, than many younger students.
As for the heart-stopping moment of realising your purse has gone -- you're quite right. For a second, you think, everything is going to fall to pieces.

simoncadbury said...

im sorry to hear about your loss.

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