Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A little riff on "One Art" and Sumerian writing

Early proto-writing tablet from Sumer.
Walters Museum, Baltimore (via Wikipedia).

I taught Elizabeth Bishop's poem "One Art" a lot this summer. This poem is one of those weird hallmarks that divides people who spend a lot of time around poetry from people who don't. People who don't read much poetry have often never even heard of it. But people who spend even a little time around poetry, or took a poetry class once, usually know it right away, like a pop song that has been played so often that you don't even have to try to place it. It's just, "Oh, that's 'One Art,'" in the same way as it's just, "Oh, that's 'Hey Jude.'" Some people might even go so far as to say that if there's an "overplayed" American poem from the second half of the twentieth century, this is it.

The poem is a villanelle, but it only arrived there by a long and tortuous road: the earliest drafts for the poem look meterless and rhymeless, though it's possible that Bishop was just jotting down ideas. It appeared in Bishop's final volume of poems, Geography III (1977).
One Art 
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.
Lots of ink has already been spilled about this much-anthologized poem. The injunction "Write it!" in the last line attracts a lot of attention. Who is the poem's speaker giving this command to? Write what, exactly? This poem? The last two words? Why does the word "like" repeat? And so forth. 

Without wanting to tear apart the poem from top to bottom, the poem brushes up against something completely different that came to my mind the other day: the invention of writing and earliest examples of writing that we have, largely from ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia. 

The connection is this. Most early writing, usually from the 4th millennium B.C.E., takes the form of lists and property records. Researchers who work on the invention of writing have to make some difficult technical distinctions between what is and isn't "writing." Are three notches on a bone next to an etching of a goat a sign that I have three goats? Is that "writing?" And so forth. 

We'd like to imagine that early writing consists of great literature, like the Rigveda or the epic of Gilgamesh. Unfortunately, this is not the case. When writing emerges in a place, it usually emerges in the form of a list of someone's stuff. That rapidly turns into someone else keeping a list of your stuff for purposes of tax assessment. (I am not kidding about this.) 

In other words, a catalogue of things you own is the most deeply rooted form of writing you can engage in. What's interesting about the Bishop poem, then, is that she turns this on its head. "One Art" is a list not of things owned, but rather of things lost. And writing plays a crucial role here: of course you have to write it. Making lists of possessions is the oldest form of quasi-literary expression. (This is one poem that doesn't seem especially interested in pretending to be an object of purely oral tradition.) 

But at the same time, it's flying in the face of the historically deep notion that writing is a matter of expressing ownership. No, Bishop is saying. Writing is a matter of expressing loss. The shadow lurking behind all those Sumerian records of how many sheep one owns is the fear of losing all the sheep. "One Art" flips the idea of the humble property assessment—the oldest form of writing—into elegy: poetry of loss. And this poetry must be written, rather than spoken. It's part of the deepest urge we have to write—to record what we have, and by implication, all we don't. Write it. 

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