Approaching Unseen Poetry

If you’re taking the same spec as us, then you’ll know that in year 2, you have to compare one of the Poems of the Decade poems with an unseen poem. Obviously, this is pretty daunting. They’re going to give you something that you likely haven’t seen before, and you’ve not got very much time to respond. I’ve got an exam tomorrow, so I’m going to do an unseen, and take you through it with me 🙂

Okay, so I’ve chosen a random book off my shelf. It’s called “Emergency Poet”. I think I got it for my birthday. It has that new book sort of smell. I’m flipping to a random page…

One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

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.
Okay so this is what we got. I can safely say I’ve never seen this poem in my life, but I actually really like it. Now we’re going to read it, read it, read it again.
1. What is the overall message of the poem? How does it make you feel?
2. What stands out to you? What bits do you particularly like or dislike? Highlight them, which I’ve done above. How can these be linked back to the message?
When you’ve read it a few times, something will have jumped out at you. Start by zooming in on this, trying to identify an intent or a technique. Here are some thing’s I noticed. Yours might be really different, but all interpretations are valid!
Meaning: So I’ve read this a few times, and personally I think its about preparing yourself for loss, and developing an understanding that not everything in your life is consistent. In the final stanza, there is a direct address, so I am assuming that the poet has lost someone themselves, perhaps through death, or the end of a relationship.
What interests me:
– The first tercet has an ABA rhyme scheme, which creates quite a bouncing, jovial tone. When we look at the words however, the topic is quite sentimental. Perhaps she is using this rhyme to evoke a sense that we try to appear upbeat/relaxed in the face of loss.
– “The art of losing.” The irony in this phrase really grabs me. An art is something that you have to practice and perfect, and losing things, like keys, happens because of the opposite: carelessness. Maybe she is using this phrase to suggest that when it comes to losing truly important things, we must work to accept it.
– “Lose something everyday.” Caesura always stands out. This phrase is in the imperative mood, and she cuts it off with a very finite full stop. Maybe if we make a habit of losing small things, losing bigger ones becomes easier.
– “And look!” this sudden exclamation caught me by surprise. It seems like she’s addressing us directly, but having read the whole thing, I think she might be addressing the “you” at the end. This tone makes the poem quite conversational, which links to the fact that the subject is treated as very matter-of-fact.
– Structure. As the stanzas progress, I noticed that the things she loses increase in magnitude, from her everyday possessions, to realms and rivers, to somebody close. This build up creates a sense of tension, which is mirrored in the use of tri-colon “realms I owned…a continent.” To me, this deconstructs the idea that losing isn’t hard to master, and instead implies that it is hard and drawn out process. The last stanza is the only one to be four lines. It creates a sense of closure, but also ends on the word “disaster”, showing that the process of losing is never entirely complete.
So it’s ten o’clock at night, and I’m thriving off some microwave rice I ate about five hours ago. I don’t think that I can tackle a comparison tonight, but if you’d like us to compare an unseen with a spec poem, let us know!

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