“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop and “The Law of Life” by Jack London


“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” –Henry Ford


“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

On the surface, “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop seems relatively simple. However, it’s a deceptively complex poem. Is she really talking about the forgetfulness of old age? Or even about never getting to return to a foreign city she once loved? Maybe she is, and maybe she isn’t.

Bishop graduated from Vassar College and was friends with a number of writers in her adult life, including Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. Bishop had an inheritance from her father so she was able to live alone and travel extensively. In 1951 she took a trip to Brazil and ended up living there for the next 15 years with her partner. When her partner committed suicide in 1967, Bishop returned to the States. Later in life she taught at Harvard, NYU, and MIT. She met her second partner in 1971 and lived with her until Bishop’s death in 1979.

Regarding the poem “One Art,” I want to leave you with two things to think about as you listen. First, this poem is written in villanelle form. This form originated in France, and has a lot of rules about pace, rhythm, and rhyme that make it complicated to write in English. Poets don’t use forms like the villanelle randomly, and I think there’s something significant about the casual vocabulary of “One Art” being expertly molded into such a rigid structure as the villanelle.

Second, and this is a person interpretation of the poem, I think “One Art” goes beyond the loss of things and experiences. I think this poem is about losing memories. To me, that is true loss – to not even know something (or someone) was there in the first place. And if you listen closely to “One Art,” I think you’ll understand why I read the poem this way.

For more by Bishop, check out her duet of books titled Poems and Prose. Then there’s Rare and Commonplace Flowers: The Story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares, a book about Bishop’s years with her partner Soares in Brazil. For a movie version of that book, check out Reaching for the Moon, released in 2013.



“The Law of Life” by Jack London

“The Law of Life” by Jack London is an interesting take on growing old and a perspective on the realities of life, up to and including death.

Jack London is an interesting fellow. His mom moved to California when she was a young woman. She was a music teacher, and claimed to channel an Indian chief, and London’s dad was probably an astrologer his mom was living with at the time she got pregnant. After London’s mom refused to have an abortion, the dad took off. Mom tried to kill herself (unsuccessfully) and then turned over newborn Jack to another woman to raise for a while until after she married John London.

At nine years old, he started reading poetry and prose on his own at the local library. At 17 he hired on as a sailor to Japan. After he returned he worked at a jute mill for a while, then became a hobo, traveling across the whole U.S.

THEN he went to high school in Oakland. At 20 years old he spent a whole summer studying and passed the entrance exam to UC Berkeley, his dream school.

Jack London knew nothing about his astrologer dad until he was in his 20s and a student at Berkeley, where he learned about the astrologer guy from an old newspaper clipping of his mom’s suicide attempt. Of course, he wrote to the guy. Unfortunately, the astro-dad claimed, mom slept around. And the astrologer was impotent. So never write this address again.

At this news, Jack London quit college and moved to the Klondike, beginning an long and illustrious literary career.

There’s a ton more about London. He was a socialist, probably a racist, and a self-made money-o-nare. His first marriage was “arranged” by himself and the lady so that they could make some decent kids. London traveled extensively, “borrowed” from others’ works regularly, and drank like a fish. Over the course of his life he contracted scurvy, dysentery, several tropical diseases, and renal failure. The guy’s own life is a story, never mind all the stories he wrote.

For more on Jack London read his works along with Critical Companion to Jack London: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work by Jeanne Campbell Reesman. Multiple movie versions of The Call of the Wild are out there, and Disney’s White Fang with Ethan Hawke is pretty entertaining.

Opening music: “Gypsy Swing Ting” from Little Dark One via SoundCloud [Creative Commons Commercial-Attribution License]

Other music: “Gypsy Honey Trio” by Fingerstyle_guitar via SoundCloud [Creative Commons Commercial-Attribution License]

Episode 5: “The Law of Life”
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