The Art of Losing—Three Poems for the COVID-19 Pandemic

“The aspiration to mastery leaves room for a lot of anxiety. Many readers hear a kind of hysteria in the poem, with its rhythm revving up as it ruminates on vulnerability in the face of mortal threat.”

Professor Elisa New & Dr. Raphael Campo in JAMA, on Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”
JAMA Network logo

Blog post by Communications Intern Gideon Leek

Kafka claimed that “a book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside us.” Bob Dylan, on reading Dante, sang,

                    "Then she opened up a book of poems,
                     And handed it to me,
                     Written by an Italian poet,
                     From the thirteenth century,

                     And every one of them words rang true,
                     And glowed like a burning coal, 
                     Pouring off of every page,
                     Like it was written in my soul, from me to you,
                     Tangled up in blue."
                     - Bob Dylan

The power of reading to provide connection and comfort is extensively documented. As Nietzsche noted on reading Spinoza for the first time: “my lonesomeness, which, as on very high mountains, often made it hard for me to breathe and make my blood rush out, is now at least a twosomeness. Strange!”

It’s this comfort, the profound comfort of reading, which is examined in Professor Elisa New and Dr. Rafael Campo’s new article in The Journal of the American Medical Association. The article, “The Art of Losing—Three Poems for the COVID-19 Pandemic,” examines three poems: Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” Marilyn Chin’s “Hospital in Oregon,” and Edward Hirsch’s “What the Last Evening Will Be Like.” The three poems are examined not in the metaphysical context of Bob Dylan’s encounter with Dante, nor of Nietzsche’s with Spinoza, but in the context of the present global pandemic. Sometimes metaphysics must wait. 

The article finds, in Bishop’s discussion of her own fears of alcoholic relapse, echoes of the current fears of coronavirus exposure and inadequate medical care. In Chin’s poem, New and Campo find empathy for doctors’ struggle to reach patients verbally, families unable to reach them physically, and nature both barred from them in its tenderness and enveloping them in its viciousness. Lastly, in Hirsch’s poem, they delve into the dialectic between the enormity of loss and its smallness. 

The article though is not readily summarized and worth reading at the link below. Before reading it, peruse the enthusiastic responses of some of its prior readers.