The wonderful thing about art is how it reasserts itself in new forms, revisiting issues, like love and loss, that we just can’t stop thinking about. Sam Smith’s hauntingly beautiful and soulful song “Too Good at Goodbyes” does just this, echoing Elizabeth Bishop’s heartbreaking poem ‘One Art.’ In case you haven’t heard it yet (and you will, as it is ubiqitous right now!), Smith’s song chronicles the plight of a man who is “never going to let you close to me/even when you mean the most to me” because of the many times he’s been hurt. Such a sad state of affairs, listening to the song, we viscerally feel the pain and heartache he is attempting to dissociate from, and because he is so good at it, it hits us even harder!
The speaker wears his emotional toughness as badge of honor, letting us know that every time he is wounded anew, “the less that he cries” and the “quicker his tears dry.” In other words, he continually gets better and better at cutting off from his tenderness and developing more and more elaborate strategies of walling himself off. Insistent that we know that he is no fool, he continually reminds us that he has experience and knows just how to take care of himself. But for all this bluster, as an audience, we feel his profound sadness and loneliness, and know that the song is a true cry for help.
Elizabeth Bishop achieved the same effect with her incredible poem ‘One Art.’ Like Smith, her speaker shares with great pride the capacity she has to learn how to ‘lose farther, lose faster’, and she teachers us how we too, can learn to master this strange art. All of us, after all, know about how easy it is to lose track of time, to lose our keys, to lose hold of the smallest things. But what happens in Bishop’s poem is that these trifling things begin to accelerate and get more personal until she is losing her mother’s watch, her two houses, entire cities, and then a continent!
Intellectually, we can sense the enormity of her loss, and yet it isn’t until the last stanza when she focuses on losing her love–and her memorable voice–that we truly feel its profound emotional weight. Trying to convince herself and us that she too is so good at goodbyes, we can feel her sigh, stutter, and nearly break down, at the final turn of the poem when she recognizes and admits that the art of losing “may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”
Bishop’s poem is a villanelle, which turns in on itself repeating lines, just as Smith’s pop song does. Each time we hear the chorus of Smith (“I’m just too good at goodbyes”) and the refrain of Bishop (“The art of losing isn’t hard to master”), we revisit the main theme with a new context of love, loss, and tenderness.
Smith expresses the reason why both his and Bishop’s speakers have learned to be so good at goodbyes. The defensive and dissociative mechanism, the art, which he has learned to master is “just protecting his innocence and his soul.” We must remember that this is the ultimate purpose of trauma’s defenses, as Donald Kalsched points out–to protect the sanctity and integrity of the personal spirit. What Smith and Bishop’s works of art teach us so poignantly is that we can’t outrun these feelings, try as we wish we might. Part of the power of both pieces of art is that we feel and take in the profound heartbreak that in its own strange way brings us closer to that sacred and tender place that is the soul.
Michael Alcee, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist practicing in Tarrytown, NY. He loves making connections between art, pop culture, and therapy. Find out more about him on his website at drmichaelalcee.com.
Bishop, E., Giroux, R., & Schwartz, L. (2008). Poems, prose, and letters. New York: Library of America.
Kalsched, Donald (1996). The inner world of trauma: archetypal defenses of the personal spirit. Hove: Routledge.
Smith, Sam, Napier, James, & Eriksen, Mikkel Storleer (2017) Too Good at Goodbyes [Recorded by Sam Smith. On The Thrill of It All (Record). London: Capitol Records (November 3, 2017).