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  • Elizabeth Bishop and the Miniature Museum
  • Susan Rosenbaum

"Everything important that I have done can be put into a little suitcase."


I. In the Bishop Museum

In March 1967 Elizabeth Bishop wrote a brief "Gallery Note" for her friend and former poetry student, Wesley Wehr, intended to accompany an exhibition of his miniature watercolors. Bishop states:

It is a great relief to see a small work of art these days. The Chinese unrolled their precious scroll-paintings to show their friends, bit by bit; the Persians passed their miniatures about from hand to hand; many of Klee's or Bissier's paintings are hand-size. Why shouldn't we, so generally addicted to the gigantic, at last have some small works of art, some short poems, short pieces of music [. . .] some intimate, low-voiced, and delicate things in our mostly huge and roaring, glaring world? But in spite of their size, no one could say that these pictures are "small-scale."1

Bishop herself was a great producer of small works of art. Like Wesley Wehr, Bishop painted miniature watercolors, as small as three inches square but most commonly between five and ten inches.2 Moreover, her poetry—from her first collection, North & South (1946), to her final volume, Geography III (1976)—is distinguished by her detailed descriptions of art and nature; her predilection for "minor" subjects; and her celebration of "intimate, low-voiced, and delicate things." [End Page 61]

That she was called a miniaturist and a poet of description caused Bishop great anxiety, however, for she felt that such labels, in their reliance on subtle distinctions of both gender and value, relegated her to a secondary status. In the Romantic tradition, the miniature was associated not with the transformative power of the imagination, but with fancy, a mental faculty defined by its inability to transcend the visual, the material, the contingent or particular; thus fancy was characterized by the accumulation of miniaturist detail; by its status as a derivative craft; and by the logic of the copy versus that of the original.3 A gendered distinction between fancy and imagination often explicitly guided the early reviews of Bishop's work, with peers such as Robert Lowell and Randell Jarrell voicing discomfort with Bishop's miniaturist inclinations.4 For instance, William Jay Smith, in a 1966 review of Questions of Travel, called Bishop a "miniaturist," and argued that her penchant for "no detail too small" risked limiting her work to that of a feminine, sentimental tradition.5

Since the late 1970s, Bishop's critics have soundly reversed the early dismissal of her miniaturist interests. William Meredith's 1976 MLA presentation signaled the change in the Bishop reception; he commented, "Foolish critics reproached Frost and Auden [. . .] for little poems, small themes, taking these for trivia, signs of decline in powers. Miss Bishop was too quick for them. From the first, she has cut small jewels along with the large."6 In 1977 Lloyd Schwartz pointed out that Bishop's "interest in small things, in 'details,' if we hadn't noticed before, is—as 'Poem' reveals—not a mannerism, but part of a profound vision," and Mark Strand introduced Bishop at the Guggenheim Museum as "our greatest national treasure."7 Langdon Hammer, Timothy Morris, and Thomas Travisano, in their studies of the Bishop reception, have argued that recent scholarship guided by feminist insights has revalued that which an earlier tradition belittled: the feminine, the queer, the marginal, the fanciful. The miniature had become Bishop's ticket into the realm of the grand: Bishop is now firmly in the canon, not in spite of, but because of, her interest in "intimate, low-voiced, and delicate things."

Yet in dismissing or embracing Bishop as miniaturist, critics have overlooked Bishop's profound ambivalence about her place in institutions of cultural memory.8 Bishop conveyed this ambivalence when she wrote to Lowell in 1951 that "on reading over what I've got on hand I find I'm really a minor female Wordsworth" (One Art 221–222). The phrase "minor female" indicates anxiety that her work would be considered "small-scale" by a critical establishment who valued poets such as Wordsworth, suggesting...


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