Apalache Essay - Critical Context

Paul Metcalf

Critical Context

Paul Metcalf owes something of his documentary method to the example and precept of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Charles Olson. Metcalf learned from Williams that a poem could be “about anything” and escape from the traditional restrictions on literary subject matter. From Olson he took the concept that a literary work should not be the expression of self but “objective.” Finally, Pound taught him that an epic was “a poem containing history” and in the Cantos showed how documents could be used in an imaginative way. Thus, Metcalf is carrying on the tradition of these American modernists, yet his technique also draws from the work of an earlier predecessor, his great-grandfather, Herman Melville. Melville interspersed chapters on the whale and whaling within his fictional narrative. Taking this technique a step further, Metcalf creates a narrative out of his juxtaposed documents.

Metcalf uses the documentary method to telling effect in Apalache, and he has claimed that his juxtaposition of sources has the effect of “metaphor.” The selection of materials is essential for him; it is not an arbitrary procedure. He describes his procedure as one of searching until he suddenly discovers: “This is it, this is what I’ve been looking for.” Having accumulated such discoveries, he juxtaposes, connects, associates his various materials into what becomes a new and original form. In “The Creative Process,” he quotes Edgar Allan Poe: “To originate is carefully, patiently, and understandingly to combine.” The results of this new combination can be seen on every page of Apalache.