The Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky observed that in the history of art, the legacy is transmitted not from father to son but from uncle to nephew (and from aunt to niece—or from aunt to nephew). Each new generation of novelists, painters, and composers is likely to look for inspiration not to their immediate predecessors but to figures more distant, whether from another culture or from the neglected riches of their own traditions.
People should not be surprised, then, if the young writers and artists in their acquaintance all seem to be reading Paul Metcalf. After working for decades in splendid isolation (his books have been published by small presses in very limited print runs, often years after they were written), Metcalf could walk today into any major bookstore and find his long-inaccessible books on the shelf next to best-selling fiction and the latest literary sensations. Readers owe this miracle to the enterprise of Coffee House Press and the largesse of the Lannan Foundation. Supported by a generous grant, Coffee House Press undertook a three-volumeCollected Works, which includes some previously unpublished material. The first volume appeared in 1996 (see Magill’s Literary Annual, 1997), with volumes 2 and 3 following in 1997.
One of the reasons Metcalf has heretofore labored in obscurity is that no one has known how to categorize his books. They are not fiction (except for stretches in some of his early works) or poetry (though they most closely resemble the long poems of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Charles Olson) or history (though they quote copiously from historical sources). What are they? Twenty-five years ago, when national boundaries between and within the arts were vigilantly policed, that was a disabling question. If writers or artists could not be plugged into a familiar pigeonhole, they were likely to be cast out into the limbo reserved for “experimental art.” Since then, however, technological innovations have eroded traditional categories and all manner of hybrid artists are flourishing. Suddenly, instead of seeming merely odd, Metcalf looks like a pioneer from whom there are useful lessons to be learned. He is also, for those not driven off by the initial strangeness, an immensely entertaining companion who drops in for a visit now and then, always with fabulous tales to tell.
Metcalf himself has generally avoided fussing about labels, but he has occasionally sought to spell out what he is doing. One such occasion—unusually explicit—comes at the very beginning of I-57, the first book included in volume 2 of the Collected Works:
Not a poem, not a novel, not a history, not a journal, yet at times some or all of these—I-57 is an idiosyncratic approach to a place, a region, and to an interior and an exterior life. . . .
The choice of title is random, dictated by virtue of the book being written during the author’s 57th year . . . hence, the title dictates the material: Interstate 57, the state of Illinois, Sikeston, Missouri (just across the river), to Chicago.
So the title is a pun: both the highway and “I, Paul Metcalf.” Likewise, the journey recounted therein is both exterior and interior, and in this archetypal road trip the past is always present, sometimes insistently, sometimes like a faint and haunting music.
I-57 is indeed an ideal introduction to Metcalf’s work. What might sound like a self-indulgent caprice—the sort of thing that exercises Jesse Helms when it is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts—is in fact a wonderfully crafted book drawing on Metcalf’s...
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