Paul Metcalf

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1175

Paul Metcalf is known both as an originator of genres and as an experimental writer. He was born to Henry and Eleanor (Thomas) Metcalf. His mother was Herman Melville’s granddaughter and literary executrix. As a result Metcalf’s childhood home was a haven for Melville scholars in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Metcalf himself did not really become interested in literature until he was fourteen years old, when he met Charles Olson, a Melville scholar and writer only eight years his senior who became a lifelong influence. At the age of nineteen Metcalf entered Harvard University, and when he was still in his early twenties he spent a summer studying with Conrad Aiken, who inspired him to write verse. Aiken also encouraged Metcalf to read the major works of William Faulkner. On his periodic visits to the library in New York, Metcalf became acquainted with the poetry of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, with various historical works, and with the works of Herman Melville.

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After marrying Nancy Harman Blackford on May 31, 1942, Metcalf remained in South Carolina for two years. During this time Metcalf experimented with several different literary forms. Initially, he intended to become a playwright, but after an abortive effort at writing a play he wrote a novel instead. Two years later he moved to Black Mountain, North Carolina, in the hope that the mountain air would be beneficial for the tuberculosis that had confined him to bed for an entire year. Soon after his arrival he was reunited with Olson, who was then rector of Black Mountain College, where he also taught poetics and discourse. During this time Olson introduced him to the writer Jonathan Williams and oversaw Metcalf’s progress.

Metcalf’s literary career began in earnest in 1956, when he approached Olson, who had just published his first important work, Maximus, to critical acclaim, with the idea of writing a historical novel about the Spanish conquistador explorer Hernando de Soto. Encouraged by Olson’s approval, Metcalf wrote his only novel in the conventional sense of the term, Will West, which was published by Williams’s Jargon Press, a press as well known in the United States as Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press was in England. This work clearly reflects the influence of Faulkner, Williams, and Olson, as well as that of various historical works. Will West, which ranges in time from the arrival of de Soto to the removal of the Cherokees from North Carolina to Oklahoma, is the first book in which Metcalf experimented with the technique of combining historical material with contemporary material. The work reflects Metcalf’s belief that the American experience is more than simply a transplantation of European culture. During this time Metcalf supported himself by teaching courses in creative writing and by conducting workshops.

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Having set forth the form and themes that were to become his trademark, Metcalf was ready to tackle more complex problems in his second book, Genoa. Here Metcalf pioneered the distinctive form he developed in his later works: an assemblage of materials drawn from history and other documentary sources (here, atypically, with a fictional subplot as well), laid out on the page rather in the manner of Olson and Pound. Although Christopher Columbus appears in the novel, the main character is actually Herman Melville, to whom Metcalf refers as the “cosmographical American.” He attempted to convey the experience of the westward migration through a series of lists. In this fashion he tried to show how pioneering necessitated the reduction of life to simple facts that eventually become lists. Metcalf returned to the method of Genoa in Patagoni, a work that also bears a thematic resemblance to Will West. Patagoni juxtaposes the stable way of life of primitive cultures to the unstable life of contemporary whites. Patagoni also resembles Will West in that it is concerned with a hemisphere. In this case North and South America are compared to a human body. Like Genoa, Patagoni juxtaposes quotations from historical and biographical works, travel guides, newspaper clippings, and a journal Metcalf kept on a trip to South America.

Metcalf’s next major work, Apalache, is a long assemblage composed largely of documentary material. Even though the historical texts are written in prose, they are broken into lines. Apalache is Metcalf’s most daunting and exploratory work, a lengthy description of Native American life and plundering throughout the United States. A large section is a historical record of white women made captive, and the account is as brutal as some such experiences were. Metcalf writes in the idiom of captive narratives, even using archaic spellings and syntax. Much of the book was serialized in such literary magazines as Granite before publication. Metcalf considered Apalache to be the last component of a single work consisting of Will West, Genoa, and Patagoni. After finishing Apalache, Metcalf decided to suspend his writing for a while and spend most of his time teaching. As an active member of the Poets in the Schools program, he began conducting workshops and reading poetry at the public schools in Holyoke. Soon he was lecturing, giving readings, and conducting workshops at high schools, colleges, art centers, and writers’ conferences throughout the United States. He has also served as a panelist for the literature division of the National Endowment for the Arts, a reader and judge for National Endowment Fellowships, and reader and judge for private and state fellowships in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota.

In later writings Metcalf produced a number of his distinctive assemblages as well as several whimsical short works. Zip Odes is an idiosyncratic book celebrating all the states with “poems” composed entirely of place-names drawn from the zip code directory. In U.S. Department of the Interior Metcalf employs juxtaposition for humorous effect; the subject of this short, seven-section volume is Alaska. Like Will West, U.S. Department of the Interior reflects his fascination with the unvarnished view of things that is characteristic of primitive cultures. Metcalf’s interest in the grotesque is also evident in the scenes depicting the legal machinations that permitted the exploitation of Alaska’s resources. This assemblage was followed by several others, including Waters of Potowmack; this magnificent historical collage was issued by North Point Press and thus brought Metcalf’s work to a wider readership.

Metcalf is known primarily as an experimental writer. His work is characterized by its oddball humor and by his roots in the oral tradition, qualities that have endeared him to people who attend his readings. On the other hand, many readers have found his work to be obscure, primarily because of his bold juxtaposition of images and his combining of forms that are normally incompatible, such as lists, diaries, and documentation. He was also somewhat inaccessible to readers because of his decision to publish in the small presses that grant him the creative freedom his vision demands. Although success on a large scale eluded him, Metcalf was content to indulge in what he called “the thrill of choosing,” which neatly sums up his artistic method.

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