Paul Metcalf

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This article is about an American writer. For the similarly named fictional character, see Captain Scarlet (character).

Paul Metcalf (1917–1999) was an American writer. He wrote in verse and prose, but his work generally defies classification. Its small but devoted following includes Robert Creeley, William Gass, Wendell Berry, Guy Davenport, Howard Zinn, and Bruce Olds. His many books include Will West (1956), Genoa (1965), Patagoni (1971), Apalache (1976), The Middle Passage (1976), Zip Odes (1979), and U.S. Dept. of the Interior (1980).

He was the great-grandson of one of his major literary influences, Herman Melville.[1]


Paul Metcalf was born in 1917 in East Milton, Massachusetts. He attended Harvard but left before graduating. In 1942, he married Nancy Blackford of South Carolina and over the next two decades spent long periods in the South. Metcalf traveled widely through North and South America and these travels figure largely in his work. Among his friends and associates were the poet Charles Olson (whom he met when he was thirteen), the artist Josef Albers, poet and publisher Jonathan Williams and the writer Guy Davenport. Later in his career, Metcalf was a visiting professor at the University of California San Diego, SUNY Albany, and the University of Kansas. He died in 1999, near Pittsfield, Massachusetts.[2][3][4]

Material / Preoccupations / Form[edit]

Metcalf’s work draws on a wide range of material, including history, anthropology and folklore, travel narratives, geography, Indian lore, geology, and physiology. His work is difficult to classify according to the conventional categories of essay, journal, and fiction; thus his label as an “experimental” writer.[5]

Form and structure are of utmost importance to his art. Characteristic of his method is the assemblage of texts from a variety of sources fused into a new whole, and much of his work melds these several voices with that of his own. His earliest works used common fictional devices (storyline, characterization, dialogue), but early on Metcalf began pushing past such conventions. His novel Genoa (1965), subtitled “A Telling of Wonders,” is a portrait of two physically deformed brothers, one a vagabond / murderer, and the other, the narrator of the story, a mediocre doctor. Interleaved with the story are passages from Melville and the journals of Christopher Columbus, dropped into the mind of the narrator, and which serve to mythologize the events of the novel. The writer Guy Davenport described Genoa as being a “built” thing: “an architecture of analogies, similitudes, and Melvillean metaphor.”[6]

In later works, Patagoni (1971), for instance, and especially by Apalache (1976), the semblance of story is gone. Apalache in particular is a collage of texts taken from early American journals, exploration narratives, and newspaper articles that reconstruct American history in epic scope and form. Like William Carlos Williams before him, Metcalf freely mixes verse and prose. Waters of Potowmack (1982), a documentary history of the Potomac River, and other works such as U.S. Dept. of the Interior (1980) and I-57 (1988) continue Metcalf’s preoccupation with “juxtaposition” and documentary forms. Other Metcalf works include The Island (1982), Golden Delicious (1985) and Huascaran(1997).

In describing his technique, Metcalf uses the word “juxtaposition”: the union of seemingly disparate or disjointed elements. These elements, what the poet Donald Byrd refers to as “immense rhymes,” are the building blocks of Metcalf’s books. Greater than single words, they are often whole passages from other texts. “The difference is simply the size and proportion of the units I use: instead of words, I use whole lives, concepts, episodes, epochs.”[7] Metcalf quotes a remark of Edgar Allan Poe's as it applies to his own work, “To originate, is carefully, patiently, and understandingly to combine.” He emphasizes the organizing intelligence as opposed to random association and the “cut-ups” that are a hallmark of writers like William Burroughs.[8]

Metcalf’s books have been described in terms of architecture (the quote above from Davenport) and also music--“symphonic”,[9] “polyphonic,” [10] emphasizing the multitude of voices within that blend into one. His work was influenced by, among others, Ezra Pound (especially the Cantos), William Carlos Williams (Paterson, In the American Grain), and Charles Olson (Call Me Ishmael, parts of the Maximus Poems).[11]

Further reading[edit]

In 1996/97, Coffee House Press issued a three-volume collection of Metcalf’s works, from 1956 to 1997: Volume One (1956-1976); Volume Two (1976-1986); Volume Three (1987-1997).

In an interview with John O’Brien, published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction (and available online), Metcalf discusses his poetics and his influences. Metcalf was not a theorist in the mold of Pound and Olson, but he did have a strong sense of what writing and art should be, and what he was trying to accomplish through his art.

The blog Isola di Rifiuti, by John Latta, has excellent if scattered commentary about Metcalf.


  1. ^ Quote by Poet Robert Creeley
  2. ^ New York Times obituary
  3. ^ Davenport, Introduction to the Collected Works
  4. ^ Coffee House Press
  5. ^ New York Times obituary
  6. ^ Davenport, Introduction to the Collected Works
  7. ^ Metcalf interview with John O’Brien, Review of Contemporary Fiction
  8. ^ Metcalf interview with John O’Brien, Review of Contemporary Fiction
  9. ^ McCooey, No Wooden Horse
  10. ^ Davenport, Introduction to the Collected Works
  11. ^ Byrd, Review of Collected Works

Sources / External links[edit]