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).
Paul Metcalf was born in 1917 in East Milton, Massachusetts. He attended Harvard but disliked it and dropped out in the first year. In 1942, he married Nancy Blackford of South Carolina. Over the next two decades the couple spent long periods in the South.
Metcalf also traveled widely through North and South America. He drew from these travels for his works.
Material / Preoccupations / Form
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.
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 soon 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, a mediocre doctor and the narrator of the story. Interleaved with their story are passages from Melville and the journals of Christopher Columbus, dropped into the mind of the narrator. These 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.”
In later works, Patagoni (1971), for instance, and especially by Apalache (1976), the semblance of story is gone. Apalache is a collage of texts taken from early American journals, exploration narratives, and newspaper articles that Metcalf uses to 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.” Metcalf quotes a remark of Edgar Allan Poe 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 such as William Burroughs.”
Metcalf’s books have also been described in terms of music--“symphonic”, “polyphonic,”  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).
His papers from 1917-1999 are held in the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, New York Public Library.
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.
- Quote by Poet Robert Creeley
- Dinitia Smith, "Paul Metcalf, 81; Wrote Experimental Tales", New York Times, 31 January 1999; accessed 17 March 2017
- Guy Davenport, Introduction to The Collected Works
- Coffee House Press
- Davenport, Introduction to The Collected Works by Metcalf
- Metcalf interview with John O’Brien, Review of Contemporary Fiction
- McCooey, No Wooden Horse
- Davenport, Introduction to The Collected Works
- Byrd, "Review of 'Collected Works' "
- Description of Metcalf's collection of essays, Where Do You Put the Horse?, Dalkey Archive
- Transcript of an interview with Metcalf by John O'Brien of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Dalkey Archive
- David McCooey. No Wooden Horse review of Metcalf's Collected Works (Coffee House Press)
- New York Times Obituary; Paul Metcalf, 81; Wrote Experimental Tales
- Coffee House Press Editors And Writers On Indie Literary Publishing; Huffington Post
- John O’Brien: "The Man Who Would Ban Happy Endings"; The New York Observer, 2011
- Don Byrd. "Review of Metcalf’s Collected Works
- Coffee House Press release of Metcalf's Collected Works, Volume I[permanent dead link]
- Coffee House Press release of Metcalf's Collected Works, Volume II
- Coffee House Press release of Metcalf's Collected Works, Volume III[permanent dead link]
- Isola Di Rifuiti. John Latta. (One of many “stray notes” on Metcalf.)
- Guy Davenport. Introduction to the Metcalf’s ‘’Collected Works’’, Volume One. Coffee House Press, 1996: Minneapolis
- Paul Metcalf Papers, 1917-1999, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature of the New York Public Library.