Notes and Comments

Chicago Review, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Notes and Comments


Paul Metcalf was a unique force in twentieth-century American literature, an eccentric in the best sense of the word. A great-grandson of Herman Melville, he was one of a handful of writers to have reconciled nineteenthcentury American prose traditions with disjunctive practices of early twentieth-century American poetry. In literary geneologies, Metcalf is linked not only with Melville, but with the Black Mountain poet Charles Olson. In many ways, however, Metcalf's own documentary collage style owed more to Olson's immediate poetic predecessors than to the self-styled "post-modern" author of The Maximus Poems. When asked about his own idiosyncratic writing style, Metcalf described it as "traditional," rooted in the textual collage practices of Ezra Pound, and, more particularly, in those of the "objectivist" poet William Carlos Williams.

Metcalf wrote what may be his best books-Patagoni (1971), The Middle Passage (1976), Apache (1976)-during the period that followed from his abandonment of conventional narrative forms in Genoa: A Telling of Wonders (1965). In these and numerous other poetic collage texts, he blended a documentarian's taste for the local (few writers have made better use of WPA guides of the 1930s) with a gothic interest in thresholds. Earthquakes, epilepsy, and alchoholism were all, in Metcalf's work, not grotesque adornments, but fundamental components of American history and culture. Although his subjects have been consistently timely and compelling, the formal demands of his "narrative hieroglyphs"-described as poetry by some and prose by others-prevented Metcalf from gaining more than a small and devoted body of readers. Surprisingly, only a handful of academic critics took notice of his writings. Still, Metcalf did see his Collected Works, a hefty three-volume set, published by Coffee House Press in 1996.

Paul Metcalf was born on November 7, 1917-the year and day, he liked to note, of the Russian Revolution. When he died in January of this year, he left little of the century behind him. His departure is as ephemeral and as momentous as that of the Beothuk, or the recondite "Red Indians," whose disappearance from Newfoundland he remembered at the end of Apache:

on some of the old french charts of the north of the island le petit nord, a track or path is shown...

it is called chemin de sauvage, and may mark the las of the bodI, migrating to the north...

DAVID KADLEC

British poet Tom Raworth has recently been on a reading circuit of Canada and the U.S., and will be settling in Chicago for the spring, teaching at Columbia College. For those unfamiliar with his poetry, the experience of reading is distinctive (though comparable in certain aspects of technique to some Language poetry). A Raworth poem typically begins with a clear statement, but through a series of disjunctive and mercurial shifts skitters sideways to somewhere else. Yet despite their off-kilter movement, Raworth's poems are perhaps most remarkable for a kind of poise. Like most British experimental poetry, many of his books are difficult to come by. Eternal Sections (1993) was published by Sun & Moon, and should be readily available; Clean and Well Lit: Selected Poems 1987-1995 is also available from an American publisher, Roof Books.

Keith Tuma (who has contributed to Chicago Review in the past) offers some insightful discussions of Raworth in his new book of criticism, Fishing by Obstinate Isles: Modern and Postmodern British Poetry and American Readers (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998). As Tuma suggests, "Meeting each new line in the present of our act of reading the poem, we are forced to revise our sense of the last one. Our desire to stop, to settle in the grammar of a proposition, exclamation, or question is constantly frustrated; our memories of the immediate past suddenly become memories of something seen incompletely, words which have turned out to be other than what we imagined by virtue of our turning to the next line, moving down the page to set them in yet another combination" (234-35). …

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