Paul Metcalf, regarding Michel Butor’s 1963 Mobile, A Study for a Representation of the United States,with its dedication to Jackson Pollock:
. . . it is the first full-length prose work I know in which—as in Pound, Williams, Olson—the meanings are stripped of all literary trappings, lying (as pigments) nakedly side by side, the shock of juxtaposition unmitigated.
has Butor read our poets, or did he get it from the painters? In any case, this is a re-emergence of an old tradition of franco-american interchange, one that involved Jefferson, Franklin, Crevecoeur and de Tocqueville . . . it is also in the tradition of that secondary European greed, not the landgrabbers, but those who gathered, at second hand, the land’s natural life: as, Coleridge mining the Bartrams—here, Butor makes a feast of Audubon, picking the birds clean.
And, countering “Jonathan Williams, in a letter,” who’d complained the book “is merely grist,” Metcalf quotes Wright Morris’s The Territory Ahead(1963):
“Walt Whitman . . . is the forerunner of those anonymous classics the Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogues. The poetry of things. The poetry of the sheer weight and number of things. The uses, abuses, and value of things, the appearance, description, and nature of things, the name and number of things, with their price, place, and listing in the great plan. . .
“The mystic meaning proper to objects themselves is the poetry in Whitman. The mere sight of things, a listing of their uses, excites in the American a rudimentary aesthetic. It is not uniquely American, but as Americans we rely on it almost uniquely. After all, what else is there?”
Metcalf adds: “we see this reappearing in PATERSON, the geological analysis of the Passaic riverbed, listing of the sediments, and in MAXIMUS Olson’s fondness for lists of maritime provisions. Here in MOBILE, there is the incessant listing of place names, small and large, from all over our map . . .” Out of the Robert Buckeye-edited From Quarry Road: Uncollected Essays and Reviews of Paul Metcalf (Amandla, 2002). (Metcalf’s own 1979 Zip Odes is “composed entirely of place names, as they appear, state by state, in the U. S. Postal Service Zip Code Directory . . . nothing has been added—there are no ‘filler’ words, or ‘combining’ words.”)