Thursday, September 06, 2007

Gould, Lyle, Nardi

Because Williams pastes Marcia Nardi’s pleading, convoluted, obsessive letters full of high dudgeon right into Paterson, we normally think of her presence as the one that uniquely pulled Williams out of the formal constraints of the poem and into a vast territory outside his control. However, as Paul Mariani shows in A New World Naked (1981), Williams was also inspired by David Lyle, whose work did not ultimately make it into the pages of the poem. Mariani describes Lyle as:
an old radio operator who had settled in Paterson . . . to devote all his prodigious energies to one extraordinary project. By dint of hard work he had turned himself into a one-man information station, reading and digesting everything he could get his hands on in an attempt to discover in that aphasic river of random words just what were the central energies and patterns of the times. Blake-like, he moved into the tonnage of news media pitchblende in order to extract what Williams had called the radiant gist, the luminous center. . . . Lyle mailed off his missives—sometimes five or eight or ten pages long, single-spaced and glossed—to artists, musicians, poets, politicians, engineers, in short, to whatever names he found in the news. It was as though he had managed to freeze the very radio waves themselves and make their energies visible in ink as they flowed through the thousands of names and places and especially verbs that were in the air at any given moment. (468-69)
Nardi’s prose, in light of Lyle’s influence, does not necessarily point to some more authentic, democratic, “real” world outside poetry. Rather, its inclusion dramatizes the role of poet as a manager of data—a filter of sorts, rather than creator ex nihilo.
In the same chapter, Mariani off-handedly notes a trip Williams takes to Manhattan to visit Joe Gould on his birthday. Here, perhaps, was another secret well of inspirational company that Williams kept, since Gould was allegedly interfacing massive amounts of live data to produce his Oral History of the World. Joseph Mitchell describes Gould’s vast trove of cheap composition books as “a great hodgepodge and kitchen midden of hearsay, a repository of jabber, an omnium-gatherum of bushwa, gab, palaver, hogwash, flapdoodle, and malarkey, the fruit, according to Gould’s estimate, of more than twenty thousand conversations. In it are the hopelessly incoherent biographies of hundreds of bums, accounts of the wanderings of seamen encountered in South Street barrooms, grisly descriptions of hospital and clinic experiences . . ., summaries of innumerable Union Square and Columbus Circle harangues, testimonies given by converts at Salvation Army street meetings, and the addled opinions of scores of park-bench oracles and gin-mill savants” (Joe Gould’s Secret 12-3).
Mariani tells me that the Lyle letters are at Yale, where, sometime this fall, I hope to go to get a look at them. The Gould books, for a long time believed to be baled up and buried in a cellar on Long Island, are not so retrievable, their substance dispersed into the “infinitude of bushwa.”

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