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The Poet's Spotlight: Jim Lyle thrives and writes in Yountville

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As we sit at a white tablecloth-covered table in Hurley’s in Yountville, Jim Lyle describes his escape from the “quintessential center” of the Dust Bowl to California where he owned a business or two, met the beat poets, and wrote poetry.

Now 78, Lyle is still writing and publishing and reading his poems.

His first book “Things Seen in the Desert” (Earthen Vessel Publications), was published in 2001, when he was just a young 70-year-old — something to give all unpublished poets hope.

 Lyle was born and lived his childhood “one-third in Texas and two-thirds in Oklahoma,” and moved to California “about the time Steinbeck chronicled” in his famous “Grapes of Wrath.”

Lyle eventually became a building designer and owned a business in Campbell.

He also lectured at San Jose State University for several years.

Lyle found his first home base in San Jose, where he listened to and met some of the Beat poets in an upstairs room in a restaurant, Eulipia, that he had designed.   

Lyle had already gone to school with Michael McClure, a well-known Beat poet. But hearing the Beats read on a regular basis eventually encouraged him to write his own poems as well.

“I knew a lot of those poets before I started writing,”  he said. (The so-called Beat poets are Alan Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder and McClure, among others.) “Some of those people became central in the Beat Generation,” Lyle said, “but I was getting it second hand.”

I asked Lyle how he happened to become the first poet laureate of Lake County.

“I started a poetry reading at the Arts Council in Lakeport,” he said.

After a reading at the Lake County board of supervisor’s meeting, “I started to walk away from the podium … and they handed me a piece of paper that proclaimed I was the poet laureate of Lake County.”

Two years later Jim Lyle resigned as poet laureate even though Lake County wanted him to hold the post “for life,” because he believes that the poet laureate should be a rotating term. “It is a lot better for poetry if you turn it over,” he said.

Asked what he likes to write about, Lyle answered he writes about love, which is “always going one way or another,” as well as places (the Dust Bowl) and people he has known there (such as Sherd Schuman, “the old derelict in my home town”).

He also writes about “philosophical” subjects, since he completed his bachelor’s degree in philosophy — and about everything from water to whales.

As this poem on water shows, Lyle sometimes writes in “open form” (not rhymed), using details to give flesh to his subject:

Wild Brew

Pure sterile water leaves no mark,

has no taste, does not quench.

Natural water,

pregnant with color

smells…

and stains and

supports particle remnants

and marks death, life, touch, and

 love.

It evaporates, erodes, scours, flushes,

and deposits hitchhiking electrolytes;

triggers tongue tingles,

adjusts valence,

prints ebb and flow,

engraves with acid and alkali,

It coats our tongues

with life’s

ageless, miraculous, random,

wild brew.

On the other hand, his poem, “The Last Whale,” is rhymed and metered:

The Last Whale

When the waves are down and seas lie flat,

the humpbacked fossil stirs its sleep;

in grotto dark and ebb-tide mat,

this living sonar sounds the deep.

Through kelp bed vine and thermocline,

from coral reefs, and fog, and foam,

the sea-bound mammal sings benign,

its ancient requiem alone —

An a cappella canticle,

of endings and alone,

a haunting ribbon melody

that begs us to atone.

A song of sun and surface ride

(how easy love on waves was laid),

till ignorance and genocide

brought dread and fear of flensing blade:

Taught refuge in the quickened sea

and shadow-shrouded chasm walls,

till only in soliloquy

the last anachronism calls —

In songs of searches in the deep

(where lovers once had lain),

a song of fathom fantasies,

of love that might remain.

And dusty-rooted on the sand

I feel the contrapuntal flow,

that mammal mem’ry from the land,

I answer, “Yes, my friend, I know…”

 I know my relic heart  can bleed

in rhythm with your own,

and keen for lust and love complete,

… I too listen … all alone.                     

Asked about his writing process, Lyle responded, “it’s mostly when it comes to me … Sometimes something comes out of it, and other times nothing comes out of it … I may make a note or two so I don’t forget something,” then go to a typewriter or computer and write up the poem. “One of the best things that happened to me in high school was I either had to go out for football or I had to take typewriting.” As a result, “I can type faster than I can write.”

Lyle is a serious and witty poet who cares about poetry in our community.

He lives in Yountville at the Veterans Home and continues to write his poems and read them whenever he gets the chance.

And he continues to look for occasions and venues for poets to read their poetry in Napa County. 

By the way, he also paints, and you can see two of his marvelous works (painted with “enamel” paint) in the back room at Hurley’s in Yountville.

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