When I translate one of your poems and I come across words I do not understand, I always guess at their meanings. I am inevitably right. A really perfect poem (no one yet has written one) could be perfectly translated by a person who did not know one word of the language it was written in. A really perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary.
It is very difficult. We want to transfer the immediate object, the immediate emotion to the poem – and yet the immediate always has hundreds of its own words clinging to it, short-lived and tenacious as barnacles. And it is wrong to scrape them off and substitute others. A poet is a time mechanic not an embalmer. The words around the immediate shrivel and decay like flesh around the body. No mummy-sheet of tradition can be used to stop the process. Objects, words must be led across time not preserved against it.
I yell “Shit” down a cliff at the ocean. Even in my lifetime the immediacy of that word will fad. It will be dead as “Alas.” But if I put the real cliff and the real ocean into the poem, the word “Shit” will ride along with them, travel the time-machine until cliffs and oceans disappear.
Most of my friends like words too well. They set them under the blinding light of the poem and try to extract every possible connotation from each of them, every temporary pun, every direct or indirect connection – as if a word could become an object by mere addition of consequences. Others pick up words from the streets, from their bars, from their offices and display them proudly in their poems as if they were shouting, “See what I have collected from the American language. Look at my butterflies, my stamps, my old shoes!” What does one do with all this crap?
Words are what sticks to the real. We use them to push the real, to drag the real into the poem. They are what we hold on with, nothing else. They are as valuable in themselves as rope with nothing to be tied to.
I repeat – the perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary.
Copyright © 1975 by The Estate of Jack Spicer.
Editor’s Note: This is the third time Jack Spicer has been featured here on As It Ought To Be. Today is the third, and also my thirtieth birthday. Jack Spicer is among my favorite poets, and After Lorca among my favorite of his works.
With After Lorca, Spicer invented a fresh and innovative art form. The book (originally a chapbook, printed and distributed locally in the San Francisco Bay Area, as was Spicer’s way) notes that it is published “With an introduction by Federico Garcia Lorca.” Of course, Lorca had been dead some twenty-one years by the time Spicer published this book.
The above letter lies somewhere between the boundaries of poetry and prose, somewhere between the world of the living and the dead, somewhere between poetry and creative nonfiction. And within the letter itself is a sort of manifesto of Spicer’s. His thoughts on language, on art, even critique of the writing of his compatriots – a not altogether un-Spicerian thing to do. Under the guise of a letter to Lorca, Spicer is able to share with his audience an insight into his mind and his craft while simultaneously doing something with language and art that had not been done before.
Today’s post specifically struck a chord with me in relation to my own evolving craft. I specifically want to dedicate today’s post to As It Ought To Be Editor Okla Elliot. Okla has been kind enough to help me revise my poems for submission to graduate school. Throughout this infuriating process he has reminded me over and over to put concrete objects into my poems and that they suffer from too many abstract ideas and images. I think Okla would agree with this statement, if only in relation to my work, “Most of my friends like words too well. They set them under the blinding light of the poem and try to extract every possible connotation from each of them, every temporary pun, every direct or indirect connection – as if a word could become an object by mere addition of consequences.”
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