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.
Love, Jack …”