These letters are to be as temporary as our poetry is to be permanent. They will establish the bulk, the wastage that my sour-stomached contemporaries demand to help them swallow and digest the pure word. We will use up our rhetoric here so that it will not appear in our poems. Let it be consumed paragraph by paragraph, day by day, until nothing of it is left in our poetry and nothing of our poetry is left in it. It is precisely because these letters are unnecessary that they must be written.
In my last letter I spoke of the tradition. The fools that read these letters will think by this we mean what tradition seems to have meant lately—an historical patchwork (whether made up of Elizabethan quotations, guide books of the poet’s home town, or obscure bits of magic published by Pantheon) which is used to cover up the nakedness of the bare word. Tradition means much more than that. It means generations of different poets in different countries patiently telling the same story, writing the same poem, gaining and losing something with each transformation—but, of course, never really losing anything. This has nothing to do with calmness, classicism, temperament, or anything else. Invention is merely the enemy of poetry.
See how weak prose is. I invent a word like invention. These paragraphs could be translated, transformed by a chain of fifty poets in fifty languages, and they still would be temporary, untrue, unable to yield the substance of a single image. Prose invents— poetry discloses.
A mad man is talking to himself in the room next to mine. He speaks in prose. Presently I shall go to a bar and there one or two poets will speak to me and I to them and we will try to destroy each other or attract each other or even listen to each other and nothing will happen because we will be speaking in prose. I will go home, drunken and dissatisfied, and sleep—and my dreams will be prose. Even the subconscious is not patient enough for poetry.
You are dead and the dead are very patient.
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.
When you had finished a poem what did it want you do with it? Was it happy enough merely to exist or did it demand imperiously that you share it with somebody like beauty of a beautiful person forces him to search the world for someone that can declare that beauty? And where did your poems find people?
Some poems are easily laid. They will give themselves to anybody and anybody physically capable can receive them. They may be beautiful (we both written some that were) but they were meretricious. From the moment of their conception they inform us in a dulcet voice that, thank you, they can take care of themselves. I swear that if one of them were hidden beneath my carpet, it would shout out and seduce somebody. The quiet poems are what I worry about – the ones that must be seduced. They could travel about with me for years and no one would notice them. And yet, properly wed, they are more beautiful than their whorish cousins.
But I am speaking of the first night when I leave my apartment almost breathless, searching for someone to show the poem to. Often now there is no one. My fellow poets ( those I showed poetry to ten years ago) are so little interested in my poetry as I am in theirs. We both compare the poems shown (unfavorably, of course) with the poems we were writing ten years ago when we could learn from each other. We are polite but it is as if we were trading snapshot of our children- old acquaintances who disapprove of each other’s wives. Or were you more generous, García Lorca?
There are the young, of course. I have been reduced to them (or my poems have) lately. The advantage in them is that they haven’t yet decided what kind of poetry they are going to write tomorrow and are always looking for some device of yours to use. Yours, that’s the trouble. Yours and not the poem’s. they read the poem once to catch the marks of your style and then again, if they are at all pretty, to see if there is any reference to them in the poem. That’s all. I used to do it myself.
When you are in love there is no real problem. The person you love is always interested because he knows that the poems are always about him. If only because each poem will someday be said to belong to the Miss X or Mister Y period of the poet’s life. I may not be a batter poet when I am in love, but I am a far less frustrated one. My poems have an audience.
Finally there are friends. There have been two of them in my life who could read my poems and one of that two prefers to put them in print so he can see them better. The other is far away.
All this to explain why I dedicate each of our poems to someone.
JACK SPICER | AFTER LORCA
WHITE RABBIT PRESS, SAN FRANCISCO
A FAKE NOVEL ABOUT THE LIFE OF ARTHUR RIMBAUD
The Dead Letter Office
“You can’t close the door. It is in the future,” French history said as it was born in Charlieville. It was before the Civil War and I don’t think that even James Buchanan was president.
There was a dead-letter office in every French village or town or city the size of Paris. There still is. Rimbaud was born in the Charlieville postoffice. He was a big child.
Apollinaire used to play golf while other people were shooting machine guns. Big butterflies tried to liberate him from the liberal mineded. But Rimbaud crawled to the page that lifted him up from his nephews.
That was born.
The Frank Terrors was one of the political parties Rimbaud invented while he was being born. He knew that he would be dead. They existed somewhere between the Right and the Left of all human behavior.
“Jim loves me,” the Right said. “Jim loves me,” the Left said. But the Frank Terrors were busy at being born and said nothing.
Rimbaud did not really invent this political party. He took them as they were out of his soul. Â me with a sharp copula to add housing to the business of loving. Speaking sharp.
Gambetta went up in a balloon one winter evening. That was a long time. There was no conversation.
The Watch Rats
The novelist should explain what he was going about. “Surrealism is a coat of many colors,” Rimbaud is supposed to have remarked long after everything was over. To love is not to continue with the Zanzibar slave trade. To continue with the Zanzibar slave trade is not to love. It is similar.
The watch rats (they were really called wharf rats but Rimbaud called them wharf rats) ran along the Meuse River. They explained. The river ran to an ocean that ran to a number of oceans.
“We get into the cargo,” said the wharf rats, “and then we get out to sea. We make journeys and it is history. Our ages are 6, 17, 24, and 75.”
What they meant was that all this time Rimbaud was being born a little wharf rat was crawling from his skull, into his skull.
So Far We Have Stressed the Humanness of Rimbaud
The dead are not alive. That is what this unattractive prose wants to stamp out. Once you see an end to it, you believe that the dead are alive.
Rimbaud is now fifteen and is shooting horses. Since he is now dead, the years 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14 are unimportant both to his death and our lives. It is as if one planted grass in the postoffice.
The horses Rimbaud is shooting are the white and the black horse mentioned in Plato’s Phaedrus. Also known as a wall.
Imagine not being attacked by Indians (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14). Imagine not being attacked by Indians. The horse, Phaedrus, will win the race, the black one, the white one.
Imagine also that the dead are not alive and his awkward face.
Rabelais is on the middleaged side of the coin. Rimbaud is on the other. The middleaged side of the coin starts about twenty.
There is a zoo of pleasures to Rabelais. To Rimbaud—but I am too old to remember. It would be wrong to say that the zoo was a jungle, but the animals did not seem to have cages.
This did not have anything to do with poetry—being too old to remember—but Rimbaud thought it had anything to do with poetry— being 15,16,17,18,19, even 20. He was right.
What it is that it has to do with poetry no one is old enough or young enough to know. Even if he kissed me now I would tell him that.
He thought that poetry didn’t have to do with cages (which it didn’t) and that it was in a jungle (which it isn’t). He was fifteen at the time I am writing about this and never kissed me.
They said he was nineteen; he had been kissed
So many times his face was frozen closed.
His eyes would watch the lovers walking past
His lips would sing and nothing else would move.
We grownups at the bar would watch him sing.
Christ, it was funny with what childish grace
He sang our blues for us; his frozen lips
Would lift and sing our blues out song for song.
Intemperance of heart and of the mind
Will block their progress to the last abyss
Unwinkingly; they listen to the wind
And find a final ceiling in the throat.
Rimbaud Is a Gorilla with Seven Teeth
In the middle of the river of our life.
Things have passage. Most rivers eventually reach the ocean. Or a lake—an inland sea. This is like Africa in all continents.
Rimbaud offered himself up to Africa in all continents. Built a sea wall. But he was sixteen and a love object (a love object) when we eventually heard of him.
Literature suffered whenever he breathed. Literature could hear his chest moving. Great armies of sign painters came to carry him away.
Shouts by the bamboo birds woke him up. They built houses on him while he lay dreaming. There was a raft floating by (a black raft, a black raft.)
When Rimbaud was sixteen he never dreamed of Africa.
An Ontological Proof of the Existence of Rimbaud
Imagine, those of us who are poets, a good poet. Name to yourselves his possible attributes. He would have to be mmmmm, and nnnnn, and ooooo, and ppppp, but he would have to exist. It is a necessary attribute of the good to exist.
This is called Occam’s Law or Davy Jones’ Locker.
If they call him up into being by their logic he does not exist. John The Baptist, river-merchant, logician.
The Word puts on flesh when he becomes sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. The Word before Whom all of us are witless.
If Rimbaud had died there in the cabbage patch before we imagined he existed, there would be no history.
Hysterical voices calling over the path to our womb.
The Dead Letter Officer
Inside every Rimbaud was a ready-made dead-letter officer. Who really mailed the letter? Who stole the signs?
The signs of his youth and his poetry. The way he looked at things as if they were the last things to be alive.
The robes of his office are vague and noble. He has a hat that he wears on his head. His arms are attached to his shoulders.
Our contempt for him is general and is echoed even in the house of the dead. Blood would not appease his ghost which stays in us even after we are in the house of the dead. He is in every corpse, in every human life.
He writes poems, pitches baseballs, fails us whenever we have a nerve to need him. Button-molder too, he grows in us like the river of years.
A Piece of Marble
Rimbaud is 106 years old. Meanwhile everything is going on. A style creates its own context as a river has eels in it.
A piece of marble got lost when they were digging the quarry. His face when he was 86 years old or 104. The mystery of why there is a beauty left in any of us. Human beauty. In marble or in age.
These mysteries are real mysteries. It is I that proclaim these mysteries. Playing leapfrog with the unknown. With the dead. It is I that proclaim this history.
Look at the statues disappearing into the distance. They have space to disappear. Rub your eyes to see them. It is a strategy where we miss what we hit.
I mean that the reader of this novel is a ghost. Involved. Involved in the lives of Rimbaud.