Ideas Are Like Checks

Ideas are like checks, the poet Ezra Pound notes. How good they are is dependent on how much you have in your account. We may make deposits in various ways. Experience, first of all. What we experience day after day after day tells us the world, and about ourselves. A particular experience that stays, that does not go away, may tell us more. Loss is a good teacher; love a more subtle one.

We learn from others. We listen to them, note the example of their lives, see those as guides, whether we want to or not, who send us down the roads we go down. The lover, parent, master, friend, pupil, even the one who turns on us, betrays us. We go to books for understanding; to music for the rhythm of our rhythm; to art for confirmation. (Writers write books, Walter Benjamin notes, “because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like.”)

Some events are so crucial that they become talismanic. They remain with us forever, drive us to do what we do, generate worlds. In Orson Welles’s film, Citizen Kane, Kane remains obsessed by his childhood sled, Rosebud, to the extent that it becomes an explanation of his life, even if he does not understand it. The memory of a pastry he had in childhood (a madeleine) opens a world Marcel Proust chooses to seek, not escape. Dolls become family and friends in Dare Wright’s lonely world. “What form do you suppose a life would take,” Benjamin asks, “that was determined at a decisive moment precisely by the street song last on everyone’s lips.”

In Patti Smith’s most recent album, Twelve, Smith sings songs of other musicians on an album for the first time; musicians and groups like Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane and Bob Dylan, among others, who have taught her, driven and inspired her, but which she had not felt ready, yet, to do until now. There have been writers behind the columns I write for The Observer, who over years I have banked and can write checks on when I need them. They serve not only what I write but also explain why I do. Like Patti Smith, it is time for me to bring them forth.

Walter Benjamin. First of all. There is rarely a day I do not read him. A single sentence of his can be a book. The everyday can be impenetrable he notes, but adds the impenetrable can be everyday. He walks that line, and what for others may be a boundary is for me a threshold.

T. J. Clark. An art historian. He takes paintings off walls, and shows how paintings come out of life and returns them there, and, in particular, demonstrates how class is a shaping force in art as in everything else. What we do not speak of because of its “deep elusiveness” – the term is Clark’s – has shaped and shapes my life. You carry class like a chip on your shoulder one friend complains. I did not put it there. Clark is one (among others) who shows me how it got there.


Greil Marcus. A rock critic, who writes about Gnosticism, Dada, Jonathan Edwards, alien matter. He explains why my teenage passion for Chuck Berry, and later ones for Jimi Hendrix and The Clash have as much to say about life as Ralph Waldo Emerson. (“Walt Whitman and Bessie Smith,” novelist and activist Meridel Le Sueur notes, “made the best American Jelly Roll. Emerson didn’t like either one of them.”) With Marcus there is not the division between high and low culture that divides us, just culture.


Marguerite Duras. A master of the silences in our lives, and what screams come from them. “My books come from this house,” Duras writes. “From this light, and from the garden. It has taken me twenty years to write what I just said.” We cannot run faster than we can walk and cannot walk slow enough to stop, stay.


Charles Olson. A fire source. He blasted graduate school out of my system. It was a matter of how seriously one lived, and Olson did not waste time. His classes at Black Mountain College in North Carolina often lasted eight, nine hours, continued until there was nothing more to say; and then began again when there was something more. At the end of his life in Gloucester, Mass., he wrote on walls when he ran out of paper. Olson brought Ken Warren and me together, and through a circuitous route to The Lakewood Observer.


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Volume 3, Issue 12, Posted 11:37 PM, 05.14.2007