Sunday Feb. 5, 2017

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The Best Thing I Did

The best thing I did
for my mother
was to outlive her

for which I deserve
no credit

though it makes me glad
that she didn’t have
to see me die

Like most people
(I suppose)
I feel I should
have done more
for her

Like what?
I wasn’t such a bad son

I would have wanted
to have loved her as much
as she loved me
but I couldn’t
I had a life a son of my own

a wife and my youth that kept going on
maybe too long

And now I love her more
and more

so that perhaps
when I die
our love will be the same

though I seriously doubt
my heart can ever be
as big as hers

“The Best Thing I Did” by Ron Padgett from Collected Poems. © Coffee House Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today in 1936 the classic Charlie Chaplin film Modern Times was released to theaters. The film was one of Chaplin’s first works in the “talkie” era, and it grew to be one of his most well known; in 1989, it was named “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress. The film satirizes the era’s rise in technology and industrialization, along with the dire economic conditions of the Great Depression, as it follows Chaplin’s trademark character, “The Little Tramp,” and his mishaps as an assembly line factory worker.

A silent film master, Chaplin remained skeptical of “talkies,” and the dialogue in Modern Times is pointedly sparse. The movie’s few lines are cheekily delivered as disembodied voices speaking through automated machines like radios, video monitors, and microphones. The Little Tramp does vocalize in the ending scene — the first time Chaplin’s voice had ever been recorded for a film — but only to sing in gibberish. Chaplin felt that Little Tramp’s iconic character would be ruined should the audience ever hear him speak. Modern Times would also mark The Tramp’s last appearance.

Chaplin moved away from silent films by the late 1940s, broadening his presence as one of the most influential comedic performers in Hollywood. Though he rarely spoke in his films, Chaplin often spoke about them. “Movies are a fad,” he once said. “Audiences really want to see live actors on stage.”

It’s the birthday of American novelist, poet, and painter William S. Burroughs (1914) (books by this author), who, along with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, formed the nucleus of the “Beat Generation” of writers and artists during the 1950s. Burroughs is best known for his third novel, Naked Lunch (1959), which he wrote mostly while under the influence of drugs in Tangiers. Newsweek magazine said it “possessed a strange kind of genius,” but many other people found it filthy, and it became the subject of an obscenity trial. Burroughs described the novel as “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”

William Seward Burroughs was born into a wealthy family in St. Louis, Missouri. His grandfather had invented the adding machine, and Burroughs’s family had wisely socked away money before the Depression, so they emerged relatively unscathed, and Burroughs was sent to private schools in St. Louis and New Mexico. He read a book called You Can’t Win (1926), the autobiography of a drifter and burglar named Jack Black, whose lurid tales of drug use fascinated Burroughs. He graduated from Harvard and briefly went to medical school in Vienna, but found himself working as an exterminator, private detective, and a bartender. He said: “Well, I was just bored. I didn’t seem to have much interest in becoming a successful advertising executive or whatever, or living the kind of life Harvard designs for you.”

By 1944, he was living in Greenwich Village in New York City, on Bedford Street, and he had a full-blown drug habit.

He made friends with Ginsberg and Kerouac, and even wrote a novel with Kerouac called And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, but it wasn’t published until 2008, long after both men were dead. Burroughs became friends with a poet named Herbert Huncke, who taught him to pickpocket and roll drunks in the New York subway.

Whenever people first met Burroughs, they thought he was a private eye, or worked for the FBI, because he always wore a three-piece suit, a striped tie, and a fedora hat. From 1938 on, his parents sent him $200.00 a month, and that’s how he could bounce from New York to Paris to Tangiers, where he finished Naked Lunch. The locals in Tangiers called him “El Hombre Invisible”  — “The Invisible Man.”

William S. Burroughs’s books include Junkie (1953), The Soft Machine (1961), and The Ticket That Exploded (1962).

On writing, he said: “The only way I can write narrative is to get right outside my body and experience it. This can be exhausting and at times dangerous. One cannot be sure of redemption.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®