Striking Beat writer and artist later feted as one of America’s leading gay poets
By Douglas Field
The Guardian, Wednesday, June 17, 2009
William Carlos Williams once wrote to Harold Norse, who has died aged 92, that “you are the best poet of your generation”. Often associated with the Beat writers, Norse began publishing in the early 1940s, befriending and collaborating with leading 20th-century literary figures, among them WH Auden, James Baldwin and Allen Ginsberg. The author of 12 books of poetry, Norse was nominated for the US National Book award in 1974, but never achieved the success of his more celebrated peers.
Born Harold Rosen (a surname he later rearranged into “Norse”), he grew up in a poor Brooklyn neighbourhood in New York. His mother, an illiterate Lithuanian immigrant, had lost touch with his father by the time her only son was born. In 1938 he earned a bachelor’s degree at Brooklyn College where, the following year, he and Chester Kallman, his boyfriend, winked at Auden at a poetry reading. Kallman and Auden became lovers and Norse worked briefly as the poet’s secretary. Remaining in Auden’s circle for some years, by the early 1940s Norse was something of a literary Leonard Zelig, blending in and out of artistic circles.
A talented writer in his own right, he cultivated an extraordinary number of relationships, both personal and professional. In the early 1940s Norse met Ginsberg on the subway in Manhattan and became friends with Baldwin in Greenwich Village. He also spent a summer with Tennessee Williams as the playwright put the finishing touches to The Glass Menagerie, and survived drinking sessions with Dylan Thomas in 1950. He was awarded his master’s degree at New York University the following year.
Norse then met William Carlos Williams, who encouraged him to break free from academic poetry and write in his native Brooklyn tongue. Williams had a profound effect on Norse’s poetic voice and career, which is captured in American Idiom (1990), a record of their decade-long correspondence, beginning in 1951. After collaborating with Julian Beck and Judith Malina on what would become the experimental theatre group Living Theatre (notable for staging the works of American poets), Norse began publishing in literary magazines including Poetry and Saturday Review. His first collection, The Undersea Mountain, was published in 1953.
Despite his initial success, Norse remained frustrated with the New York poetry scene, which was dominated by the influence of Ezra Pound and TS Eliot. Heading abroad in search of literary and sexual freedom, Norse spent 15 years in Europe and North Africa. In Italy he translated the sonnets of GG Belli; these were published in 1960 as The Roman Sonnets of GG Belli, with the Roman’s dialect poetry transformed into bawdy Brooklynese.
Between 1960 and 1963 Norse lived in Paris with William Burroughs, Ginsberg and Gregory Corso in the hotel in the Latin Quarter known as the “Beat Hotel”. Although initially wary of the Beat writers’ literary credentials, Norse collaborated with Brion Gysin on the cut-up technique and was briefly an acclaimed painter of ink drawings soaked in the hotel bidet, known as Cosmographs. After travelling to Greece (where he met Leonard Cohen) and north Africa (where he struck up a friendship with Paul Bowles), Norse returned to the US, settling in California. There he became friends with the writer Charles Bukowski and began bodybuilding with Arnold Schwarzenegger, then an unknown.
Norse’s move to San Francisco in 1972 resulted in a productive spell. In 1974 City Lights, the publisher and bookshop founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, released Hotel Nirvana, Selected Poems, 1953-1973, to critical acclaim. After the publication of Carnivorous Saint: Gay Poems, 1941-1976, Norse was feted as one of America’s leading gay poets. This was followed by Harold Norse: The Love Poems, 1940-1985, and his final volume, In the Hub of the Fiery Force: Collected Poems, 1934-2003. His autobiography, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel: a Fifty Year Literary and Erotic Odyssey, was published in 1989.
Although Norse received support and acclaim from writers including Anaïs Nin, Burroughs and Bukowski, his work did not bring him the financial rewards or literary acclaim that he craved. Norse described himself as a “lone-wolf” and he refused to join the pack, at some cost. In many ways he was more “Beat” than the Beats: Jewish, illegitimate, homosexual, Norse was an outsider who quietly produced some startling and technically accomplished verse from the fringes of the US literary scene.
His return to America as the gay liberation movement gathered momentum gave Norse’s poetry a new sense of coherence and direction that critics had failed to spot. He wrote pioneering poems about masculinity (I Am Not a Man) and achingly painful snapshots of loneliness and unrequited love. In later years he reflected on what it meant to be an older gay poet in San Francisco, captured in the poem Old Age Does Not Happen Slowly, which ends, “If you’re gay you’re dead.”
Towards the end of his life Norse was surrounded by a group of friends who looked after him. When I interviewed him in 2007, it was clear his lack of recognition disappointed him. It was a theme that resurfaced as he pondered on his age: “I’m not a poet any more. I’m an old man.” But such moments rarely lasted, as Norse reminisced: “I have never felt I was any worth and I had to write and write and write.”
Flirtatious but gentlemanly, Norse could shock but did not want to offend. “You could be a real knockout,” he told me when we met, “if only you dressed better.” Full of Brooklyn wisecracks (“I can imitate anyone – even myself”), he was still reading his poetry at the age of 91 to enthralled audiences.
His 1958 poem Classic Frieze in a Garage captures the joy of unexpectedly spotting a frieze in Naples “amongst the greasy rags/ and wheels & axles of a garage”, a prophetic comment on the misplacing of his own best work.
• Harold Norse (Harold Rosen), poet, born 6 July 1916; died 8 June 2009