Revisiting Harold Norse Obits 7 Years Later

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“Harold Norse’s poetry was very much expatriate poetry,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti said. “It was the voice of alienation from modern consumer culture.”

As this week marks the seventh anniversary (June 8, 2009) of the death of Harold Norse–visionary Beat poet, progenitor of gay liberation and oracle of the American Idiom–it’s a fitting time to look back at some of the obituaries published in the weeks after he spoke his last words on this mortal coil, “The end is the beginning.”

NYT090613 WebThe New York Times obituary described him as a poet who “broke new ground beginning in the 1950s by exploring gay identity and sexuality in a distinctly American idiom relying on plain language and direct imagery.” Featuring a great photo Harold taken in 1973 by Neil Hollier, the obit included this quote from Harold’s good friend Neeli Cherkovski:

“Harold was one of the pre-eminent rebel poets of our time,” the San Francisco poet Neeli Cherkovski said. “He was someone who smashed conventions, like Ginsberg, and broke through to what he called a new rhythm, writing the way he talked, using the voices of the street. He also gave voice to homosexuality early on.”

LAT090613 WebThe Los Angeles Times obituary described Norse as a “mentor or peer  to many of the greatest talents in 20th century American literature, including Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski” who “was unabashed about being homosexual and poured his experiences into poems that reflected anger, sadness and pride.”

The accompanying  photograph of Harold was taken in the kitchen of his apartment at 157 Albion Street in San Francisco’s Mission District by Norse’s old friend Ginsberg. This time the quote came from Lawrence Ferlinghetti who published Harold’s book Hotel Nirvana in 1974 as part of City Lights Books prestigious Pocket Poets Series.

“He was essentially an expatriate voice in American poetry,” said Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet and bookseller who published a volume of Norse’s poems in the mid-1970s. “He had an original voice because he ventriloquized what a lot of other poets were saying. . . . He could sound in one poem like T.S. Eliot . . . or in another poem like William Burroughs.”

GRD090617 WebUnder the headline “Striking Beat writer and artist later feted as one of America’s leading gay poets“, the UK Guardian newspaper published an appreciation by Douglas Field, renowned James Baldwin scholar and a friend of Norse.

Along with William Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris, Douglas is co-chairing next month’s European Beat Studies Network conference in Manchester, where I will be presenting a talk about Harold’s participation in the development of Cut Ups at the Beat Hotel where he lived in the early 1960s.

The San Francisco Chronicle also ran an obituary with the following quote:

“I consider him one of the best poets there was,” said A.D. Winans, a poet and friend. “He was very congenial, very educated. He was also funny. He could hypnotize you with all these stories about the great writers he knew.”

EQCRPSAnother of Harold’s poet friends was Andrei Codrescu whose Exquisite Corpse featured two tributes from poet and publisher Eddie Woods.

First up was “Harold Norse Is Dead! Long Live the Carnivorous Saint!“, culled from emails about his death from myself and San Francisco poet Jim Nawrocki among others. The second,”Remembering Harold Norse“, is a lengthy piece by Eddie of his many adventures with Harold that is well worth reading.

Closing out this post is an obituary written by myself and Jim Nawrocki who will be part of the Beat Museum event on July 9.

Harold Norse, whose poetry earned both wide critical acclaim and a large, enduring popular following, died on Monday, June 8, 2009, in San Francisco, just one month before his 93rd birthday. Norse, who lived in San Francisco for the last thirty five years, had a prolific, international literary career that spanned 70 years. His collected poems were published in 2003 under the title In the Hub of the Fiery Force, and he continued to read publicly into his 90s, bringing his work to new generations.

Born in 1916 to an illiterate, unwed mother, Harold Norse’s natural gift for language, influenced from the varied dialects of his surroundings, led to a boyhood interest in writing that blossomed into a rich, peripatetic life that he documented in an innately American poetic idiom.

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Harold Norse as a student at Brooklyn College in 1935

Like Walt Whitman, Norse was a Brooklyn native. He came of age during the Depression, an experience that significantly shaped his voice and endeared him to a varied audience of underdogs and the persecuted. Beginning in 1934, he attended Brooklyn College, where he met and became the lover of Chester Kallman. In 1939, when W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood gave their first reading in America, Norse and Kallman were in the front row winking flirtatiously at the famous writers. Harold soon became Auden’s personal secretary, a role he filled until Kallman and Auden became lovers.

During the 1940s, Norse lived in Greenwich Village and was an active participant in both the gay and literary undergrounds. His close friends at the time included James Baldwin, who was a teenager when he met Norse in 1942. A close friend of Julian Beck and Judith Malina, he was integral in the early foundation of The Living Theater. In the summer of 1944 Norse was introduced to Tennessee Williams in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where the two shared a summer cabin while Williams completed the manuscript for The Glass Menagerie.

Abandoning his doctoral work in English in 1953, Norse sailed to Italy, spending the next fifteen years traveling across Europe and North Africa. Living in Rome, Naples, and Florence, Norse immersed himself in the classical culture that had survived the two World Wars. He found a mentor and friend in William Carlos Williams, who encouraged the younger poet to move away from the classical poetics of academia and explore the poetic possibilities of the spoken word of the American streets. The complete correspondence of Norse and Williams, titled The American Idiom, was published in 1990.

Harold in Crete 1963 by Thanassis

Harold in Crete 1963 by Thanassis

Harold’s travels continued in the 1960s, bringing him to Tangier, where he consorted with Paul and Jane Bowles, Ira Cohen, and Mel Clay. In 1959 he traveled to Paris, settling into the infamous Beat Hotel. Through friend and fellow Beat Hotel resident Gregory Corso, Harold met William S. Burroughs then Brion Gysin. It was Norse who introduced Ian Sommerville to Burroughs as the group experimented with the cut-up method of writing. His collection of writing from that period was published in English as a cut-up novella, The Beat Hotel, in 1983.

From Paris Norse moved onward to Greece and Hydra, where he reconnected with the poet Charles Henri Ford, a friend from Greenwich Village days, and smoked pot with the then unknown poet Leonard Cohen. Harold also spent time in Switzerland, Germany, and England. During this time he maintained a close correspondence with Charles Bukowski, who affectionately referred to Norse as “Prince Hal, Prince of Poets.” In 1969 he edited Penguin Modern Poets 13 featuring Norse, Philip Lamantia and, in his first major international exposure, Bukowski.

In 1969, gravely ill from hepatitis, Norse repatriated to Venice, California where he was met by Bukowski and the young poet Neeli Cherkovski. He enjoyed the social freedom and political activism of the hippy era, so presciently voiced in his writing, which breathed new life into his body and work. Harold also reconnected with Jack Hirschman (the two had spent time together in Greece during Norse’s expatriate years) as well as Anais Nin who first mentored the Brooklyn born poet in the early 1950s when Norse’s first book was published. Recovering his health, Harold became a vegetarian and a body builder at Gold’s Gym along with a young Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Photo © Nina Glaser

Harold Norse in the 1980s Photo © Nina Glaser

In 1972 Norse moved to San Francisco, ultimately settling in the Albion Street cottage he would occupy for the next thirty years. The 1970s were a productive and fulfilling time for Harold as the personal and sexual liberty he had lived clandestinely now became the cultural norm. City Lights Books published a collection of poems tilted Hotel Nirvana in 1974. It was nominated for a National Book Award. Carnivorous Saint, published in 1977, was an historic collection of poetry that covered Norse’s gay erotic experience from World War II through the Gay Liberation. During this period Harold was a habitué of North Beach coffee houses where he often connected with fellow poet Bob Kaufman.

Norse’s autobiography, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, was published in 1989 to international acclaim. Chronicling his rich life at the cutting edge of twentieth-century literary arts, Norse’s memoirs were republished in 2002. A National Poetry Association Award was bestowed upon him in 1991. At over 600 pages, his collected poems–In the Hub of the Fiery Force–was published in 2003 During his final years, Norse continued to live in his cottage in San Francisco’s gritty Mission District, continually reworking his poems, giving readings, and corresponding with admirers from around the world.

Harold Norse in the bedroom of his Albion Street cottage, November 11, 1999 © Todd Swindell

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Bastard Angel Magazine in Beat Scene

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The most recent issue of UK based Beat Scene features a lengthy piece about Harold Norse’s magazine Bastard Angel.  Though it only ran for three issues in the early 1970s, Bastard Angel is remembered as an eclectic mix of writers and artists from the earlier generation of Beat writers to then up and coming authors.

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Harold founded the magazine shortly after his arrival in San Francisco in 1971. Energized by the city’s poetry scene and his contact with a younger generation of authors, Harold wanted an outlet for these creative voices. The title Bastard Angel was something of an avatar for the bard from Brooklyn, who never knew his birth father.

The image to the left is an excellent example of the magazine’s mixture of collage and poetry, in this case Harold’s ode to Cut Up progenitor Kurt Schiwtters. The vibrant layout of the publication added to its attraction. Harold had also been inspired by the underground publications he read while living in Venice Beach including the L.A. Free Press and John Bryan’s Open City.

BA2-20To gather material, Harold was able to draw for his associations with writers such as William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski, Gerard Malanga, Julian Beck, Judith Malina and Diane Di Prima—and that’s just the short list!

But it wasn’t only writers form the early Beat days who made the editorial cut, as Harold  welcomed the voices of rising talent like Neeli Cherkovski, Andrei Codrescu, Erica Horn and Adrian Brooks. The gathering of seasoned and emerging voices is part of what made the magazine so strong.

BA2-44A major coup was the inclusion of what I believe to be previously unpublished poems that were provided by Allen Ginsberg. The poet Jack Hirschman translated a long poem by French author Jen Genet by using alexandrian lines. The magazine also featured literary reviews and correspondence.

Bastard Angel’s final issue, No. 3, coincided with a major exhibition on the Beats at San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum. Though the publication proved to very popular, finding a home inside libraries and universities, its success was also part of its downfall. Like with most creative endeavors, funding was an ongoing concern. Ultimately Harold’s poetry work took precedence as he began work on many poems in the mid-1970s which are among his strongest.

As momentum builds for Harold’s 100th birthday this summer, it’s fitting that Bastard Angel should take flight once again. Stay tuned for more updates about the Norse Centennial celebrations including an online book sale of rare and out of print Harold Norse books. In future posts, I’ll delve more into the Bastard Angel archives but, in the mean time, here’s the article from Beat Scene, with thanks to Kevin Ring. Click on the images to enlarge them to reading size.

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Harold Norse Returns to Venice Beach

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L.A. poet Michael C. Ford stands between Tate Swindell (L) of Unrequited Records and Todd Swindell (R) editor of Norse Selected Poems. Beyond Baroque, Venice Beach, July 17, 2015.

Harold Norse’s connection to Venice Beach runs deep. It was there he chose to repatriate after living fifteen years abroad, a time when Harold poetry developed into a unique combination of his vast knowledge of history and the arts with a uniquely American voice which came from his childhood in early 20th Century Brooklyn. Harold lived in Venice Beach from 1969-71; that vibrant period was covered in a previous post.

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On July 17th, legendary literary arts center Beyond Baroque hosted a fantastic reading for the recently published Norse selected poems. It was a special treat to be able to read poems of Harold’s that were written specifically from his time in Venice Beach such as “I’m Across the Street in the Cemetery, Dead” and California Will Sink.”

DSC01318 copyBeyond Baroque features a state of the art performance space that allowed a chance to share some exclusive video footage that included Harold listening to cut recordings that he made while living in Paris at the Beat Hotel with William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. Additionally there was interview footage from Norse friends the poet Andrei Codrescu and actress and poet Judith Malina.

DSC01328 copyJoining the evening as a featured guest was L.A. poet, playwright and recording artist Michael C Ford who has been active in the L.A. arts scene since the mid-1960s. He was in the same cinema studies class at UCLA that included Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison who would go on to found The Doors and was taught by legendary German film director Josef von Sternberg, celebrated for his collaboration with Marlene Dietrich. To read more about Michael, have a look at this previous post.

In this short video clip, Michael relates a story of a poetry benefit that was organized by Harold in late 1971 to raise legal assistance funds for The Living Theater whose members where then imprisoned in Brazil for the radical advocacy of the political theater. Harold was part of the initial inspiration for the Theater which was founded in mid-1950s New York City by Julian Beck and Judith Malina.

What a blast it was to have Michael’s sonorous poetic voice bring vibrant life to poems such as “Death of Poets” and “Chez Popoff” that were included in the 1969 publication Penguin Modern Poets 13. Harold, who was asked to include two poets in the prestigious publication, chose then relatively unknown L.A. poet Charles Bukowski and San Francisco Surrealist Philip Lamantia.

paul-goodman-changed-my-life-posterThe evening’s highlight was undoubtedly Michael’s powerful reading of the poem “Remembering Paul Goodman“. The bisexual novelist, poet and psychologist ran in similar circles as Harold in 1940s New York City. Judith Malina and Harold were involved in Goodman’s psychotherapy work that resulted in the founding of Gestalt Therapy.

The poem, which was completed in 1973 shortly after Goodman’s death, is not only a tribute to the controversial and influential thinker but also serves as an elegy to the Greenwich Village bohemian scene along with the many poets whose life has been claimed by a hostile, greedy society. Here’s a video clip of Michael’s powerful reading. Enjoy!

 

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