Writers Remembered Report Back

The evening of Writers Remembered was held to a packed audience at California College of Arts Writers Studio in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood. Among the twenty-two writers paid tribute were poets such as Janine Pommy Vega, Roberto Valenza and Lenore Kandel.

Here’s a photo of me speaking about Harold taken by Gerald Nicosia, who organized the event.

Todd Swindell speaking about Harold Norse at Writers Remembered, March 1, 2013. Photo by Gerald Nicosia
Todd Swindell speaking about Harold Norse at Writers Remembered, March 1, 2013. Photo © Gerald Nicosia

America Destroys Though Who Create- The Italian Exile of a Brooklyn Bard

I want to dedicate my talk tonight to the visionary Judith Malina and The Living Theater, our country’s oldest experimental theater troupe. They were exiles that performed throughout Europe in the 1960s because of persecution from the IRS. This week the Living Theater closed the doors to its Manhattan performance space, as they could no longer afford the rent. That’s so terribly unjust. Harold Norse was not only a close friend of both Judith and her husband Julian Beck, but was involved in the creation of the Living Theater in 1947. His then lover, Dick Stryker, composed music for many of the Theater’s early productions.

From Gertrude Stein’s modernist prose which flourished in avant-garde Paris of the early 20th Century to the evolution of blues and rock by Jimi Hendrix in the psychedelic scene of 1960’s London, many of America’s most prophetic artists were forced to leave this country in order to find the encouragement and community necessary to voice their visionary creations

Harold Norse was born in Brooklyn, during the summer of 1916, to an unwed Lithuanian Jewish immigrant. Like many others of his generation, he grew up poor during the depression with an abusive stepfather and a superstitious, overbearing mother. Harold was a language prodigy; his heroes were Walt Whitman and Hart Crane. As a student at Brooklyn College, he quickly rose above the fray.

By World War II, Harold was a full participant in the bohemian milieu of Greenwich Village. Among his friends were James Baldwin, W.H. Auden and Paul Goodman. Following a Master’s in English from NYU, Harold was on his way to a PhD and a life in academia.

But 1950’s America was gripped in the clutches of Cold War conformity and its conservative hysteria was particularly dangerous for Harold.  Not only was he a liberal and a poet but also queer, all red flags for being labeled a communist. This was the soulless era of validation through collective consumption where the only escapes were the numbness of alcohol & the ecstatic bliss of furtive sexual contact.

Fearing that he would either end up in jail for being gay or drink himself to death, Harold left for Italy in 1953. His plan was to go for 3 months but he quickly sold his return passage and, for the next 15 years, lived in Tangier, Paris then Athens. This geographical travel mirrored a development of his poetic voice as he took inspiration from the mores of Classical Rome and Greece.

By the time of his expatriation, Harold had published his first collection of poetry, The Undersea Mountain. The establishment of that time coveted poets such as Robert Lowell and Karl Shapiro and viewed Harold’s poems as too wild. William Carlos Williams was an early & strong supporter of his work, stating that Harold used the colloquial American language as never before.

Harold spent the next five years living in Rome, Florence and Naples primarily. In these classical surroundings he could finally breathe freely as a person and a poet. In a society with pre-Christian attitudes to same-sex desire, Harold no longer had to dissociate his soul’s voice from his poetic voice, but instead found fertile ground to blossom in an ancient culture (one which America could not offer). Europe’s shattered remnants from World War destruction had yet to be bulldozed for commercial development, the progress of underarm deodorant & computer automation.

Harold’s next collection of poems, The Dancing Beasts, connected his immersion in Italian life and the historical experience of Ancient Rome to the uncertain and changing realities of the mid- 20th Century. In such poems at “Tiberius’ Villa at Capri” and “An Episode from Procopius”, the poet asks how much had we truly changed from those ancient days? When stone and marble structures from two millennia still stand yet homes, families, and lives were reduced to rubble. What had modern man learned but more efficient and lucrative means to destroy through violence?

Harold’s gift for language and his Whitmanic love of everyday American speech soon found him translating the Latin poet Catullus whose poems had been censored through translations choked by Christian prudishness. In “On Translations of Catullus,” he writes

Catullus, you’d bust your balls laughing!
For 2000 years they’ve fixed you like a horny cat-
The pedagogues can’t take you straight.
Old pederast, they’ll never make it
-not while they teach you how to write!

Harold also turned his ear to Giuseppe Gioachino Belli whose satirical sonnets attacked the corruption and egotism of the papacy with a sharp humor. Though D.H. Lawrence and Joyce both attempted translations, the vernacular of 19th Century Rome proved too much of a challenge. Harold said that he accomplished the task with “a dictionary in one hand and an Italian youth in the other.”

During this time Harold continued to correspond with Williams and their surviving letters are preserved in the wonderful collection The American Idiom. In it Williams singled out the poem “Classic Frieze in a Garage” as “the best I have seen of yours” which saw Harold combine the old world and the new by following his native idiom. I will close with the second part of the poem:

I have passed my time dreaming thru ancient ruins
walking thru crowded alleys of laundry
    outside tenements with gourds in windows
& crumbling masonry of wars
when suddenly I saw among the greasy rags
  & wheels & axles of a garage
      the carved nude figures
      of a classic frieze
     above dismantled parts of cars!
garage swallows sarcophagus!
    mechanic calmly spraying
       paint on a fender
observed in turn by lapith & centaur!
the myth of the Mediterranean
            was in that garage
        where the brown wiry youths
               saw nothing unusual
                               at their work
among dead heroes & gods
but I saw Hermes in the rainbow
     of the dark oil on the floor
           reflected there
      & the wild hair of the sybil
          as her words bubbled
mad & drowned
              beneath the motor’s roar

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