Los Angeles Times Obituary

Harold Norse dies at 92; Beat poet was a literary beacon in gay community

A pioneer of poetry written in plain American English, Norse was a mentor or peer to great talents in 20th century American literature, including Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin and Allen Ginsberg.

By Elaine Woo
June 13, 2009

Harold Norse, a San Francisco poet often associated with the Beats, who was mentor or peer to many of the greatest talents in 20th century American literature, including Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski, has died. He was 92.

Norse died of natural causes Monday at an assisted-living facility in San Francisco, according to his conservator, attorney Mark Vermeulen.

A pioneer of poetry written in plain American English who was called “the best poet of your generation” by William Carlos Williams, Norse never attained the recognition that he and others felt was his due. A literary beacon in the gay community who risked ostracism by writing openly of his sexual adventures in the 1940s and ’50s, Norse exiled himself to Europe for 15 years before returning to the United States and publishing such volumes as “Hotel Nirvana” (1974), which was nominated for a National Book Award, “Carnivorous Saint” (1977) and “In the Hub of the Fiery Force: Collected Poems” (2003).

“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.”

Norse’s life reads like a history of modern American literature. At a reading in 1939, he flirted with W.H. Auden and became his personal secretary, a job he held until Auden took up with Norse’s lover. He met Ginsberg riding a New York subway in 1944, more than a decade before Ginsberg attained international notoriety with the Beat classic “Howl.” Later, Norse caroused with Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Brion Gysin at the Parisian flophouse that became famous as the Beat Hotel.

Norse was born out of wedlock on July 6, 1916, in New York City and raised by his mother after his father disappeared. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Brooklyn College in 1938 and a master’s from New York University in 1951. The following year, his mentor, William Carlos Williams, arranged a reading for Norse at the Museum of Modern Art. His work appeared in prestigious publications, including Poetry magazine, the Paris Review and Saturday Review.

He was halfway to a doctorate in 1953 when he moved to Italy, where he discovered the 19th century Roman poet G.G. Belli and translated a volume of Belli’s bawdy sonnets.

By then, Norse, heeding Williams’ advice, had abandoned traditional verse for “my own free style” that drew on the rhythms of everyday speech.

“He was an absolute pioneer in the use of American language,” said Gerald Nicosia, a poet and biographer of Jack Kerouac, who knew Norse for more than 30 years. “He was writing good, strong poetry before the Beats were.”

At the Beat Hotel, where Norse lived from 1959 to 1963, he found himself experimenting with Gysin and Burroughs in what they called “cut-up writing,” in which they cut up pages of writing and randomly pasted the pieces together to form a new text. He wrote “Beat Hotel,” a novella, in the cut-up style. Burroughs wrote “Naked Lunch,” the nonlinear, obscenity-laced postwar classic.

Norse returned to the United States in 1968, settling for a few years in Venice, not far from Bukowski’s Hollywood bungalow. Bukowski, whom Time magazine would later dub the “laureate of American lowlife,” revered Norse, who returned the admiration when he included the younger poet in a volume of Penguin Modern Poets he edited that also featured his own work and that of Philip Lamantia, another Beat poet. The 1969 Penguin anthology was Bukowski’s first major introduction to the literary establishment.

After its publication, Bukowski wrote to Norse: “Whenever I read you my own writing gets better — you teach me how to run through glaciers and dump siffed-up whores. This is not saying it well, but you know what I mean. God damn you, Norse, I’ve just burnt a tray full of french fries while WRITING about you!”

Bukowski, like Ginsberg and other Norse associates, eclipsed him in fame. “I had a big ego,” Norse told the San Francisco Weekly in 2000, “but I always said — and it was a stupid thing that I lived by — ‘I won’t lift a finger to publicize my work. It has to come from the outside.’ So in a way I buried myself.”

He moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s and became a mentor to younger writers, including poet and Beat historian Neeli Cherkovski. In 1977, he helped put on a seminal reading at Glide Memorial Church featuring gay writers such as Ginsberg, Cherkovski and John Rechy that Cherkovski said “helped open up the idea of the identity of the gay poet in San Francisco.”

Norse was unabashed about being homosexual and poured his experiences — what Ferlinghetti once teasingly described as his “horizontal history” — into poems that reflected anger, sadness and pride.

I’m not a man. I write poetry.

I’m not a man. I meditate on peace and love.

I’m not a man. I don’t want to destroy you.

In 1990, he published his correspondence with William Carlos Williams. But he died before he could claim a larger place in the literary firmament, alongside Ginsberg and Burroughs, both of whom died in 1997. In his later years, he believed he could put himself back on the map if he could publish his 20-year correspondence with Bukowski, who died in 1994. Those letters remain unpublished.

“He used to talk about Norse’s luck,” recalled Cherkovski. “I said, ‘Look, you outlived everybody.’ ”


Copyright 2009 Los Angeles Times

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