San Francisco Chronicle Obituary

Beat poet Harold Norse dies at 92

Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, June 14, 2009

When he wasn’t regaling friends with wild tales of past cavortings, Harold Norse would sometimes complain about his lack of fame compared with other Beat poets.

Neither his work nor his name was as well known as Beat contemporaries Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac. Still, his friends said, the mild irritation would soon be forgotten amid joyous gossip about one more of his famous literary friends.

Mr. Norse, a onetime American expatriate who lived the last 35 years of his life in San Francisco’s Mission District, knew in his heart that what mattered was not fame but art, and it is the extraordinarily talented artist and stylist that his friends said they will remember.

Mr. Norse, author of “Hotel Nirvana,” “Memoirs of a Bastard Angel,” and a long list of poems that both celebrated his gay life and exposed his inner pain, died Monday of complications of old age. He was 92.

“Harold had the real stuff, the rhythm was there. He knew how to make a poem move and sound good,” said Gerry Nicosia, a poet and longtime friend. “He really was a great poet, a breakthrough poet.”

Mr. Norse was born Harold Rosen in Brooklyn in 1916. His mother was an unmarried Jewish immigrant from Russia. He was short, about 5 feet 2, and his stepfather reportedly beat him.

He later rearranged the letters of his last name to create “Norse,” and he stuck with the name the rest of his life.

In 1934, he was the first freshman at Brooklyn College to win the school’s annual poetry contest. He received a bachelor’s degree in English literature from the college in 1938.

Openly gay, he became part of poet W.H. Auden’s inner circle soon afterward. In 1951, he received a master’s degree in English and American poetry from New York University.

His talent began to blossom the following year when William Carlos Williams invited him to read at the Museum of Modern Art and then took him under his wing. Williams, who had mentored numerous poets, including Ginsberg, would later call Mr. Norse “the best poet of his generation.”

Mr. Norse moved to Italy shortly after his first book of poetry, “The Undersea Mountain,” was published in 1953. He lived there until 1959, translating the sonnets of 19th-century poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli with what he quipped was “a dictionary in one hand and a Roman in the other.”

Nicosia said American poetry at this time was straight-laced and academic. Mr. Norse revolutionized the art, Nicosia said, by using accessible American language and drawing upon his own painful experiences as a gay outcast.

Many of his famous gay poems were in the book “Carnivorous Saint,” the same name as the poem he wrote in Athens in 1964 that talked of the saint “whose mother is no virgin,” and who will “wave her umbrella and change the world.”

Mr. Norse moved to Paris in 1960 and lived in the famous Beat Hotel on the Rue Gît-le-Cœur, with, among others, Beat Generation writers Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and William S. Burroughs.

It was there that he helped devise the “cut-up” technique, in which different phrases and sentences are snipped from a variety of works and pasted together. He wrote the experimental cut-up novel “Beat Hotel” in 1960.

Mr. Norse returned to the United States in 1969 and is said to have lifted weights at Venice Beach with Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the 1970s, he moved to San Francisco, where he became a leading gay liberation poet.

Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was editor and publisher of his book “Hotel Nirvana,” which was nominated for a National Book Award.

“His poetry was very much expatriate poetry,” Ferlinghetti said. “It was the voice of alienation from modern consumer culture.”

One of Mr. Norse’s most famous poems was “In the Hub of the Fiery Force,” which was published in 1999 when he was 82.

“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.”

Mr. Norse’s last words, spoken to a nurse, according to friends, were “the end is the beginning.”

A “poets’ tribute” will be held for Mr. Norse at 7 p.m. Monday at Bird and Beckett Bookstore, 653 Chenery St., San Francisco. A memorial will be held July 12 at the Beat Museum in North Beach.

E-mail Peter Fimrite at

This article appeared on page B – 6 of the San Francisco Chronicle

© 2009 Hearst Communications Inc.

  • Share on Tumblr