Harold Norse, a Beat Poet, Dies at 92
By WILLIAM GRIMES
Published: June 13, 2009
Harold Norse, 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, died on Monday in San Francisco. He was 92.
The death was confirmed by Todd Swindell, a friend.
Although Mr. Norse is often classified with the Beats, he had already developed his themes and his style when, in the early 1960s, he fell in with Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Gregory Corso, just a few of the many writers with whom he formed romantic or professional relationships. A disciple of William Carlos Williams, who once called him “the best poet of your generation,” Mr. Norse found common cause with the Beats in his rejection of academic poetry and traditional metric schemes and his outsider status as a gay man.
“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.”
Mr. Norse, born Harold Rosen, grew up poor in Brooklyn. His mother was a Lithuanian immigrant, and Harold, her only child, was the product of an affair with a German-American who disappeared from the scene by the time his son was born. When she later married another man, Harold took the last name of his stepfather, Albaum. In the early 1950s he came up with a new last name by rearranging the letters of Rosen.
At Brooklyn College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 1938, he edited the literary magazine and began writing poetry in an academic style. He also entered into a romantic relationship with Chester Kallman, and the two became part of W. H. Auden’s circle when Auden and Christopher Isherwood moved to New York in 1939. Kallman soon became Auden’s companion and remained so for the rest of Auden’s life.
While working toward a master’s degree in English and American poetry at New York University, Mr. Norse met Williams, who encouraged him to break with traditional verse forms and embrace a more direct, conversational language. Soon Mr. Norse was publishing in Poetry, The Saturday Review and The Paris Review. In 1953 he published his first collection, “The Undersea Mountain.”
Abandoning plans to earn a doctorate, he traveled through Europe and North Africa for the next 15 years. While in Italy, he began translating the sonnets of Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, written in Roman dialect. To decode the verse, he consulted street hustlers, and he later said that he did his translations “with a dictionary in one hand and a Roman in the other.”
His translations were published, with a preface by Williams, in “Roman Sonnets” (1960). His decade-long correspondence with Williams was published in “The American Idiom: A Correspondence: William Carlos Williams, Harold Norse, 1951-61” (1990).
In 1960 Mr. Norse moved in with Ginsberg, Burroughs and Corso at their seedy hotel on the Left Bank in Paris, where he used Burroughs’s technique of cutting up and reassembling sections of text at random to create the novella “Beat Hotel.”
He later traveled to Tangier, where he fell in with Paul Bowles, and after returning to the United States in 1968 and settling in Venice, Calif., he befriended the poet and novelist Charles Bukowski.
“Harold stood outside the Beat tradition, on his own ground, but he found in the Beats and in Bukowski a certain community,” Mr. Cherkovski said. In “Memoirs of a Bastard Angel: A 50-year Literary and Erotic Odyssey” (1989), Mr. Norse provided a full roll call of friends, lovers and colleagues. It made for an impressive list, with names like Julian Beck and James Baldwin (both friends from his days in Greenwich Village in the 1940s), Tennessee Williams (his roommate in Provincetown when Williams was writing “The Glass Menagerie”), Ned Rorem, James Jones and Anaïs Nin.
“People expect, as I did, the famous writers and poets to be just open and wonderfully giving, and they were not,” he told Gay and Lesbian Review in 2003. “They all wanted to go to bed with me.”
After moving to San Francisco in 1972, Mr. Norse entered a productive period. In 1974 City Lights published “Hotel Nirvana: Selected Poems, 1953-1973,” putting him front and center in the city’s cultural life, and the collection “Carnivorous Saints: Gay Poems, 1941-1976” (1977) put the seal on his growing reputation as one of America’s most daring and innovative gay poets.
He later published “Harold Norse: The Love Poems, 1940-1985” (1986), and in 2003, Thunder’s Mouth Press brought out “In the Hub of the Fiery Force: Collected Poems, 1934-2003.”
“The fiery force is nothing more than the life force as we know it,” Mr. Norse wrote in his preface. “It is the flame of desire and love, of sex and beauty, of pleasure and joy as we consume and are consumed, as we burn with pleasure and burn out in time.”
A version of this article appeared in print on June 13, 2009, on page A20 of the New York edition.