Guardian UK Obituary

Striking Beat writer and artist later feted as one of America’s leading gay poets

By Douglas Field
The Guardian, Wednesday, June 17, 2009

William Carlos Williams once wrote to Harold Norse, who has died aged 92, that “you are the best poet of your generation”. Often associated with the Beat writers, Norse began publishing in the early 1940s, befriending and collaborating with leading 20th-century literary figures, among them WH Auden, James Baldwin and Allen Ginsberg. The author of 12 books of poetry, Norse was nominated for the US National Book award in 1974, but never achieved the success of his more celebrated peers.

Born Harold Rosen (a surname he later rearranged into “Norse”), he grew up in a poor Brooklyn neighbourhood in New York. His mother, an illiterate Lithuanian immigrant, had lost touch with his father by the time her only son was born. In 1938 he earned a bachelor’s degree at Brooklyn College where, the following year, he and Chester Kallman, his boyfriend, winked at Auden at a poetry reading. Kallman and Auden became lovers and Norse worked briefly as the poet’s secretary. Remaining in Auden’s circle for some years, by the early 1940s Norse was something of a literary Leonard Zelig, blending in and out of artistic circles.

A talented writer in his own right, he cultivated an extraordinary number of relationships, both personal and professional. In the early 1940s Norse met Ginsberg on the subway in Manhattan and became friends with Baldwin in Greenwich Village. He also spent a summer with Tennessee Williams as the playwright put the finishing touches to The Glass Menagerie, and survived drinking sessions with Dylan Thomas in 1950. He was awarded his master’s degree at New York University the following year.

Norse then met William Carlos Williams, who encouraged him to break free from academic poetry and write in his native Brooklyn tongue. Williams had a profound effect on Norse’s poetic voice and career, which is captured in American Idiom (1990), a record of their decade-long correspondence, beginning in 1951. After collaborating with Julian Beck and Judith Malina on what would become the experimental theatre group Living Theatre (notable for staging the works of American poets), Norse began publishing in literary magazines including Poetry and Saturday Review. His first collection, The Undersea Mountain, was published in 1953.

Despite his initial success, Norse remained frustrated with the New York poetry scene, which was dominated by the influence of Ezra Pound and TS Eliot. Heading abroad in search of literary and sexual freedom, Norse spent 15 years in Europe and North Africa. In Italy he translated the sonnets of GG Belli; these were published in 1960 as The Roman Sonnets of GG Belli, with the Roman’s dialect poetry transformed into bawdy Brooklynese.

Between 1960 and 1963 Norse lived in Paris with William Burroughs, Ginsberg and Gregory Corso in the hotel in the Latin Quarter known as the “Beat Hotel”. Although initially wary of the Beat writers’ literary credentials, Norse collaborated with Brion Gysin on the cut-up technique and was briefly an acclaimed painter of ink drawings soaked in the hotel bidet, known as Cosmographs. After travelling to Greece (where he met Leonard Cohen) and north Africa (where he struck up a friendship with Paul Bowles), Norse returned to the US, settling in California. There he became friends with the writer Charles Bukowski and began bodybuilding with Arnold Schwarzenegger, then an unknown.

Norse’s move to San Francisco in 1972 resulted in a productive spell. In 1974 City Lights, the publisher and bookshop founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, released Hotel Nirvana, Selected Poems, 1953-1973, to critical acclaim. After the publication of Carnivorous Saint: Gay Poems, 1941-1976, Norse was feted as one of America’s leading gay poets. This was followed by Harold Norse: The Love Poems, 1940-1985, and his final volume, In the Hub of the Fiery Force: Collected Poems, 1934-2003. His autobiography, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel: a Fifty Year Literary and Erotic Odyssey, was published in 1989.

Although Norse received support and acclaim from writers including Anaïs Nin, Burroughs and Bukowski, his work did not bring him the financial rewards or literary acclaim that he craved. Norse described himself as a “lone-wolf” and he refused to join the pack, at some cost. In many ways he was more “Beat” than the Beats: Jewish, illegitimate, homosexual, Norse was an outsider who quietly produced some startling and technically accomplished verse from the fringes of the US literary scene.

His return to America as the gay liberation movement gathered momentum gave Norse’s poetry a new sense of coherence and direction that critics had failed to spot. He wrote pioneering poems about masculinity (I Am Not a Man) and achingly painful snapshots of loneliness and unrequited love. In later years he reflected on what it meant to be an older gay poet in San Francisco, captured in the poem Old Age Does Not Happen Slowly, which ends, “If you’re gay you’re dead.”

Towards the end of his life Norse was surrounded by a group of friends who looked after him. When I interviewed him in 2007, it was clear his lack of recognition disappointed him. It was a theme that resurfaced as he pondered on his age: “I’m not a poet any more. I’m an old man.” But such moments rarely lasted, as Norse reminisced: “I have never felt I was any worth and I had to write and write and write.”

Flirtatious but gentlemanly, Norse could shock but did not want to offend. “You could be a real knockout,” he told me when we met, “if only you dressed better.” Full of Brooklyn wisecracks (“I can imitate anyone – even myself”), he was still reading his poetry at the age of 91 to enthralled audiences.

His 1958 poem Classic Frieze in a Garage captures the joy of unexpectedly spotting a frieze in Naples “amongst the greasy rags/ and wheels & axles of a garage”, a prophetic comment on the misplacing of his own best work.

• Harold Norse (Harold Rosen), poet, born 6 July 1916; died 8 June 2009

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The last photo taken of Harold Norse

Todd Swindell, friend, with Harold Norse three days before his death. This is the last photo taken of Harold alive. The spinning object is a Tibetan prayer wheel containing the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, the mantra of compassion. Photo by Tate Swindell.

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New York Times Obituary

Harold Norse, a Beat Poet, Dies at 92

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.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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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.

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Harold Norse in his early 20s

Harold Norse during his ballet dancer days in New York City, circa 1937. Photo by Marcus Bleckman, great-nephew of Sarah Bernhardt.

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Harold Norse in his 50s


Harold Norse in Venice, CA circa 1969. This was the photo that made Charles Bukowski jealous.

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Harold Norse in his 50s

At the Café Trieste, North Beach, San Francisco, 1975. Left to right: Allen Ginsberg, Harold Norse, Jack Hirschman, Michael McClure & Bob Kaufman. Photo by Diana Church.

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Harold Norse and Gerard Malanga 1973

Poets Gerard Malanga and Harold Horse, Union Square, San Francisco, 1973. Photo by Frances McCann.

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Harold Norse and Neeli Cherkovski

Harold Norse and Neeli Cherkovski, date unknown

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Harold Norse at the Café Trieste


Harold Norse at the Cafe Trieste circa late 1970s.

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Harold Norse in his 60s

Harold Norse in front of City Lights Bookstore window promoting the release of his cut-up novella Beat Hotel, May 15, 1983

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Harold in his 80s

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

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

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Harold Norse and Peter Orlovsky 1980

Harold Norse and Peter Orlovsky, Naropa Insitute, July 1980. Photo by Michael Kellner.

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Harold Norse in his 50s

Harold Norse in Union Square, San Francisco, 1973. Photo by Frances McCann.

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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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Harold Norse in his 60s

Harold Norse in San Francisco, 1981. Photo by Ira Cohen.

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Harold Norse in his 60s

Harold Norse in San Francisco, 1981. Photo by Ira Cohen.

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Harold Norse in his 50s

Harold Norse circa 1970s. Photo by Frances McCann.

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Harold Norse in his 50s

Harold Norse circa the 1970s. Photo by Frances McCann.

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