Harold Norse:  Poet Maverick, Gay Laureate

For too long there’s been a glaring absence of critical attention towards poet Harold Norse, but that’s now been corrected thanks to an historic new collection Harold Norse: Poet Maverick, Gay Laureate recently published by Clemson University Press.

Skillfully edited by A. Robert Lee and Douglas Field, this hardback edition contains fourteen essays that examine Norse’s work as memoirist, poet, publisher, painter and correspondent. Featuring an international team of scholars, many of them members of the European Beat Studies Network, Poet Maverick, Gay Laureate is the latest edition in Clemson University’s Beat Studies Series imprint edited Ronna C. Johnson and Tony Triglio.

Harold Norse holding his cosmograph on his 81st birthday, North Beach, July 6, 2007 Photo © Tate Swindell

The anthology’s striking cover image is from one of Norse’s cosmograph paintings created in 1960 while residing in Paris at the Beat Hotel where he collaborated with his fellow residents William Burroughs and Brion Gysin in the development of cut up. This new collection opens with an insightful introduction by Jan Herman who met Norse around the time of the cosmograph painting. Herman published an early version of Norse’s long poem “Hotel Nirvana” in his NOVA Broadcast Press literary journal of the late ’60s called San Francisco EARTHQUAKE.

"I've sometimes been asked why he wasn't as famous as Burroughs and Ginsberg, and the other celebrated Beat writers, and I've always said he needed a better press agent or a better strategy. Until he was taken up by San Francisco's radical gay activists, he was strictly a literary man—which was not enough to vault him to fame. His poems, fine as they were, didn't make headlines." – from the Prologue by Jan Herman.

Among the other unique contributions to the collection is a nine-page Harold Norse timeline, to-date the most comprehensive gathering of the poet’s peripatetic travels and extensive publications. The anthology closes with an afterword from writer and editor James Grauerholz. From his decades of friendship and collaboration with William Burroughs, Grauerholz offers a critical but compassionate recollection of Norse in his later years.

"The most important thing to understand about him is that Homophobia really is the last acceptable prejudice . . . To borrow from the screenplay of Gentleman's Agreement, the 1947 film about systemic anti-Semitism: "A 'faggot' is the gay gentleman who has just left the room." Fear of the queer, and a casual disregard of "open Queers" like Harold were always the real obstacle to his finding the acclaim he sought. If only he could have seen that it would all come to pass."  from the Afterword by James Grauerholz

Copies of Harold Norse: Poet Maverick, Gay Laureate are printed through Liverpool University Press. On their website, the book’s editors have provided a perceptive and engaging overview of the places and people in Norse’s history, the accolades and setbacks from his recognition as a Gay Liberation poet, and some of the reasons why the rich legacy of his work has been neglected for too long.

Harold Norse & Douglas Field, San Francisco, 2007. Photo © Tate Swindell

Stay tuned for upcoming posts where I’ll take a deeper look at some of the essays and hear from individual authors about their research, analysis and interest in the work of this uniquely American poet. Harold Norse: Poet Maverick, Gay Laureate is a major contribution to long overdue consideration and scholarly focus of an important participant in Beat and Gay poetry.

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