Recycled in Eternity
Harold Norse (1916 - 2009)
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was outrageous,” said Neeli Cherkovski, recalling his
days of cruising San Francisco with gay icon Harold Norse. Norse himself
fire in my brain
slag & trash deposits
of my century
knew many of the famous people of his day—James Baldwin, to whom he
dedicated his memoir, Bastard Angel;
Tennessee Williams; Allen Ginsberg; W. H. Auden; William Burroughs; Jack
Kerouac; Frank O’Hara; Julian Beck; Anaïs Nin, etc.—but in 2003 he
remarked, “People expect, as I did, the famous writers and poets to be
just open and wonderfully giving, and they were not. They all wanted to go
to bed with me.”
Born out of wedlock on July 6, 1916, Harold Norse was the
“bastard angel” product of an affair his Lithuanian immigrant mother
had with a man of German or German-Jewish descent. The man soon deserted
the family. “My mother,” Norse wrote, “must have been too
melodramatic for him.” “My birth,” he discovered later, “was an
unmentionable outrage. To my grandmother, a product of czarist Russia, I
was no less than the son of the Devil. During her long, tedious life my
mother was unable to deal with the shame and the guilt.” When his mother
married another man, Harold took on the surname of his stepfather, Albaum—a
man he came to hate: “When I learned that he had died of a coronary, I
felt a rush of joy. I felt free. Home was the most violent place I
knew.” In the early 1950s, Harold reinvented both himself and his name
by rearranging the family name “Rosen” into “Norse.”
Harold earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature at
Brooklyn College in 1938. While there, he edited the college literary
magazine and began writing academic poetry. He had a romantic affair with
Chester Kallman, who was later to be the companion of W.H. Auden. While
attending New York University to gain a masters degree, Harold met William
Auden and Williams were to become the poles of Norse’s early work. “It
is all right to enjoy [T.S.] Eliot,” Williams told Norse, in 1951, “but
remember, he ran away from the thing which you have to realize to come out
whole. Watch your step.” “I was at a crossroads,” Norse wrote of
that period. If he ultimately chose Williams over both Auden and the
academy, he nonetheless retained a connection to the world both Auden and
the academy represented. Even at its freest, Norse’s verse could echo
the iambic pentameter that Williams hated. Nor was projective verse an
option. Fascinated by Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse” essay
(1950)—which Williams admired—Norse, significantly, disliked Olson’s
piece “for its style.”
In 1953, Norse moved to Italy where he encountered both a far less
puritanical attitude towards homosexuality and the work of the 19th-century
poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, who wrote in the Roman dialect. Norse’s
translations of Belli were made, he said, “with a dictionary in one hand
and a Roman in the other.” Roman
Sonnets, with a preface by William Carlos Williams, was published in
ya wanna be funny, it’s enough to be
gentleman. All the titled and well-heeled,
customs they have, gotta be nutty,
they think they’re losin’ the field.
praised Norse’s work as an example of “the American idiom”—“an
idiom inaccessible to anyone before the present time”—but Norse’s
translations were also deliberate, formal productions: rhyming sonnets.
In that same year, in Paris, Harold moved in with Allen Ginsberg, William
Burroughs and Gregory Corso, who were living at 9, rue Gît-le-Coeur,
a seedy Left-Bank establishment later to be known as “The Beat Hotel.”
While there, Norse joined Brion Gysin and William Burroughs in
experimenting with “cut-up” techniques. Norse’s novel, Beat
Hotel begins, “Bob sat up straight in bed, straining to listen.
Nothing. Voices crackled as from an old radio and figures stirred in some
numb echo-chamber of his brain, like newspapers down a windy street. He
felt enclosed in a soundproof room.”
1968, Norse returned to the United States, settling in Venice, California.
While there, he met and befriended Charles Bukowski, who admired Norse’s
work. In 1969, Norse included both Bukowski and Philip Lamantia in a
volume he edited for Penguin: Penguin
Modern Poets 13.
1972, Harold moved to San Francisco. In 1974, City Lights published Hotel
Nirvana: Selected Poems, 1953-1973 and Louis Cuneo’s Mother’s Hen
Press published I See America Daily.
(In an inscription, Norse wrote, “Would that I saw Paris or Rome
instead.”) In 1977, Gay Sunshine Press published the substantial volume,
Carnivorous Saint: Gay Poems
1941-1976 and in 1986 The Crossing Press published Harold
Norse The Love Poems 1940-1985. Norse’s status as both a gay and an
innovative writer was definitely established. In 2003, Thunder’s Mouth
Press brought out In the Hub of the
Fiery Force: Collected Poems, 1934-2003. His poem, “I’m Not a
Man,” written in San Francisco in 1972, has become one of his most
not a man. I can’t earn a living, buy new things for my
I have acne and a small peter.
not a man. I don’t like football, boxing and cars.
like to express my feelings. I even like to put an arm
my friend’s shoulder.
not a man. I won’t play the role assigned to me—the role
by Madison Avenue, Playboy, Hollywood and Oliver Cromwell.
does not dictate my behavior. I am under 5 foot 4.
not a man. Once when I shot a squirrel I swore that I would
kill again. I gave up meat. The sight of blood makes me
I like flowers.
not a man. I went to prison resisting the draft. I do not
back when real men beat me up and call me queer. I dislike
not a man. I have never raped a woman. I don’t hate blacks.
do not get emotional when the flag is waved. I do not think
should love America or leave it. I think I should laugh at it.
not a man. I have never had the clap.
not a man. Playboy is not my favorite magazine.
not a man. I cry when I’m unhappy.
not a man. I do not feel superior to women.
not a man. I don’t wear a jockstrap.
not a man. I write poetry.
not a man. I meditate on peace and love.
not a man. I don’t want to destroy you.
because of the line, “I have acne and a small peter”—and despite
some clear autobiographical elements—Norse always prefaced the poem at
readings by announcing that it was “not autobiographical.”
was asked recently, “Who reads or remembers Harold Norse?” It was a
good question, and I would have to admit that the answer is very few
people—and, further, that these people are much more likely to be
Californians than New Yorkers. Yet everyone who reads Norse remarks that
he is a very good poet. Why isn’t he better known? Admired people
admired his work. William Carlos Williams, James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg,
William Burroughs, many others—all thought he was a fine writer. Charles
Bukowski, who admired very few poets, unstintingly admired Norse. I think
the problem is that Norse’s imagination never moved towards what might
be called spectacular or scandalous or attention-grabbing modes. Think of
the difference between Norse’s excellent, explicit gay poems and a book
like Jean Genet’s Nôtre Dame des Fleurs. The same tension that played itself out on a
stylistic level in Norse’s work—should he write formal verse, should
he write something freer?—was also present in his psyche. (Note,
incidentally, that the concluding, climactic line of the free verse
“I’m Not a Man” is a line of almost exact iambic pentameter.) For
all Norse’s genuine courage, his risks tended to be in areas others had
explored before. Beat Hotel is a very fine book, but there is Naked Lunch. Norse has a fine poem about his mad mother in a rest
home—but Ginsberg had already written “Kaddish.” There is no Waste
Land, no Howl—and certainly no Maximus
Poems—in his oeuvre. Yet is this Norse’s problem or our own? We
live at a time when it is almost impossible to praise a poet without
calling him “great”! Norse was not
a “great” poet, but he was a
very good one. Williams, Baldwin, Ginsberg, Burroughs, et al could
give him praise, but they could not give him their audiences. Shouldn’t
there be a place for a man who, in Auden’s phrase, spent his life in
“writing well”? Isn’t it the point of magazines like CPR
to direct readers towards the little known, the careful, caring writers
who kept the flame alive but who never used it to burn anything down?
his memorial poem to Harold Norse, Norse’s longtime friend and advocate
Neeli Cherkovski wrote, “You / were the man / who showed me / at least
one way / out of solitude / and back into the self.” In 1993, I gave
Harold a cassette tape of Walt Whitman reading his poem, “America.”
The only place Harold could play the tape was in his message machine—and
that fact gave him a poem. I’ve always loved Harold’s poem because it
shows not only his love of Whitman—a major factor in his writing—but
also his charm, his wit, his love (though he could be a vain man) of
community and of poetry itself, particularly of poetry as it manifested in
that “American idiom” which Walt Whitman was among the first to
enunciate and which Harold Norse clearly and vibrantly continued.
Whitman Called Today
for Jack Foley
Whitman left a message on my answering machine today.
called long distance. I found him personal, enthralling.
voice was vibrant, sexy, full of warmth,
in age, still powerful, still a natural force:
of equal daughters, equal sons,
all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love.
artifact of wax, lone sample of eternal voice,
imperfect, scratchy background of drowning din,
surf-like waves of sound rolled over his words,
static from seas of Time, haunts of Spirit’s mystical deeps,
and surging, lapping syllables, cradling Space,
from 19th Century Jersey shores to me.
decades now since first I read your leaves,
boy of sixteen, rocking and rolling in your cradle of grass),
century after your death you recite in my room,
Edison’s wax cylinder, four lines remaining,
preserved, discovered, radio broadcast
years ago, recorded, then melted away!
retained on cassette plugged into my answering machine
wondrous your Brooklyn accent, Walt, like mine!),
familiar, at last in the flesh, your message received
And answered in kind, inspiring communal love,
Before I, too, am recycled in Eternity.