Harold Norse: Last of the major Beat poets whose idiomatic works became landmarks of gay writing

Michael Carlson
Monday 03 August 2009 00:00

As one reviewer of Harold Norse's Carnivorous Saint: Gay Poems 1941-1976 put it, "he was beat before the Beats, hip before the hippies, and out of the closet long before gay liberation."

Norse, who has died aged 92, was in many ways the last of the major Beat poets, as well as arguably the first. Norse's straightforward American vernacular, influenced by William Carlos Williams, allowed him to reflect his sexuality; his liberation from the traditional strictures and language of poetry made his work more direct than Allen Ginsberg's Whitmanesque lines or Frank O'Hara's wry urbanity.

Norse spent 15 years as an expatriate in Europe and North Africa, before eventually settling in San Francisco, America's domestic version of expatriacy. Always an outsider, unwilling to promote himself, Norse had a knack of falling in with great writers wherever he went. He told an interviewer in 2003 that he expected them to be "open and wonderfully giving, and they were not. They all wanted to go to bed with me."

Norse was born Harold Rosen, in Brooklyn on 6 July 1916. His mother, a Russian immigrant, was unmarried; Norse called his autobiography Memoirs of a Bastard Angel (1989). He took the name Albaum when his mother married, but his stepfather was often abusive to his small and bookish stepson. Norse became the first freshman to win Brooklyn College's poetry prize, and while editing the college literary magazine he began a relationship with another young poet, Chester Kallman.

A year after graduating in 1938, Norse flirted with W H Auden, recently arrived in New York, and was hired as his secretary. The job didn't last long; Auden fell in love with Kallman, who became his life-long partner. But Norse entered Auden's literary circle, and began a string of remarkable friendships, with Allen Ginsberg, James Beck (with whom he started The Living Theatre) and James Baldwin. He shared a room in Provincetown with Tennessee Williams, as the playwright wrote The Glass Menagerie. In 1951 he received his MA in English and American poetry from New York University.

By now he had changed his name to Norse, an anagram of Rosen, and was publishing poems in the major literary journals. He met William Carlos Williams, a New Jersey doctor whose poetry featured short, clear lines written in the voice of everyday American speech. Williams was not gay, and simply recognised Norse's talent, calling him "the best poet of his generation". He encouraged Norse to move away from the strictures of the "new criticism", influenced primarily by T S Eliot, a poetry based on dense reference requiring severe exegesis. Norse's first collection, The Undersea Mountain (1953), was published by a small press. Frustrated by the cold response of the literary world to his new direction, Norse quit his doctoral programme and moved to Rome.

Free also from the restraints of sexuality in the American demi-monde, for the next five years Norse translated the sonnets of Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli, written in 19th-century Roman dialect, keeping, as he put it, "a dictionary in one hand and a Roman in the other". The result, in a side-of-your-mouth Brooklynese, was published in 1960 by Jonathan Williams' Jargon Press, featuring prefaces by William Carlos Williams and Alberto Moravia.

In 1959 he moved to Paris, where he lived in the "Beat Hotel", often sharing the same bed with Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso. Together with Burroughs and Brion Gysin he pioneered the "cut-up" novel; but while Burroughs' Naked Lunch became a controversial best- seller, Norse's Beat Hotel wasn't published until 1973, and then only in German, though the book has since gone through 30 printings in English.

The Dancing Beasts (1962) was Norse's first collection from a mainstream publisher; by then he was living in Tangiers with Paul Bowles. He returned to America in 1968, moving to Los Angeles, where he reputedly lifted weights with Arnold Schwarzenegger at Muscle Beach, and became friendly with Charles Bukowski.

In 1969, he appeared in the Penguin Modern Poets series, choosing Bukowski and Philip Lamantia to share the volume. He then moved to San Francisco's Mission District, where he would live for the rest of his life. It was a perfect fit. Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights published Hotel Nirvana (1974), which was nominated for a National Book Award, and when Carnivorous Saint appeared from Gay Sunshine Press in 1977 it became a landmark of gay liberation.

Apart from one small press volume, his only other books of poetry would be The Love Poems 1940-1985 (1986) and his collected poems, In the Hub of Fiery Force (2003). Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, with an introduction by Baldwin, was his first work from a "major" publisher in 40 years.

Norse's enduring legacy may be that autobiography and two remarkable collections of letters published by smaller presses, The American Idiom: a Correspondence (1990), which traces his poetic growth through his correspondence with Williams, and Fly Like a Bat out of Hell (2002), a record of his relationship with the irascible Bukowski. He died on 15 June of natural causes in a San Francisco care home. His last words, uttered to his nurse, were "the end is the beginning".

Harold Norse, poet: born Brooklyn, New York 6 July 1916; died San Francisco 15 June 2009.

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