Leslie Norris

Powerful poet who left his native Wales to teach as a 'displaced person' at Brigham Young University, Utah

Monday 10 April 2006 00:00
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George Leslie Norris, poet and short-story writer: born Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorgan, 21 May 1921: Lecturer, then Principal Lecturer in English, Bognor Regis College of Education 1958-73; FRSL 1974; Christiansen Professor of Poetry, Brigham Young University 1984-2000 , Humanities Professor of Creative Writing 1989-2000; married 1948 Kitty Morgan; died Provo, Utah 6 April 2006.

Leslie Norris came to prominence as a poet in the mid-1960s when he started contributing to the magazine Poetry Wales and after the publication of his first collection of poems, Finding Gold, in 1967. He had been writing verse since his schooldays in Merthyr Tydfil and had already published three small booklets, but he had fallen silent during the 1950s.

The launching of Poetry Wales in 1965 rescued his muse and he was to become a regular contributor to the "second flowering" of Welsh writing in English. Even so, he was never a prominent figure in the literary mainstream in Wales, partly because he spent more than 50 years in England and the United States, but more importantly because he chose to live as a "displaced person", at home only in his imagination and the writer's craft.

Among his most anthologised poems are "The Ballad of Billy Rose", about a boxer whom he had seen blinded in the ring, the delicately evocative "Water", set on a farm on the hillside above Merthyr, and "Elegy for David Beynon", in memory of a teacher who, after the coal-tip's slide on to the Pant-glas School at Aberfan in 1966, had been found dead at his desk and, under his arms, the bodies of four children whom he had been trying to protect from the slurry. From all these local incidents Norris managed to make poems of universal significance and great emotional power.

The town of Merthyr Tydfil, where he had been born in 1921, marked him indelibly as a Welshman, not so much by language, for he had only a little Welsh, as by an amalgam of local history. Economically depressed but socially vibrant, it was a wondrous place for a young poet, with colourful characters on every street-corner and, beyond Cefn-coed, a hinterland of breathtaking beauty in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons. The young Norris, bookish and precocious, attended Cyfarthfa Grammar School, housed in the mansion of the Crawshays, the local ironmasters, but learned more, he claimed, from talking to the townsfolk and reading voraciously. He once told me that he had read all of C.M. Doughty's Arabia Deserta while mitching from school in the town branch of W.H. Smith's bookshop.

He also claimed to have known the precise moment when he realised he was going to be a poet. It was when a fellow pupil was punished by a brutish headmaster for giving, as the opposite of "good", the word "rotten". Norris pointed out that his friend's father was a grocer and that in his shop they sold good fruit and threw away the rotten; he too was caned for his impertinence. "I became aware then," he told me, "that I knew the English language and the meanings of words better than my headmaster." The smarting pain of this incident was reworked years later in the story "Some Opposites of Good", published in The Girl from Cardigan (1988).

After leaving school at the age of 17, Norris took his first job as a rates clerk in the town hall and, two years later, was called up for military service with the RAF, only to contract severe blood poisoning within a few weeks, as a consequence of which he was invalided out. Some of his finest poems are elegies for friends killed in the Second World War.

On his return to Merthyr, he worked in a number of uncongenial jobs and read omnivorously, in particular the stories of Glyn Jones, another Merthyr man whom he was not to meet until I introduced them in 1967 but who became his close friend and about whom he wrote an affectionate monograph for the Writers of Wales series in 1973.

In 1948, desperate to get out of post-war Merthyr, now changing as the slums were cleared and new light industries took the place of iron and coal, but still a dead-end place for the young and ambitious, he married a Dowlais woman and enrolled as a student at the Teacher Training College in Coventry. He was never to live permanently in Wales again.

From 1952 to 1958 he taught at schools in Yeovil and Bath and was Headmaster of Westergate School, Chichester, then lectured at Bognor Regis College of Education (later the West Sussex Institute of Higher Education, now part of University College, Chichester), where his wife also taught. They lived at Aldingbourne in West Sussex, where the poets Ted Walker and Andrew Young were among their neighbours. The years Norris spent in England were crucial to his development as a poet, if only on account of his reading of Edward Thomas, whose melancholy he shared in large measure and whose response to the rural scene in southern England was similar to his own.

Encouraged by Richard Church, he sent his poems to Cecil Day-Lewis at Chatto & Windus, who published them as Finding Gold under the imprint of the Hogarth Press. His reputation was enhanced with the appearance of two more volumes in the Phoenix Living Poets series: Ransoms (1970) won the Alice Hunt Bartlett Prize in the year of its publication, and Mountains, Polecats, Pheasants (1974) was highly praised in the literary press on both sides of the Atlantic. He also began publishing stories and poems in The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker.

Having tried for several years to give up teaching in order to become a full-time writer, in the summer of 1973 he accepted an invitation to be Visiting Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. So began a long association with American universities which lasted for the rest of his life. On his return to England, he found himself so unsettled by the experience of America that he resigned his principal lectureship at Bognor Regis and resolved to earn his living henceforth by his pen.

Even so, he was obliged to take up residencies and fellowships from time to time, notably at Eton in 1977 and at Aston University in the year following. He also made further visits to the US, spending several months on a small island off the coast of Maine, which he celebrated in a sequence of poems which marked the beginning of a new informality in his writing style. In 1978 his first collection of stories, Sliding (1978), won the David Higham Prize for Fiction and one of his stories was awarded the Katherine Mansfield Prize.

In Seattle, which he revisited in 1980, he was particularly happy. The post he was given there had previously been held by Vernon Watkins until his sudden death while playing tennis on the campus in 1967. Norris greatly admired his fellow Welshman's work and had written an MPhil thesis on it at Southampton University, and so he was a natural choice as editor of the memorial volume published by Faber and Faber (Vernon Watkins, 1906-1967, 1970).

But it was in Utah, at Brigham Young University, where he first went in 1983, that be enjoyed the greatest status and wrote some of his best work. He was almost immediately made Christiansen Professor of Poetry in the Department of English and, in 1989, was appointed Humanities Professor of Creative Writing.

In the same year he cut his last physical ties with Wales by selling the cottage at Saron in Carmarthenshire which he had owned since the 1950s and from where he had indulged his passion for fly-fishing. Although he talked about returning to live permanently in Wales, henceforth he was only a summer visitor, looking up old friends and attending literary festivals and conferences.

I witnessed at first hand the esteem in which he was held by the Mormons of BYU when, in 1991, I was Visiting Professor there. He and I were the only non-members of the Church of Latter Day Saints on the campus and, because I was his friend and compatriot, I shared many of the privileges and friendships which were already his. I was struck, too, by his popularity among students and faculty alike: they flocked to his readings and lectures, bought his books in their hundreds and sought his opinion on their own work at every opportunity, with a zeal for poetry which I had previously observed only in Russia.

Apart from his amiable nature and serious approach to the poet's calling, I think it was the chaste character of Norris's work that appealed most to the Mormons. Not only is it fairly conventional in its technique and language, always accessible to the intelligent reader, and so carefully crafted as to allow the singing line to carry it forward, there is hardly any reference to sexual or political matters in it, no preoccupation with vice or crime, and its religious content is not so evident as to offer any challenge to the theology and rituals of their church. His American poems are to be found, for the most part, in Sequences (1988) and A Sea in the Desert (1989).

Norris felt himself at home in Utah, particularly in the valley of the Great Salt Lake, and was able to respond in ways which pleased his hosts, a desert people who like to be flattered on account of their fortitude and single- minded commitment to their church.

In Norris's last years he turned to writing books for children, including Merlin & the Snake's Egg (1978) and Albert and the Angels (2000), both published in New York, and, in collaboration with Alan Keele, to translating the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke.

A selection of poems from his dozen volumes appeared in his Collected Poems and the stories first brought together in Sliding and The Girl from Cardigan in his Collected Stories, both of which were published by the Bridgend-based firm Seren in 1996. Critical acclaim followed: James A. Davies contributed a monograph on Norris to the Writers of Wales series in 1991 and a Festschrift, An Open World: essays on Leslie Norris edited by Eugene England and Peter Makuck, appeared in 1994; to the latter book Ted Hughes contributed three poems.

Leslie Norris was a complex man, easily hurt, ambivalent towards his native country, but proud of his calling as a poet, staunch in his friendships and unfailingly generous towards younger poets. If some critics saw him as essentially a poet writing late in the English Georgian tradition, and others complained about his lack of social awareness and his preoccupation with the world of his youth, he stuck steadfastly to his last, content to remain "at the edge of things", that mysterious land where the familiar and the unfamiliar meet, and where his poems and stories had their abundant source.

Meic Stephens

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