Harold Norse’s Poetic Imagination

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Harold Norse is one of those writers whose life is itself a work of art. While a student in New York in the late 1930’s, Norse was an intimate of Chester Kallman and W. H. Auden. He also befriended the yet-undiscovered James Baldwin and Tennessee Williams. He held in his hands the early drafts of many of the 20th century’s most important literary works, and in some ways he even helped shape these works through the friendships he had with their authors. Other artists and writers that he knew included William Carlos Williams, Dylan Thomas, Christopher Isherwood, Gore Vidal, James Jones, Paul and Jane Bowles, Ned Rorem, Anaïs Nin, and Charles Bukowski.

Though Norse is frequently associated with Beat Generation writers like his close friends Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs, his career as a poet began years earlier, and he has outlived many of his Beat co-conspirators. Norse’s work is not as well-known as theirs, which is unfortunate, but that may be changing. He is handsomely represented in the 1999 Thunder’s Mouth Press anthology, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, edited by Alan Kaufman. Five of his poems have just appeared in a new anthology, Beat Poets, edited by Carmela Ciuraru and published this year by Knopf as part of its Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series. And Norse’s 1989 autobiography, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, has just been re-issued by Thunder’s Mouth Press.

Memoirs of a Bastard Angel is subtitled “A Fifty-Year Literary and Erotic Odyssey,” and it more than lives up to that promise. Norse not only details his own life as a writer, but he tells wonderful and revealing stories about the fascinating writers, artists, and others whose paths he has crossed over the years. Recently, I met with the 86-year-old Norse, along with his friend and assistant Gregory Moloney, in Norse’s San Francisco home to talk about his career. He told me that he hadn’t set out to write a book of memoirs and that the book’s success still surprised him. The title, he explained, grew out his sense of estrangement from his family: “I found out from an aunt that I was illegitimate and my father was German-American. Hence the title Bastard Angel. So I was born ‘half a Jew,’ as a dotty British woman once put it.”

Norse said he found a talent for writing early on. “Right off, I was a writer that everyone was noticing,” he remembered of his high school and college days. “I was halfway to getting a Ph.D. and I thought, ‘Oh, no, no, no, I’ve got to be a writer.’ And that was either the best thing I did, or the worst.”

Norse’s career as a writer allowed him to find a surrogate family in the company of other writers. He developed a warm, almost brotherly relationship with both the young James Baldwin and with Tennessee Williams, who was a few years his senior. He writes movingly of his friendships with both men as they struggled to find their voice. But perhaps the most significant person in the young Norse’s life was the poet William Carlos Williams, who became a mentor and father figure for Norse. “I was incredibly moved and thrilled,” he said of his first meeting with Williams. “[He] was the major poet of his time who broke through [the influence]of those scholarly academic poets, and in my generation, that’s all there were, and I became one.” With Williams’ encouragement and guidance, however, Norse found a voice of his own, achieving publication in such eminent journals as Poetry, The Paris Review and The Saturday Review before publishing the first of his many books of poetry.

Of the great men that he met in those days, Norse remarked: “People expect, as I did, the famous writers and poets to be just open and wonderful and giving, and they were not. They all wanted to go to bed with me!” He spoke frankly about his “triangle” with Chester Kallman and Auden, recalling with amusement how he and Kallman first met Auden at a reading: “[Chester] fell on my bed and said, ‘My God, Harold, Auden is here. We’ve got to go see him. We’ll sit in the front row and wink at him.’ And this is exactly what we did. And Auden wanted me, and I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t make it with anybody who was unattractive and much older than I. Chester was a whore by nature. He was about seventeen, and he did [hook up with Auden]for the rest of his life.”

Although Norse has traveled widely and lived in such places as England, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Spain, and Morocco, he’s still in many ways a young man from Brooklyn, and identifies powerfully with the Brooklyn poets Walt Whitman and Hart Crane. Indeed he believes he has an almost psychic connection to the two poets, particularly Whitman. While in the midst of his first gay love affair, which was with one of his professors, he was able to stand in the very Brooklyn apartment in which Crane had lived while writing his monumental poem, “The Bridge.” Said Norse of the opportunity to go to Hart Crane’s old rooms: “I jumped at the chance. It was a great thrill. Across the street there was and is a bronze plaque stating that Whitman printed the first edition of Leaves of Grass there! This was high over the East River in Columbia Heights, Brooklyn. And I grew up in Brooklyn.”

Norse is now working on a prose work as well as an edition of his collected poems. Both projects, he says, give him little time to write poetry these days, but he hopes to return to it soon. Meanwhile, his Memoirs continues to sell well. The book has been translated into French and German and will soon be published in Spanish. What makes it so remarkable is simply the life story that it recounts, a life filled with memorable encounters and inspiring travels. In one chapter he describes a Mediterranean cruise on a friend’s yacht during which, in a single day, he met the Duke of Windsor (heir to the British throne) and found himself on an island of handsome, sex-starved male prisoners. When asked if he considers himself as having lived a charmed life, Norse laughed and said, “Well, it was life. I thought everyone was living like that.”

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