Norse, Harold (George)
NORSE, Harold (George)
Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 6 July 1916. Education: Brooklyn College, B.A. 1938; New York University, M.A.1951. Career: Worked as a sheet metal worker, dancer, and proofreader, 1941–44; instructor in English, Cooper Union, New York, 1949–52, Lion School of English, Rome, 1956–57, and U.S. Information Service School, Naples, 1958; part-time teacher, San Jose State University, California, 1973–75; instructor in creative writing, New College, San Francisco; founding editor, Bastard Angel, San Francisco. Awards: Borestone Mountain Poetry award, 1968; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1974; De Young Museum grant, 1974; Lifetime Achievement award for poetry, National Poetry Association, 1991. Address: 157 Albion Street, San Francisco, California 94110, U.S.A.
The Undersea Mountain. Denver, Swallow, 1953.
The Dancing Beasts. New York, Macmillan, 1962.
Ole. Bensenville, Illinois, Open Skull, 1966.
Karma Circuit: 20 Poems and a Preface. London, Nothing Doing in London, 1967; San Francisco, Panjandrum Press, 1974.
Christmas on Earth. N.p., Minkoff Rare Editions, 1968.
Penguin Modern Poets 13, with Charles Bukowski and Philip Lamantia. London, Penguin, 1969.
Hotel Nirvana: Selected Poems 1953–1973. San Francisco, City Lights, 1974.
I See America Daily. San Francisco, Mother's Hen, 1974.
Carnivorous Saint: Gay Poems 1941–1976. San Francisco, Gay Sunshine Press, 1977.
Mysteries of Magritte. San Diego, Atticus Press, 1984.
The Love Poems, 1940–1985. Trumansburg, New York, Crossing Press, 1986.
Sniffing Keyholes. San Francisco, Synaesthesia Press, 1998.
Beat Hotel. Augsburg, Maro, 1975; San Diego, Atticus Press, 1983.
Memoirs of a Bastard Angel. New York, Morrow, 1989; London, Bloomsbury, 1990; Paris, DuRocher, 1991; Hamburg, Rogner & Bernhard, 1992.
The American Idiom: A Correspondence. San Francisco, Bright Tyger Press, 1990.
Translator, The Roman Sonnets of G.G. Belli. Highlands, North Carolina, Jargon, 1960.*
Manuscript Collection: Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington.
Critical Studies: Bomb Culture by Jeff Nuttall, London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1968, New York, Delacorte Press, 1969; Orpheus Unacclaimed: A Study of the Poetry of Harold Norse by John A. Wood, Fayetteville, University of Arkansas unpublished thesis, 1969; "Hotel of the Carnivorous Heart: The Norse Saga Rediscovered" by Paul Grillo, in North East Rising Sun 2, 6–7, 1977; in Isthmus 6 (San Francisco), 1977; Nanos Valaoritis, in Surréalisme 2, Paris, Savelli, 1977; "An American Catullus" by W.I. Scobie, in The Advocate (Los Angeles), 19 October 1977; The Great American Poetry BakeOff by Robert L. Peters, Metuchen, New Jersey, Scarecrow Press, 1979; Articulate Flesh by Gregory Woods, New Haven, Connecticut and London, Yale University Press, 1987; Whitman's Wild Children by Neeli Cherkovski, Venice, California, Lapis Press, 1988; by Robert Craft, in New York Review of Books, 38(1–2), 17 December 1991.
Harold Norse comments:
Using the American vulgate, I generally tend to record experience through a spontaneous, heart-centered, autobiographical poetry for readers, not specialists. Via a rather surrealistic approach that attempts to capture the complexity of living by means of an anagogical imagery of the absurd, contradictory, and tragicomic, I try to present the passions, feelings, and events of my own life and time, often centered in the erotic tradition of Greco-Roman poetry, secular and profane. I see the function of my poetry as a voicing of the substrata of the passional life, in both senses of strong emotion and suffering. I do not know whether I have chosen this or been chosen for it, as I have always written in this way—and God help the poor reader!* * *
Harold Norse is an interesting example of a poet who started his literary career in a relatively formal manner, both from the point of view of his writing and the circles he moved in, and then decided to throw in his lot with the bohemian and often expatriate world of little magazines and small presses. His early work reflected the influence of Hart Crane, as in this brief example from the early The Dancing Beasts:
The sun scattered those diamonds
Like coruscations of castanets
Over the sinewy blue belly
Of the sea; while one great rock rose,
The fat fin of a whaleshaped isle...
But by the time this collection appeared in print Norse was moving toward a looser, more open form of poetry, perhaps under the influence of some of the poets of the beat generation. It has also been suggested that he was much affected by the Roman dialect poems of G.G. Belli, which he translated into an engaging American idiom. As the 1960s developed, Norse began to appear in print with poems that used the language and rhythms of everyday speech to describe the facts of his life:
the bottle of mineral water is guillotining the trees
i tighten my scarf
in cap & hornrimmed specs
I'm superimposed on italy
into rain & winter
Of course, the drawback with this kind of writing, which is fairly typical of the poems in Karma Circuit, is that it expects the reader to be interested in the information it offers, and its way of piling detail upon detail, short phrase upon short phrase, can become tiresome. It is true that this particular poem, written while traveling, does catch the rhythm and fragmentary nature of a long train journey, but the reader may be forgiven for wanting something more.
Norse's forays into free verse have caused him to write unevenly, sometimes bringing off a poem, sometimes letting it wander too much to hold the reader's attention. What he does do well is to portray the artistic outsider in society, and his collection Hotel Nirvana is almost a catalogue of literary and other references. He mentions painters such as Picasso and Braque, pays homage to the dead poet Maxwell Bodenheim, states a preference for Gershwin over Hemingway in a poem that neatly combines images of Paris and New York, and lists numerous other heroes, including Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Artaud. The book is, in fact, a useful record of the life of an expatriate bohemian poet, though it does have flashes of humor that save it from sounding pretentious:
In November I gave a poetry reading which was so well
one day in advance that 5 people actually
came, 4 of them
drunk and cantankerous...
As well as opting to become a literary outsider, moving around and publishing where and when he could, Norse also involved himself with the gay community, and many of his poems reflect this fact. Carnivorous Saint: Gay Poems 1941–1976 brings together a large selection of his work, and although it is inevitably variable in quality, it has many fine poems. It also gives the reader an opportunity to see Norse at work in a variety of styles. There is, for example, the simple formality of the 1950 poem "Angel of Last Summer":
"So, beat the rug. Keep your house clean."
The angel smiled, his muscles gleamed.
He beat the rug, I read my book,
The washing flapped, and the chimneys shook.
As a stylistic contrast there is the looser 1975 poem "The Love Song of an Old Beatnik":
After you left I missed you so much
I began to floss my teeth wildly.
There was nothing to do.
The sunflower seeds you put in a jar—
don't worry, they'll keep
much better than me till you're back.
Carnivorous Saint can be a provocative book in some ways, but it is central to an understanding of Norse's poetry.
By deciding to move away from formal verse and a literary life linked to a major publishing center, Norse has taken chances with his work, much of which has been published in small press editions. Likewise, he has taken chances with the nature of his poems' subject matter and content. They have come to represent a way of life that runs counter to many social, political, and literary beliefs. From this point of view his work has value, despite its variable quality, for it records certain attitudes for posterity. But at their best the poems also stand on their own merits, whatever their sociological background. They retain their energy and concern, and when Norse is firmly in control of the language and rhythm, they keep the reader interested and entertained.