During times of upheaval, art of all kinds can offer solace and refuge. As an antidote to the horrors we are all grappling with these days, I recommend to you the life and writing of Harold Norse (1916-2009), an out gay man who grew up in the 1920s and 1930s. In this, his centennial year, let’s have a look at who he was and what he was all about.
The Brooklyn native was a smart, sexy guy with a winning smile. He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1938 and later earned an M.A. from New York University. His elegant lyric poems received high praise from William Carlos Williams, who called him the best poet of his generation. First in Europe and then in San Francisco, Norse found his milieu among the Beat writers. His numerous books of poetry, his experimental novel, The Beat Hotel, and his memoir were published by both mainstream and small presses beginning in 1953.
Here’s Norse writing in Memoirs of a Bastard Angel (Morrow, 1989) about a letter he received from W.H. Auden:
Wystan had repeatedly said, and had written in a letter to me, ‘Live every moment as if it were thy last,’ quoting an Anglican hymn he had sung in childhood. And although the context of this line was religious, I could believe the thought without the religion. There was no other way to live. Certainly not if you were in your twenties and the most devastating war in history had just ended. I was lucky to be alive. I was lucky the government did not have room in its military machine for young men designated 4-F because of ‘feminine reactions.’
But Norse did fight during World War II–in New York City. One day on Eighth Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, he encountered a drunk beating up a peddler and hollering anti-Semitic epithets:
Nobody made a move to help the old man. The crowd’s passiveness and the helplessness of the old peddler at a time when millions of innocent Jews were being terminated in the gas chambers of Europe proved too much for me. I pushed my way forward through the throng and hovered a moment indecisively. Then, almost without my knowing it, my fist shot out of the crowd and the drunk went down, flat on his back, his head thudding on the asphalt. A cheer rose from the crowd, which began to disperse, many thanking me warmly, shaking my hand.
Norse was a man of many talents. In the late 1950s he arrived in Paris and soon began experimenting with cut-up writing, a technique that William Burroughs made famous. Norse was also painting:
I had begun painting at a suggestion from Julia Laurin. I threw colored Pelican inks at random on Bristol paper and washed them off in the bidet with startling results: a series of maplike drawings of outer and inner space in the most vivid colors and minutely precise details, as if they had been meticulously drawn by a master hand. Yet my hand never touched them. I allowed everything to happen, letting the laws of chance take over, acting as a medium through whom these colors, shapes, and designs would flow, dictated by whatever forces reside in the unconscious. With the feeling that I was charting new territory in the visual arts I worked compulsively, calling the results ‘Cosmographs’–cosmic writings. I was no draftsman, but I was an artist. When I showed them to Burroughs [… ] he was so enthusiastic that he wrote the introduction to my first one-man show, which opened a year later in March 1961 at the English Bookshop, 42, rue de Seine.
These are just a few glimpses of Norse, someone I knew little about until I became friends with Todd and Tate Swindell of San Francisco. The Swindell brothers have done a great deal to promote Norse and other San Francisco Beats who haven’t gotten the attention they deserve.
A writer and activist, Todd Swindell had admired Norse’s poetry for a long time before he began helping Norse around the house near the end of the poet’s life. After Norse died, Todd compiled his archives. He also took on the enormous task of editing I Am Going to Fly Through Glass: The Selected Poems of Harold Norse (Talisman House, 2014). Later this month, he will be presenting a talk, “Cut Out of the Cut Ups: Harold Norse at the Beat Hotel,” at the European Beat Studies Conference in Manchester, England. In July, Todd and Tate Swindell will host and participate in a series of discussion panels commemorating the centennial of Norse’s birth. For more info on these panels (two in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles), go to the Events page at haroldnorse.com.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Todd Swindell by email. Here’s what he had to say about his old friend Harold Norse.
What does Harold Norse add to the Beat Movement?
Harold adds a strong connection to Modernism to the Beat Movement. He was publishing in magazines like Poetry in the 1940s. When W.H. Auden arrived in the States, Harold was among the first Americans to connect with him, and he became Auden’s secretary. Harold also got to know Anaïs Nin, Dylan Thomas, and James Baldwin.
Without Harold, the Beats would not have such a rich international dimension. He lived in Paris in the late 1950s and traveled widely. We read often of New York City and San Francisco, but a great deal of the Beats’ influence came out of what happened in Paris, Tangier, and the Greek Islands, and Harold was part of that scene. Nor would we have had Harold’s magazine Bastard Angel, from the early 1970s, publishing a new generation of writers such as Andrei Codrescu and Neeli Cherkovski in the same pages as Bob Kaufman and Diane di Prima.
Where was Harold living when he was editing and producing Bastard Angel, and how long did it last? Where is it archived?
Bastard Angel magazine began shortly after Harold moved to San Francisco in 1971, inspired by the city’s poetry scene and its mixture of younger and older poets. Issue #3, the last one, came out in the fall of 1974. The mock-ups and other production material are archived at the Lilly Library at Indiana University. Harold sold them a part of his archives in the early 1980s. Most of his papers are housed at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.
How did Harold get along with Allen Ginsberg? Did they have much contact?
Harold met Allen in the winter of 1944, a week before Ginsberg met Kerouac. It was on a subway train, very early in the morning heading to Greenwich Village, when Allen entered the empty car wearing a red bandana around his neck, taking a seat opposite Harold. When the train’s rumble would quiet at each stop, Harold could hear the 18-year-old mumbling to himself while his head bobbed as if he were in a trance. Eventually he recognized “The Drunken Boat” being recited in French. “Rimbaud!” Harold shouted. “You’re a poet!” Allen replied. They went back to Harold’s apartment on Horatio Street and compared poems. The pair would have likely met later at parties or bars in the Village, but they were acquaintances more than friends, similar to Harold’s connection with Frank O’Hara.
Allen Ginsberg and Harold Norse (photo by Gerard Malanga, 1973)
There was a subtle rivalry between Norse and Ginsberg. In Harold’s Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, he mentions the time Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky arrived in Paris in 1961 on their way to India. At a party filled with champagne and hashish, Peter pestered Harold to disrobe. After swigging and toking, he complied, but then Peter disappeared into the bathroom. Eventually most of the guests ended up in their birthday suits, as Allen sternly guarded the bathroom door. The whole story is well worth reading.
When I was gathering Harold’s archives, I found correspondence to Allen asking him for a letter of recommendation. Harold was trying to obtain a paid teaching position. Ginsberg replied he didn’t have time to comply and ultimately such a letter would not make a difference. In his defense, Ginsberg was inundated with such requests.
In Harold’s archives at Indiana University, there is a series of photographs by Gerard Malanga taken in 1973 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art during a poetry reading by John Ashbery. Allen and Harold were both in attendance wearing the colorful hippie garb of the day. You can see their bright smiles. As you know, Ginsberg was a talented photographer and he photographed Harold in the kitchen of his Mission District apartment in 1988. It is one of the most beautiful photos taken of Harold.
Photo by Allen Ginsberg, 1988
Did Harold have a workaday job, or was he able to earn a living as a writer?
Harold’s paid employment varied throughout his life. In New York City, he taught at colleges like Cooper Union. When he left for Italy in ’53, his finances were very strained. At first he worked dubbing English films into Italian and then taught English, on and off, for a couple years. During his years abroad, Harold was supported by a couple of patrons who were from wealthy families but lived frugally. This support was usually a vacant apartment or money for food—but only the bare necessities.
When Harold repatriated to California in 1969, he tried to obtain a regular teaching position but was systematically rejected by petty professors jealous of his time abroad. There was an image projected of Harold being too wild because of his poetry. In the 1980s he had some stints at a college in San Jose and at San Francisco’s New College. Harold scraped by his whole life, but of course he’d been doing that since he was a child. His parents were always leaving furnished rooms under cloak of night because they couldn’t pay the rent.
I read that he rearranged the letters in his surname, Rosen, to come up with Norse. Why did he do that? What was his attitude toward his Jewish heritage?
Like his hairpiece, Harold’s name change was something he never spoke of. According to his memoirs, Harold’s new name came from childhood readings in Norse mythology and because his mother’s family were Nordic Jews, blue-eyed blondes from Lithuania. Though his mother was suspicious of religions (and people), her siblings converted when they married spouses who were Catholic.
Harold embraced his Jewish heritage when the Nazis rose to power. Also, he saw how prejudice arose from baseless stereotypes whether it was blacks, queers, or Jews. For instance, Harold—muscular, hairy, butch—was never suspected of being queer. His swarthy complexion and upturned nose could have him pegged as anything from Italian to English to German.
What are some of the poems you especially admire in I Am Going to Fly Through Glass?
A selection of my favorite poems can change from day-to-day. For now…“Piccolo Paradiso” is a love poem for the ages. “Believing in the Absurd” is a snapshot of Harold’s time at the Beat Hotel. “California Will Sink” is a prophetic lamentation about global warming. “Remembering Paul Goodman” encapsulates the queer poetic geniuses of 1940’s Manhattan. “Let Go and Feel Your Nakedness” merges the lusty odes of Catullus with the liberating playfulness of James Broughton.
What were some of the challenges of compiling and editing this edition of selected poems?
My original idea was to photocopy a chapbook of Harold’s poetry and circulate it amongst friends, a stoking of the fire, as it were. I’d self-published a memorial chapbook of poetry from Harold’s friends like Ira Cohen, Mel Clay and Eddie Woods after he died in 2009. (Readers can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to purchase a copy.) It wasn’t until Neeli Cherkovski suggested a full-length collection that I set my sights higher, which meant going back and reading all the poems again.
The 2003 edition of Harold’s collected poems is comprehensive but poorly organized and needlessly repetitive. I wanted to illustrate the development of Harold’s poetic voice, mirrored by his world travels. Including photographs from Harold’s archives accented this progression. Neeli contributed a brilliant introductory essay that motivated me to include additional poems.
It was hard not to give up when publishers repeatedly turned down the manuscript. I was on the verge of self-publishing when Ed Foster from Talisman House came in with a wonderful offer to print 700 copies—considerably larger than the usual small-press poetry print runs.
Tell me a story about Harold Norse that only you would know.
Harold’s last years living alone in his cottage apartment in San Francisco were fraught with loneliness, compounded by lack of restful sleep. Though social by nature, he had become increasingly isolated. There was an element within his psyche which could often sabotage an opportunity.
Many folks who knew Harold longer than I have remarked on how he would perpetually kvetch about his work not being recognized. I was in my twenties when we first met and naively unaware of Harold’s role in that situation. I could only be supportive and enthusiastic. As far as I was concerned, the value of his work obviated Harold’s shortcomings.
One day, venting his woes, Harold expressed concern that he sounded paranoid. His complaint wasn’t specific to his poetry not getting the attention it deserved but more about the difficulty of not getting enough sleep and lacking money and companionship. The day before, I had been reading his City Lights collection Hotel Nirvana, which contains the poem “These Fears Are Real Not Paranoid.” I blurted out the title and Harold looked at me wide-eyed as I explained it was the title of one of his poems.
He was not convinced. I had him locate a copy of the book so I could read the poem aloud. When I was done, Harold had tears in his eyes. “I’m hearing this poem for the first time,” he said. “What do you mean?” I asked. “We are unable to see ourselves,” he replied, “That’s why I write poetry–for the reflection that comes from the reader.” It was then I begin to appreciate what my friendship offered Harold beyond housecleaning and conversation.
To read a selection of Norse’s poems published in Poetry magazine, click here.
Harold Norse and Todd Swindell, 2008 (Photo by Tate Swindell)