Archives for category: Uncategorized

I’ve often wondered about Robert Frost’s famous line, “I’d as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.” I know he was making fun of free verse, which he saw as a lawless waste of his time. But wouldn’t playing without a net actually be harder in some ways than the familiar version of the game? And if that is so, doesn’t it follow that writing a truly memorable free verse poem might be more challenging than writing one in traditional meter and rhyme?

Henry Hart

Henry Hart

For thoughts on this matter and insights into the marvelously crustaceous Frost, I turned to poet and scholar Henry Hart, whose new biography, The Life of Robert Frost, is just out from Wiley Blackwell. “Frost was constantly making wisecracks about free verse poets playing tennis with the net down,” said Hart, a professor of English at the College of William and Mary.

Why did Frost act like free verse was so ridiculous? According to Hart, it was the poet’s way of  thumbing his nose at his rivals Ezra Pound and Carl Sandburg, who in their different ways were expert writers of free verse. Frost “tried writing free verse when he was close to Pound in London, and it was prosaic.  He knew writing good free verse was difficult—just as writing good formal poetry was difficult.  He preferred writing formal poetry because he was a conventional guy, but he also felt he needed the restraint and challenge of form.”

As for Frost the tennis player, I learned that the author of A Boy’s Will and North of Boston had taken up the game as a teenager while working one summer in Maine. It became one of his favorite activities–so long as he won. Hart said, “He was certainly passionate about tennis, but he wasn’t all that good and, as in most things, he was almost pathologically competitive.”

Frost was so competitive that he became furious when his daughter Lesley beat him at the game. According to Hart, the Pulitzer Prize winner stormed off the court shouting, “My children think that because they’re the children of a poet, that gives them license!  But what they don’t know or understand or appreciate [is] … I know more about the English language than any man alive.”

I couldn’t resist asking Hart, a longtime tennis player, his thoughts on tennis without a net. It turns out he agrees with Frost: “I suppose playing tennis with the net down or without the net would just be silly.” Still, he reminded me that the subject of his new biography was more concerned with poetry than tennis when making his remark: “Frost was emoting when he used the metaphor to mock free verse; he was just trash talking.”

Not quite done rallying back and forth on this topic, I decided to lob a few questions to several other tennis-playing writers in various genres.

In the case of William Pritchard, the eminent critic and author of Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, I wasn’t sure he played tennis, but something told me that the English professor emeritus at Amherst College had hit a few overhead smashes in his time. He was quick to write back that yes, indeed, he played tennis “until Old Age, etc.” As for playing the game without a net: “I can’t imagine what it would be like to play without a net. No fun, no restriction, what the hell can’t lose!”

Wm Pritchard

William Pritchard

Invited to contemplate net-free tennis, Boston-based novelist and short story writer Jessica Treadway responded an hour before she was scheduled to play a match–very much in keeping with her literary flair for timing and suspense. “I don’t think I’ve ever played without a net, but my immediate reaction to the idea of doing so has not to do with whether it’s harder or easier, but with whether I’d want to do it, and the answer is no. The analogy that came to mind was no-ad scoring, which I dislike. To my mind, it is not ‘real’ tennis.”

Jessica Treadway

Jessica Treadway

The author of Lacy Eye and How Will I Know You added, “I also wouldn’t want to do it because I’m used to having a net, and I like the game the way it is. I wonder if someone never having written poetry would prefer free verse because it does seem that it would be easier?”

Keith Clark, professor of English and African & African-American Studies at George Mason University, likewise nixed the idea of playing tennis without a net. Compared to the game he knows and loves, the netless version would be “infinitely dumber and less interesting, mind-numbingly less interesting, in fact.” The author of The Radical Fiction of Ann Petry and Black Manhood in James Baldwin, Ernest J. Gaines, and August Wilson makes time for tennis even during the busiest weeks of the semester at GMU.

Keith Clark

Keith Clark

As for Frost’s remark, the ever-erudite Professor Clark noted, “I think Frost’s comment speaks to his classical approach to the art of poetry, which eschews radical approaches to form. Not to say that he wasn’t aesthetically daring, but free verse to him seemed a bridge too far.”

Carol Henderson, author of Losing Malcolm and Farther Along: The Writing Journey of Thirteen Bereaved Mothers, made it clear that tennis without a net is not high on her to-do list. “You need the net to gauge distance, height, depth,” said this dedicated tennis player and writing workshop instructor, who secludes herself at home in Chapel Hill, N.C., to watch Grand Slam matches on a large-screen TV. “Playing or watching tennis without a net would be a waste of time.” What about Frost’s quip echoing in English classes across the land? “It’s not an apt metaphor.”

Carol Henderson

Carol Henderson

Finally, I turned to Philip Holland of Boston, novelist and author of one of my all-time favorite short stories, “Mentor,” about a club tennis pro trying to teach a singularly unpromising young boy how to play the game. He wrote, “Believe it or not, I have played a few times without a net, in those New England springs in my hometown before the nets went up and our team could officially practice. Here’s what I remember: without a net, the game is much easier on the person hitting the shot, and

23674_100322510012142_6296174_n

Philip Holland

much harder on the person receiving the shot. Perhaps you experienced the same, if you ever tried? The person hitting the shot, being much less constrained, could hit it lower and harder, and with all kind of crazy angles, or even lower and softer–and the person receiving had to deal with all that additional variability.”

With the philosophical turn of mind that makes his fiction so engaging, he continued, “I might say this, in response to Mr. Frost. Perhaps like tennis without a net, free verse too might be a bit easier for the author, as it is for the ‘author’ of the shot, but more difficult for the reader, as it is for the receiver of the shot, in that by removing the ‘constraints’ of form, rhyme, meter, etc., not unlike the net, it might free up the poet but make it more difficult on the other end to process his or her offering.”

Weighing all these observations, I suspect a tennis player of the caliber of Serena Williams would see a kind of “ghost net” even if no tangible net were there to guide her shots. She would know when she or her opponent hit the ball even an inch below the ghost net, and she would use her knowledge of the net, even in its absence, to play her best game. On a parallel note, various critics have written about the ghost of meter lurking within exemplary free verse. Truly expert free verse–for instance, the later poems by Adrienne Rich and just about everything by Lucille Clifton–makes use of meter (and rhyme) when it suits the needs of the poem. In short, Frost’s famous comment may say more than he realized about the subtle skills and awareness involved in writing free verse. Deuce point, Mr. Frost!

tumblr_mjw7247f3f1s78qtvo1_250

Robert Frost

A cloudy Saturday afternoon in January 2017 at the University of Virginia. A friend and I show up at a hastily organized march in response to Trump’s latest executive order, a cruel, poorly conceived attempt to ban Muslim immigrants from entering–or re-entering–the U.S.

After listening to rousing speeches by several young women and men, we make our way from the Rotunda down the Lawn. Students yell, “Show me what democracy looks like!” Crowd of 600 or so responds, “This is what democracy looks like!” I notice all the bright signs and the rushed, charming ones scrawled on brown cardboard.

uva-march-66

 

We continue toward Old Cabell Hall. Baby in stroller gets an early taste of peaceful assembly.

UVa march 68.JPG

The crowd rounds the corner and heads toward the walkway in front of Bryan Hall. “No hate, no fear!” A few tears sliding down my face, I feel moved by the occasion but also, truth be told, a little nervous. This is the closest I’ve ever come to being part of a mob. Pressed together, yelling, hearts pumping–what are we capable of?

And what about those young white men with their arms crossed, standing on the steps of Old Cabell and smirking at us? What are they thinking? What are they capable of? If one of them yelled a slur at this group, would I stay silent? Would I join in a loud chant of rebuke? But they don’t yell; they just stand on the steps and watch us go by.

UVa march 71.JPG

In front of Small Library, home of several extremely rare copies of the Declaration of Independence, a student stops and asks me, “Is this an anti-Trump rally?” “No,” I say, “it’s more of a pro-immigrant rally.” “Great!” she says and goes on her way.

It occurs to me yet again that some UVa students have no idea what’s going on at their own school. There was a time when they all would have known this march was happening because they would’ve read an announcement about it in the Cavalier Daily. But the CD is no longer a daily, and I rarely see students reading it. It is available on the web, of course, but who has time for that when you have Facebook and Twitter to wade through? This is a problem at lots of universities, not just UVa. The absence of objective print journalism by and for college students is an example of what democracy doesn’t look like.

UVa march 73.JPG

As I look out at the people milling around as the march winds down, I think about Thomas Jefferson. A genius, a complicated man not without flaws. Today, though, I think particularly about his “Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.” It is relevant to our current president’s not-so-veiled attempt to keep out immigrants who practice the Muslim faith.

“Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” speaks across generations in Jefferson’s characteristic language of cool, eloquent reason. This is what democracy is:

… Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities. –excerpted from “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” by Thomas Jefferson

One evening, not long after I graduated from college, my father and I paid a social call on a new acquaintance of his, a  tall, talkative man probably in his sixties. At the end of the visit, I shook our host’s hand. To my surprise, he began lecturing me on the virtues of an assertive handshake.  He knew I’d just started a career as a newspaper reporter, and he thought I needed a good firm grip to make the right impression on people. We stood there and practiced for a few moments.

After that unexpected schooling, I resolved to do better. For a while, I proffered an aggressively strong handshake to one and all. It was not always returned in kind, and I sensed that some people would have preferred the passive grip I’d disavowed. Eventually, after trying out handshakes of varying lengths and pressures, I settled on a fairly brief, medium-light clasp that no one would mistake for performance art. I’m not sure my long-ago handshake tutor would have liked it, but at least it hasn’t provoked any further lectures.

What is the best type of handshake? What is the creepiest? Here are my thoughts and ratings on a scale of one to five shakes:

The Crunch. You’ve met Crunchers. They have hearty smiles and alarmingly good eye contact. The Cruncher says,”Nice to meet you!” and you say (to yourself), “Ow!” Not a great start for friendship or business, but Crunchers are trying so hard to make a favorable impression that I cut them some handshake slack.

images  images  images

The Lady Shake. You don’t have to be a lady to do the lady shake. All you have to do is offer the tips of your fingers to the other person as if you were feeding a cricket to a python. Is it the height of politesse?  Having reach that height at first meeting, is there anywhere to go but down?

images  images

The Shake-and-Kiss. I first encountered the Shake-and-Kiss in New England. Let’s say I’m at a party, and I run into the husband of a friend from work. In the midst of the hello-again handshake, this very proper fellow kisses me on the cheek. In contrast to a joyously unwieldy hug and kiss, the Shake-and-Kiss is a marvel of platonic precision: the kiss lands where it should without schmooshing one’s hair or violating an ear. Better still, after a properly executed Shake-and-Kiss, both parties can head straight for the chips and dip: one good combo deserves another.

images  images  images  images

The Long Shake. Have you ever shaken hands with someone who won’t let go? Sometimes your hand gets repeatedly pumped, sometimes just gently but unyieldingly held. If the person’s left hand gets involved, make no mistake: you’re in a hostage situation. When you get trapped like that, you want to scream, “Give me my hand back, now!” And yet if you were to scream and yank your hand away, that would mean abandoning all attempts at the Friendly Clasp ….

images

The Friendly Clasp. Not crunchy, not noodley. Neither sweaty-hot nor Morticia Addams-cold. Not too pumpy and not wax-museum still. As incisive and assured as Michelle Obama, the Friendly Clasp gets job offers and lunch dates. It never malingers. A model of dignity and good humor, it is an upstanding citizen in the nation of body language. Give it up for the Friendly Clasp!

images  images  images  images  images

images-4

When Barack Obama and Donald Trump met at the White House shortly after the election, President Obama was, as always, a statesman and gentleman. To Mr. Trump he said, “We now are going to want to do everything we can to help you succeed, because if you succeed, then the country succeeds.”

We all understand the generous spirit in which President Obama expressed that sentiment, but I want to pause and consider the notion of success. We are anticipating an administration rife with conflicts of interest and a total lack of respect for facts and the truth. During the campaign, Donald Trump encouraged his followers to believe and propagate lies and to wreak mayhem in the name of those lies. He is no gentleman, no statesman.

I’m not the first person to hypothesize that Trump’s definition of success has everything to do with his own ego and pocketbook and very little to do with the future of our country. If he succeeds by his own terms, the country will not succeed: the country will sag; the moral core of the nation will rot.

Let’s turn away from him and toward the saving words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran cleric and Nazi dissident imprisoned in Germany in 1943 and executed by the Nazis in 1945. In his posthumously published  Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer writes eloquently about success:

As long as goodness is successful, we can afford the luxury of regarding [success] as having no ethical significance; it is when success is achieved by evil means that the problem arises. In the face of such a situation we find that it cannot be adequately dealt with, either by theoretical dogmatic armchair criticism, which means a refusal to face the facts, or by opportunism, which means giving up the struggle and surrendering to success. We will not and must not be either outraged critics or opportunists, but must take our share of responsibility for the moulding of history in every situation and at every moment, whether we are the victors or the vanquished.

In our national history, we have seen goodness succeed time and again–goodness coupled with fairness. Look at the 1st Amendment. Look at the 13th and the 19th. Look at all the people you know whose lives and prospects were forever brightened by civil rights legislation. Look at that freakin’ beautiful rainbow flag and think about how proudly it waved on the day same-sex marriage was legalized. Of course, setbacks and outrages and hatred accompanied and followed in the wake of each of these milestones. Still, we know that our leaders in those instances were doing what they could to make things better for those of us alive today.

Now here we are in December of 2016, and I want to believe that goodness will prevail in the next presidential administration. If that happens, it will only be because Trump has changed in profound ways that seem unlikely, given what we know of him and the people he has chosen as his advisers. I don’t believe he has earned the benefit of a doubt; he has only earned our closest, most searing scrutiny.

And yes, I’m an outraged critic. But in the coming months and years, I’m going to try to remember, and act on, Bonhoeffer’s point about taking responsibility. It is very easy to point fingers and write blog posts. It takes a lot more energy and brainpower to mobilize and work toward a better outcome than the one we’re facing now.

Bonhoeffer’s further thoughts, on heroism, have given me still more to ponder. Extremists and armchair critics alike would do well to wrestle with the following:

[T]o talk of going down fighting like heroes in the face of certain defeat is not really heroic at all, but merely a refusal to face the future. The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live. It is only from this question, with its responsibility toward history, that fruitful solutions can come, even if for the time being they are very humiliating. In short, it is much easier to see a thing through from the point of abstract principle than from that of concrete responsibility. The rising generation will always instinctively discern which of these we make a basis for our actions, for it is their own future that is at stake.

How will the coming generation live? That is the question Bonhoeffer asks us to keep foremost in our minds. And how will that generation judge us? How will I be judged? These are matters to address in solitude, over dinner tables, in classrooms and public forums. Let’s think it through, talk it out, put it in print, on the walls, in the airwaves, on the screen and stage.

We owe future generations the effort it takes to discern the difference between ethical success rooted in goodness and fairness, and a corrupt version of success rooted in calumny and evil. We don’t need martyrs; we need people who can look an image of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the eye and say, “I hear you,” and mean it. We need to believe that we are capable of living in this world and making it better, not worse. And then we need to do it.

BPK 10.016.073

Lately I’ve been thinking about Richard Wright’s famous protest novel, Native Son (1940). The book is a page-turner like no other, and there is much to learn from it during this long season of exhibitionistic murders.

Wright’s Chicago-born African American protagonist, Bigger Thomas, is the native son in question. From the very first pages, he is a criminal in the making: young, brooding, physically powerful, horrifyingly poor, inclined to rob rather than earn, and marginalized in all ways due to his race. Though he is ignorant and unenlightened, a furtive intelligence peeks out from behind his inarticulate rage and despair. He is capable of having ideas, very bad ones.

He can’t catch a break, and it’s obvious he never will.  When he’s offered a job as chauffeur for the wealthy white Dalton family, there appears to be a glimmer of respectability in the offing, but you know Bigger will mess things up somehow.

For those who haven’t read the book, I’ll tread lightly over the particulars. Suffice it to say that Bigger accidentally commits a terrible deed. He compounds it in his macabre attempt at a coverup, and then deliberately commits further heinous crimes. Once the manhunt is on, the press inflames the whole city with racist falsehoods. Bigger is finally caught in a cinematic showdown with the cops, his black body flung against the Chicago snow.

For all of the book’s riveting dramatic action, it is the understated final conversation between Bigger and his lawyer, a Jewish Communist named Boris Max, that I keep thinking about. They are coming at this meeting from very different points of view. Max is tense and sad; Bigger is eerily equanimous. Max has come to comfort Bigger and say goodbye; Bigger has figured things out on his own and needs to talk, perhaps even comfort Max.

It turns out he listened very carefully to Max’s lengthy and high-minded courtroom presentation, a spirited defense that had everything to do with abstract sociology and little to do with the individual defendant. He has concluded that Max was correct: he is the inevitable and unfortunate product of a racist city and racist society and therefore, by Bigger’s own reckoning, not to blame for anything whatsoever.

Going still further, he has decided his actions–the killings–were good. They were the right thing to do. He’s figured out a way to justify himself and become his own hero.

“What I killed for must’ve been good!” Bigger’s voice was full of frenzied anguish. “It must have been been good! When a man kills, it’s for something. … I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ’em.”

Isn’t this wild? Isn’t this familiar?

The killer in Orlando and the killer in Dallas are our very own Bigger Thomases: angry, hopeless, desperate young men who found a sick justification for their actions. They are entirely to blame for what they did: like Bigger’s, their actions are indefensible. Yet we need to look at our society–our nation bulging with firearms and boiling with racial, ethnic, and religious tensions–when we contemplate how these modern-day Biggers came into being. With Native Son as a point of reference, they can be seen in the context of conditions that make them not just possible but terrifyingly likely.

Native Son is not a didactic screed but rather a classic example of literary realism with naturalist flourishes. It invites us to look, see, and think. We don’t need to read far into it to notice that Bigger is hardly the only native son gone berserk. In memorably lurid detail, the novel illustrates exactly how racism dehumanizes oppressors and victims alike. The virulently racist white policemen, the rabid white prosecutor, and the race-baiting press all behave in unconscionable ways. Their actions cause us to feel, at times, a modicum of sympathy for Bigger and prevent us from dismissing him as a mere sociopath.

Think, now, of the murderous white overseers of enslaved Americans, the KKK members who lynched black men and women for decades after the Civil War, and last year’s white murderer of black churchgoers in Charleston–native sons, one and all. They are on the opposite side from Bigger, but no less demented in their perverted self-justification of their deeds. This is racism in America: everybody suffers, everybody loses.

Native Son is not light summer reading, but this has not been a light summer. We need to read and reread this book. Its truths are entirely relevant to our time.

Native Son cover

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.

AG&HN Web

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.

Allen Ginsberg Web

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.

CoverUse

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 poet@haroldnorse.com 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.

*****

Hal&Todd 2 Web

Harold Norse and Todd Swindell, 2008 (Photo by Tate Swindell)

 

We keep having these days, and then we have the day after.

On the day after, there is shock and pain and horror; there is fear; there is the latest bit of maddening news that does nothing to solve anything.

And today, where I live, there’s a breeze rippling the catnip and lamb’s ear, the one blooming, the other about to bloom.

How much grief can a single body hold? How much love and joy? If you look into the eyes of any old woman or old man on the sidewalk in your town, you’ll see the history of pain in America, in the world. You’ll see agonizing deaths and illness and Jim Crow and rape and lies and infidelities and car accidents and smashed dreams. Amid the ashes, the wars, the broken bones, you will see kaleidoscopic bits of yourself.

You’ll also see starlight and cornfields and a newborn’s first smile. First jobs and teary reunions and bonfires on the beach. Long embraces on back stairways. New York City glimpsed from an airplane. Graduation day. River water on cold toes. You’ll see yourself, again.

Once, years ago, not long after my mother died, my friend Jay was consoling me on the elevator at work as we went to teach our classes. He told me what a nun said to him during his own time of loss: “Look for Jesus in the breeze, not in the gale.'” The elevator door opened, and I put that remark away to ponder for a lifetime.

We all have our own ways of dealing with private grief, politicized outrage, bottomless fear and sorrow. We think our thoughts, we do what we can.

In my corner of the world, on the day after, my eyes are tired. I have read enough. I glance again at the ripening flowers, the sky, the bumblebee. What would they say, what are they saying? I look and listen. The breeze travels on, from here to the moon and on to the ocean.

 

The U.S. unemployment rate hovers at five percent, which is great news. But for those still looking for work, the forward-thinking governor of North Carolina has come to the rescue with a promising new career track. The job posting beckons to anyone with discerning vision, an ability to make snap judgments, and a sense of irony so delicate and refined that Franz Kafka would smile with tender recognition. On your marks, five-percenters!

Seeking collegial self-starters who enjoy judging people for exciting new opportunity at state-owned rest facilities across North Carolina.

Job Posting Title: Bathroom Facility Control Gender Monitor

Hours: 8-1o hours/day, or until you keel over from the horror of it all.

Required Skills: You must be comfortable in a professional working environment in which ambient smells and sounds may become overpowering at times. You must be capable of speaking with authority over the roar of a minimum of five commodes firing simultaneously, and you must enjoy staring inappropriately at every person who crosses your path. You must be able to walk away from patrons who mockingly address you as “Bathroom Bill” or “Bathroom Billie.”

Further, you must be willing to lunge up from your wobbly, splintery chair, stick out a hand sheathed in a sanitary plastic glove, and say with a veneer of aggression covering your fear, “Step back, big guy! Got a birth certificate for me?” Alternatively, while a vein bulges menacingly from your forehead, you may be required to say: “Hold on, sister! It’s me and the law standing between you and that stall.”

Level of Experience: Preference given to applicants with previous experience in multi-toileted environments.

Proof of Citizenship: You must be from here, not there. People from there should go back there and not ever come back here.

Benefits: Generous bathroom break policy; chance to protect America; opportunity to levitate, if capable of levitating, and glimpse a single pulsating star through the broken window at rear of facility.

Six months ago, I was invited to open my gardens as part of Historic Weeds Week in Virginia. Imagine my surprise and delight. I have been quietly, patiently cultivating weeds for many years but never thought that my clover and crabgrass would equal the great weeds flourishing in the fields and gardens of the finest estates across the Old Dominion. Frankly, I was humbled by the invitation, which came from a Mrs. Dan D. Lyon of Somerset, Va.

Now this very special time has begun, and even as I write this, a few people in galoshes and yellow slickers are wending their way across my yard. Yes, it is a raw and rainy day, just the kind one hopes for during Historic Weeds Week.

I have spent untold hours doing nothing to prepare: no tilling, no trimming, no pruning, no plucking. It took enormous restraint, but whenever I was tempted to gather up a handful of wild onion, henbit, and speedwell and fling everything over the back fence, I pulled out the gracious and complimentary letter from Mrs Lyon and read it yet again. Like this fine lady, I’m in it for the long game.

Ah, now there is a real crowd gathering, and I will have to sign off and go greet my guests. As much as I cherish weeds, I have to say I didn’t realize so many shared my passion.

My eyes are tearing up as I see affectionate couples marveling over the broadleaf plantain, ancient individuals exclaiming over the bittercress, apple-cheeked children stealing the dandelions, even a few merry teenagers peering down a groundhog hole.

They are all smiling and chatting, and now the teenagers and old folks have started a just-for-fun mud fight, and the rain has slacked off and the cardinals are singing and there is nothing quite so beautiful as a garden full of weeds and the people who love them.

buttercups

 

On a country road not far from where I live, there’s a house I never notice except in the spring. Dozens of daffodils press against the front of this ragged little place. It looks abandoned, but the daffodils couldn’t care less. They are wildly happy the way daffodils always are, their gold faces drinking in the sun and sky.

Who planted them, I wonder, and when?

I dial back the years to 1950 or so and picture a young woman in calico with an apron full of bulbs. She kneels down in the light of a breezy September morning and gets to work. As her trowel pierces the red-clay earth, she thinks about her ailing mom or her husband’s upcoming birthday or a poem she would like to write if she can ever find time. She drops in the first bulb and keeps going down the row.

“I’ll have these to look at in the spring,” she tells herself.

She is sturdy and strong. A week after planting the bulbs, she learns she’s pregnant with her first child. The joy she feels flows out of her hands and hair and into the air around the little house. When the daffodils bloom, she is nearly eight months pregnant, big and round and eager to get on with things. Bending down to gather a bouquet, she laughs at herself when she nearly topples over.

The bulbs will replicate over time. She and her husband will have four babies in seven years; three will survive. The name of the oldest, the one growing inside her while she planted those bulbs, will be etched on a shining wall in Washington, D.C.

When the news of her son’s death arrives, the woman will be living far from the daffodils. She will be separated from her husband, angry at the world. It will be ages before she can laugh again.

But the time comes when the tight petals of her heart slowly open. She takes night classes, has grandchildren, helps a fragile friend. The years drift by.

One day a nurse at the doctor’s office comments on the beauty of her eyes and gives her hand a reassuring squeeze. She goes home, takes off her glasses, looks in the mirror: her eyes are as blue as the sky above Rapidan, Virginia.

It’s been a long time since she thought of that place. Something comes to her–a flickering of light, a rush of gold. Wasn’t there a poem she always meant to write, a few things she really wanted to say? She had meant to say them all these years.

The telephone rings: her granddaughter, on her way to take her to lunch.

She smooths her hair and sits down to wait. Outside the high windows of her apartment, a hawk flies by. It is a clear, calm day. The kitchen clock ticks. She rummages around in her purse for the notepad she uses for her grocery list.

The buzzer sounds just as she writes a single word, followed by a year. “It’s a beginning,” she thinks as she stands up and hurries to answer the door.

daffodils

%d bloggers like this: