Feature

Harold Norse

The rebel poet who ran with the Beats

Harold Norse1916­–2009

The great American poet William Carlos Williams once called Harold Norse, who has died at 92, “the best poet of his generation.” Writing with the rhythms of everyday speech and the language of the street, he was closely associated with the Beat movement and others who rejected longstanding literary conventions. Poet and novelist Charles Bukowski once wrote to Norse, “Whenever I read you, my own writing gets better—you teach me how to run through glaciers and dump siffed-up whores.”

Norse was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., poor and illegitimate, said The New York Times. He was originally surnamed Rosen, later changing his name to Norse by rearranging the letters. After graduating from Brooklyn College he met Williams, “who encouraged him to break with traditional verse forms and embrace a more direct, conversational language. Soon Norse was publishing in Poetry, The Saturday Review, and The Paris Review.” In 1953, the same year he published his first collection, The Undersea Mountain, he moved to Italy, where he translated the sonnets of Giuseppe Belli. While abroad he joined such Beat icons as Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and William S. Burroughs “at their seedy hotel on the Left Bank in Paris, where he used Burroughs’ technique of cutting up and reassembling sections of text at random to create the novella Beat Hotel.

Returning to the United States in 1968, Norse published steadily, said the Los Angeles Times. “Unabashed about being homosexual, he poured his experiences into poems that reflected anger, sadness, and pride.” A typical excerpt from his 1972 offering “I’m Not a Man” ran: I’m not a man. I don’t like football, boxing and cars. / I like to express my feeling. / I even like to put an arm around my friend’s shoulder. Among his many volumes was the 1974 collection Hotel Nirvana, which was nominated for a National Book Award. But although the poetry community admired him, Norse never claimed “a larger place in the literary firmament.” He once mused, “I always said—and it was a stupid thing that I lived by—‘I won’t lift a finger to publicize my work. It has to come from the outside.’ So in a way I buried myself.”

Norse died in San Francisco of natural causes. His last words, spoken to a nurse, were, “The end is the beginning.”

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