NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
I Am Going to Fly Through Glass: Selected Poems of Harold Norse edited by Todd Swindell
(Talisman House, Northfield, Massachusetts, 2014)
Born Harold Rosen, Norse grew up in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood in New York. His mother, an illiterate Lithuanian immigrant, had lost contact with his German-American father by the time that he was born. Later, when she married someone else, Norse assumed the last name of his stepfather, Albaum. In the early 1950s he attempted resolve what must have seemed like a crisis of identity by rearranging the letters of his former name into Norse.
He received his B.A. from Brooklyn College in 1938 and gained an M.A. in literature from New York University in 1951. Prominent among his dozen or so publications was his autobiography Memoirs of a Bastard Angel – an account of his life and literary career with other well-known writers who were mainly but not exclusively connected to the beat scene. His collected poems, In the Hub of the Fiery Force appeared in 2003. He also penned, in collaboration with William S Burroughs and Brion Gysi, the experimental cut-up novel Beat Hotel while living in Paris during the period 1959 to 1963. The publication of Carnivorous Saint: Gay Poems 1941-1976 established Norse as a leading gay liberation poet. He was a two-time NEA grant recipient and a National Poetry Association award winner.
During his lifetime, Norse cultivated a wide range of professional and sometimes personal relationships. Chester Kallman, W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, e e cummings; William Carlos Williams, William S Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, Dylan Thomas, Charles Bukowski and Gregory Corso numbered among his acquaintances and friends.
I first encountered the works of Harold Norse in 1969 when Penguin published a selection of poems from the beat poets in their series The Penguin Modern Poets. Each volume contained the work of three poets. Norse himself edited this volume for Penguin with selections from his own work and that of Charles Bukowski and Philip Lamantia. It was a logical grouping that followed on from another volume in the series that had come out six years earlier comprising works by Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso. William Carlos Williams, who played a seminal role in shaping Norse’s early poetic career, maintained that Norse was the best poet of his generation but, compared to the other names mentioned here, he is the least known and much of his work remains out of print.
The present selection, illustrated with photographs of the poet, goes a long way towards putting Norse back on the poetical map, especially for readers in the U.K. A helpful preface by Todd Swindell and an informative introduction by Neeli Cherkowski helps to place Norse and his colorful life in context by establishing the background to his work and its relationship to the rest of the beat movement in America. For too long, Norse has been the outsider, certainly in the U.K., but, with this publication, the “lone wolf”, as he once described himself, has finally come in from the cold.
The first thing that struck me when I read this selection was the extent to which he was so widely travelled. It seems that he was meticulous in keeping a note of the places where his poems were written. Poems are marked New York, 1939; Rome, 1954; Florence, 1956; Naples 1958; Paris, 1962; Delphi 1964; Syros 1964; Athens 1965; Hydra 1965; Heidelberg 1966; London 1967; San Francisco 1976; Monte Rio 1980 and Zurich 1985. In Underground Love he writes:
I’ve left part of me in Tuscany
part of me in Sicily
pieces left in Rome, Paris, Tangier, Athens, NY
with boys in the international
underground of love.
His frustration with the New York poetry scene, which was heavily influenced by Pound and Eliot, was one of the reasons why, despite his initial success as a writer, he decided to go abroad. For 15 years he lived in different parts of Europe and North Africa. When his travelling days were over, he returned to America and spent the last 35 years of his life in San Francisco’s Mission District.
Norse offers us a way into his poems by choosing to describe them in terms of color. They are, we are told, red on the inside.
…I slash at a poem,
the inside of a poem spills out.
stains the room blood red. the
inside of a poem is red. this
is dangerous. I start to throw paint
on canvas. it explodes in all
directions. a wash of blue,
violet and green a skyey ground
for a big green question
mark that becomes the center
of the painting, with red
Often the rebel, he starts new sentences in this poem without initial capital letters. He uses made-up words like skyey and gives free rein when expressing the more colorful episodes of his life. He elaborates on the theme of red expansively in the poem titled I Am In The Hub Of The Fiery Force where red stands for any number of things: red for phallus; red for pain; red for raw, for wild, for bull, for wine, for lion, for kill for hell…
His poems are raw and straight to the point. In We Bumped Off Your Friend The Poet (based on a review in The Sunday Times (1973) by Cyril Connolly, “Death in Granada”, on the last days of Garcia Lorca), Norse casts his poem in the voice of one of Franco’s hired assassins:
We bumped off your friend the poet
with the big fat head this morning
We left him in a ditch
I fired 2 bullets into his ass
for being queer
The shock effect that is achieved here is concisely stated without a shadow of remorse.
When writing about sex, Norse could be graphic when he wanted to be. In A Café Bar (After Verlaine) opens with these lines:
Remember the café bar crowded with pricks
With their stupid morals and straight loves, -dumb hicks!
Where we alone, we two, bore the label “queer.”
But didn’t give a shit and whacked it right there
Under their noses in fact….
It is a poem of defiance lobbed like a hand grenade that is about to explode in the face of intolerance.
In I’m Not A Man, Norse is at his most lyrical and personal. He never claimed that the poem was wholly autobiographical but it certainly comes from the heart. It is a poem about stereotypes, a poem that says, by implication, much about masculinity and what it feels like to be “different.” Norse intones these differences through a series of incantatory seminal statements with an admirable degree of controlled emotion:
I’m not a man, I can’t earn a living, buy new things for my family.
I have acne and a small peter.
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.
His poems fly between fantasy and reality. In his moving tribute to Paul Goodman, he states:
I write to make myself real
from moment to moment
how else do I know
He could write a protest poem that was the equal of any by Ginsberg. The poems These Fears Are Real Not Paranoid, Greece Answers and California Will Sink are all fine examples which reveal his engagement with politics and his concern for the environment as well as his commitment to poetry as a vehicle of persuasion to help bring about a better world. His condemnation of war is uppermost in The Zoo At Schönbrunn where the implication is that humans are no better than animals:
in Vienna, bandstand and Wiener Blut
the handsome couple
doing the waltz
old sentimental Schmaltz
as if there’s never been a war
In Kali Yug he asks:
what poem can influence
a munitions manufacturer?
poems can’t deflect bullets
can’t alter pain
To end on a different note, the 1958 poem Classic Frieze in a Garage --which appeared in the Penguin Modern Poets edition and is justly reprinted in the present volume-- describes the poet’s surprise and joy at discovering a frieze in Naples “amongst the greasy rags / and wheels & axles of a garage” --and bears testimony to the fact that Norse could find and recognize great beauty in the most unexpected of places.
In this selection, Todd Swindell shows how Norse broke new ground through his open exploration of gay identity and sexuality using accessible language in what he referred to as a new rhythm – the voice of the street. Humor, compassion and inner pain are all to be found in equal measure. In the preface to his collected poems, Norse wrote “The fiery force is nothing more than the life force as we know it. It is the flame of desire and love, of sex and beauty, of pleasure and joy as we consume and are consumed, as we burn with pleasure and burn out in time.” That is how he saw life and it is also how he portrayed it in his writing. Those who are looking for an introduction to his work will find much to admire in this book.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014), The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014) and Sleeve Notes (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2016).
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