Though largely overlooked in the study of Beat literature, Harold Norse remains a potent and prophetic figure in Twentieth Century poetics. As this year marks the centennial of his birth (July 6, 1916), it’s a fitting time to look back at the Bastard Angel from Brooklyn. The focus of politics in this issue of Beatdom offers a unique opportunity to examine Norse’s examine Norse’s life and poetry through the lens of his experience as an illegitimate child and a queer.
Due to its perennial popularity, “I’m Not A Man” is his most well-known poem. Rejecting the carrot stick of male privilege extended by the patriarchy, Norse declares his solidarity with blacks, women, and animals by rejecting the mass marketing of patriotism: “I do not get emotional when the flag is waved./ I do not think I should love America or leave it./ I think I should laugh at it.” It serves as a manifesto for Harold’s experience and understanding of life, concluding,
I’m not a man. I don’t wear a jockstrap.
I’m not a man. I write poetry.
I’m not a man. I meditate on peace and love.
I’m not a man. I don’t want to destroy you.
Though politically enlightened, as a poet he was more an observer than participant. Utilizing the distance of his outsider status, Harold imbued his work with an empathetic voice, one that expressed both ecstasy and rage, reflecting the animal nature of human life, beyond the scorn and hypocrisy of government and religion.
A friend and contemporary of such legendary Beat era writers as William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Charles Bukowski, Norse continues to be overlooked by scholars and his books remain out of print. There are a couple of explanations for this discrepancy. Harold wrote explicitly not only about gay sex, but also society’s hostility towards it, rendering his voice too queer for guardians of the Beat pantheon. He never promoted himself in the manner of Ginsberg, nor did he have a dedicated helper like James Grauerholz, who played a major role in William Burroughs’ recognition in the 1970s and ‘80s.
One of the reasons Norse’s work connects with today’s new generation of poetry lovers is the prescient nature of his voice – its observations of gay liberation and environmental destruction. These topics are echoed in his critiques of racism, war, and animal abuse. For Harold, the sexual drive is connected to our animalistic origins, its expression growing from childhood, before repression by religious brainwashing. His poetry reflects this universal truth through his rich knowledge of history and literature; he reflected contemporary culture as changing little from the impulses of Classical Greece and Rome.
Though incomplete at the time of his death, Norse’s magnum opus was to be HOMO. Even in unfinished form, it remains a powerful work piercing through Christianity’s distortion of same-sex desire with lucid documentation of the long, rich history of queer representation. Here is a passage about the Greek lyric poet Anacreon,
Why his poems were always about young boys
And not about gods he replied: “That
Is because young boys are our gods.”
He was a pleasure-loving, wine-loving
Norse’s mother Fannie was an illiterate Lithuanian immigrant whose son was born out of wedlock. He bore the mark of society’s disdain from an early age and the slur ‘bastard’ figured throughout his writing. His childhood was spent playing stickball with Italian boys on the immigrant streets of Brooklyn. While Fannie toiled away in sweatshops, and sometimes as a domestic servant, her young boy was cared for by women who spoke with Irish and German accents.
Fannie eventually married an abusive man who belittled young Harold as a “sissy,” though the family still struggled to pay rent thanks to his stepfather’s gambling debts. From a young age, Norse showed a keen interest in language. His childhood hero was fellow Brooklyn poet Walt Whitman, whom he discovered in elementary school. Whitman would prove to be the central figure in not only Harold’s poetry but also his life, inspiring the budding poet with democratic vistas of an America whose adhesive bond was the love of comrades.
He felt a strong connection to Whitman, as well as visionary poet Hart Crane, with their association to Brooklyn and unabashed love for boys. Thus Norse learned from early on that experiences which remained taboo in society could be expressed through poetry.
In “I Would Not Recommend Love” Norse recounts the confining oppression from having to cloak his innate attraction to boys. Though written in 1973, when the poet was in his late 50s, the adolescent wounds still register pain. The recognition that many great male minds of the Western world had experienced similar desires cannot prevent the poet from advising against love.
I Would Not Recommend Love
my head felt stabbed
by a crown of thorns but I joked and rode the subway
and ducked into school johns and masturbated
and secretly wrote
of teenage hell
because I was “different”
the first and last of my kind
smothering acute sensations
in swimming pools and locker rooms
addict of lips and genitals
mad for buttocks
that Whitman and Lorca
and Catullus and Marlowe
and Socrates admired
and I wrote: Friends,
if you wish to survive
I would not recommend
In the midst of the Great Depression, Norse enrolled at Brooklyn College. While editor of the school literary magazine, he began a love affair with then teenage Chester Kallman. Together they met W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood when the esteemed British authors first arrived in the United States. Though Isherwood had eyes for Harold, it was Auden who captivated the young Americans. Bypassing Harold, Chester made his claim on Auden. The pair became lifetime companions while, for a period, Harold became Auden’s secretary. Though he never found the lasting relationship his heart desired, Harold’s search for love became a continual source of poetic inspiration.
Following the atomic bombing of Japan at the end of World War II, the political and cultural climate became chillingly conservative and, by the 1950s, America was firmly within the grips of Cold War hysteria. This was a time of massive conformity to the manufactured fantasy of a white, heterosexual ideal. To be liberal was dangerous, to be a poet was suspect, but to be homosexual was illegal.
Norse found himself approaching a crossroads in his path as a poet. Through the 1940s Modernism continued to dominate his poetic direction. He was searching for an approach that spoke more directly to his own life and experience. In “I Am Fighting on the Line Front” this struggle is defined as
“fighting propaganda with poetry
they are fighting on the cold front
I’m fighting on the pubic front
for my everloving sexuality.”
Having received a Master’s degree from NYU, he was working towards a PhD and a successful but banal academic career. While teaching at Cooper Union, he was propositioned, by an undercover policeman, in the lavatory. Given a choice between a prison sentence or leaving the country, Norse sailed to Europe in 1953 where he would spend the next fifteen years in exile.
Escaping to a culture with pre-Christian attitudes towards same-sex desire, Norse found fertile ground to blossom in an ancient tradition (one which America could not offer). Traveling from Rome to Florence then Naples, Harold immersed himself in the Italian language and Italian men. He artfully translated poetry from the pornographic verses of Classical Roman poet Catullus to the anti-papal sonnets of 19th Century Roman poet G.G. Belli. The triumph of these translations came from the usage of street language from his native Brooklyn, which more effectively conveyed the licentious works. A perfect example is the Belli translation titled “Lot’s Refreshment”.
“So, already at Sodom and Gomorrah
Everyone was roasted and baked like mullet
And from so many families in that horror
The only one that escaped was that of Lot.
Without ever taking a breath or pulling the reins
The Patriarch kept running the whole day:
But then, as it usually is, to his daughters there came
With dusk a fantasy to want to lay.
But because on that far border they were sunk,
Not even one cock with a spark of life,
They said: “Daddy is sexy!” and they got him drunk.
Then having thrown two glances at his dumdumdangle
Those randy sisters happily all night
Divided between themselves the bang-bang-bang-o.”
The poet William Carlos Williams was so impressed by the Belli translations he wrote an introduction for their 1960 publication. Though also a part of the Modernist movement, Williams turned away from the European influence to focus instead on the colloquial speech of the immigrants and streets of America. He called this the American Idiom.
This proved a defining moment in the maturation of Norse’s poetic voice. Williams’ attention to the poetic value of common vernacular required no explanation to Harold who recognized that same power in Whitman’s celebration of pioneer Americans. Williams became a mentor and their relationship carried on through correspondence eventually collected and published as The American Idiom.
From Italy, Norse traveled to Spain and then settled in Paris. Upon the recommendation of Gregory Corso he took a room at the Beat Hotel. While living in the rundown but inexpensive hotel he became friends with William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. Norse was instrumental in the development of the Cut Up method which Gysin, a painter who had lived for many years in Tangier, discovered one day when cutting a matte for painting. The stack of newspapers he had sliced through revealed a startling juxtaposition in the cut up text. Norse’s cut up “Sniffing Keyholes” was praised by both Gysin and Burroughs as breaking new ground and included in poet, photographer, magician Ira Cohen’s influential 1964 publication Gnaoua.
In between stays at the Beat Hotel, Harold traveled to Tangier. Upon the recommendation of his friend Paul Bowles, he took a room recently vacated by William Burroughs who had been working on material that became Naked Lunch. The room was still littered with discarded typewritten pages. During his time in Tangier, Norse had a passionate love affair with a Moroccan youth named Mohammed Riffi.
The freedom to actively live as a gay man, and a poet, was only obtainable in an ancient, pagan culture where same-sex desire had not been deemed criminal, immoral, and mentally deficient. Norse composed a series of poems to Mohammed that captured their brief but passionate relationship as the pair traveled the desert, smoking hashish and making love. A visit to the ancient ritual of the Pipes of Pan in the town of Joujouka is evoked in “To Mohammed on our Journeys”, where Harold recalls watching
the dancing boys in desert cafés
kissing old Arabs and sitting on their
laps, dancing with kohl eyes
and heard the music down in Joujouka
in the hills under the stars
the ancient ceremony, Pan pipes
fierce in white moonlight
by white walls
with hooded figures
stoned on kif
for eight nights…
Studies of mysticism and Eastern philosophy led him to the writings of J. Krishnamurti whose talks Norse attended while living in the Swiss Alps. These experiences informed his poem “Follow No Leader” where Western travelers’ search for enlightenment is finally seen as no different from their escape through sex and drugs. Despite the speaker’s admonition to
turn off the ventriloquist’s voice
flush out the snakeoil in the blood
the followers continue their disillusion until
they followed him to India
and again he looked at them
follow no leader
nobody is living
everybody is dead
and again he told them
and again that thing
between the legs
and between the ears
got in the way
By the end of the 1960s, Harold had decided to return to the States for several reasons. Years of financial uncertainty had become increasingly worrisome. He wanted to live amongst a community of poets. Chronic hepatitis had taken a toll on his body and spirit, and the vagaries of medical care in his peripatetic life offered no cure. He wanted to be closer to his aging mother. He wanted to fall in love.
Fannie had retired to Venice Beach, living in a large brick apartment building that faced the ocean boardwalk. So it was there that Harold returned to American soil in the summer of 1969. He could not have fully imagined all the radical changes that had occurred during his decade and a half abroad. Though he was forever to remain outside society (observing, listening, reflecting) and too old to really connect with the hippies, the youth culture inspired and informed his work. Norse’s poems of the 1970s are among his best.
While living in Venice Beach, Harold developed friendship with poets Charles Bukowski and Neeli Cherkovski. Hank and Hal had begun corresponding in the 1960s when both were published in the influential underground magazine The Outsider. Cherkovski was among the younger generation of L.A. poets for whom Norse served as mentor and teacher. Their friendship would reach its stride several years later in San Francisco and the two would remain close friends until Harold’s death.
To regain vibrant health Norse made significant lifestyle changes. Incorporating health foods, vitamins, and herbal remedies, while adding exercise regimens that would continue for years to come, would ultimately allow him to live into a tenth decade. Daily jogs along the ocean summoned the connection between environmental pollution and its impact on animals.
In “California Will Sink”, he wakes from a nap, eyeing the fridge with “its hopeful vitamins/that would save me/from the smog and Food Conspiracy…” Harold dresses, shaves, and heads for a run along the shore amongst the yogis and surfers. Lunch is followed by an afternoon nap. In the evening, he returns to a beach of perishing animals, withering plants, and poisoned air,
“and the people irrelevant
victims of enterprise
denied, denied, denied
by the politician, the industrialist…”
The poets awaits the doomsday prophecy of a large magnitude earthquake that would rock California, “overloaded with deathliness”, plummeting the land into the sea. The poem concludes:
“the oceans are dying
all pollution goes to the sea
they are not dying of long hair and nudity
but the people cannot understand
they cannot draw sane conclusions
the people are sick
they have been too long poisoned
by lies, by flags, by slogans,
by counterfeit nourishment,
they do not know
they do not see
they are with the gull and the sagebrush,
the ocean and the spider,
the sky and the dove.”
Norse became a bodybuilder in his mid-50s, a habitué of the world famous Gold’s Gym. Being a social as well as physical pursuit, he became friendly with weightlifters including the recent Austrian immigrant Arnold Schwarzenegger. In “When Law Is Murder” Harold compassionately describes the troubles facing a young man recently returned from Vietnam.
The “nice blond kid” spends his days lifting weights on Muscle Beach, sipping from a brown bag of wine while avoiding the cops. A wink from the muscled youth provides Norse “a bolt of love”. It is then he notices the young man’s battle scars, “Worst goddam burn you ever saw.” Harold remains an observer, the moment relayed in the soldier’s straight talk, equating the covering of scarred flesh with society’s repression. The poem closes with,
“Didja notice the pigs in the prowl car
waiting to catch me
taking a drink?” He took another.
Spat. “I’m 26, just back
from Nam. Legs burnt
by fire-bombs. Now
they want me to be a good boy,
no drinking, no screwing. Does
that make sense?”
His sinewy tanned back gleamed
in the sun. Everyone
wore bikinis, bathing trunks.
He never removed his pants.”
This rejection of a culture’s hypocrisy is further illustrated in “Let the Dogs Hump in the Streets”. Taking off again with the prophecy of a cataclysmic earthquake that would send lust-filled dogs into the streets, Norse reveals the establishment’s thin, manufactured line that disconnects us from our animal nature. The poem begins,
“Let the dogs hump in the streets
I’d do the same if they’d let me
those guardians of public morals
who fear the horrors of pleasure
more than the horrors of war”
Like dogs, we futilely attempt to hump away the fear of death by clinging to the healing release of flesh and touch. The poem concludes,
“But it is too big, too monstrous, too
forever for the mind
to handle . . . which is why
we stay and tell ourselves:
what will be, will be—
like the sour old ladies
at the sea’s edge, turning
their faces from the sun”
Finding L.A. to be too spread out, Norse moved, in 1971, to San Francisco landing among a community of poets in North Beach. He became a frequent visitor to the Caffé Trieste alongside poets like Michael McClure and Bob Kaufman. In 1974 Lawrence Ferlinghetti published Norse in City Lights’ prestigious Pocket Poets series. Hotel Nirvana was well received, garnering a National Book Award nomination and introducing him to a new generation of readers.
Its poem “Embarcadero Y” laments the tearing down of the location for daily workouts,
“no more sweaty odors, jockstraps
everyone sneaking looks at each other
‘Hey, man, you’re in shape!’
talking of sports and women…”
The piers will be burnt “sending black smokerings/to vanished Indians” as we remain unable to halt the profitable pursuit of so-called progress. Powerless in the face of the elite, the poet can but lament the change in the poem’s final stanzas,
“dust and torn streets
highrises shooting up
black as the hearts of city fathers
hard as the hearts of “developers”
oh put them in wheelchairs!
push them over the roofs!
pull down the office buildings!
they have murdered the landscape
fouled the air
left us no choice”
Yet this despair was offset by the blossoming culture and politics of gay liberation. A frequent visitor to the city’s thriving bathhouses, both a sexual and social institution, Norse found them a place to “fly out of imprisoned dreams” as he describes in “Mysteries of the Orgy,” wondering “how long can I inhibit my profound empathy/without touch my feelings are twisted my spinal cord shrivels up…”
From the cosmic connection within sexual union the poet is
“launched into astral deeps
novas white dwarfs red stars
milky ways stream thru my breasts
white as Einstein’s radium hair…”
“I’m licked into shape again
in the darkness of this room
bodies give off light and heat
that may last a moment or lightyears…”
“we are organisms like rivers
we are miles of flesh flowing
towards the healing ocean of mouth
we are seconds of a pulse
we are fields of flame
we are worlds shuddering in flight…”
The 1970s ushered in the beginning of a conservative Christian backlash to the still dominant counterculture. Washed up beauty queen Anita Bryant was heading a so-called moral crusade against “homosexual deviants” promoting legislation outlawing protection for lesbians and gays. In California, State Senator John Briggs attempted to ban lesbians and gays from teaching positions. The climate of persecution manifested itself on the streets of San Francisco in the summer of 1977 when Robert Hillsborough was stabbed to death 15 times by a young assailant yelling, “Faggot! Faggot!”
Though composed four years before that brutal murder, the poem “We Bumped Off Your Friend the Poet” illuminates in clear, direct language the chilling mindset of a queer killer, whose murderous rage is justified by society’s suppression. The poem is based upon a review of the book Death in Granada, on the last days of the poet Federico Garcia Lorca.
What makes it both effective and disturbing is Norse’s use of narrator: Lorca’s murderer Ruiz Alonzo,
alive and kicking
Falangist to the end…”
The poem begins
“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…”
By addressing the reader as one of Lorca’s friends, Alonzo’s message is both a warning and challenge to poets, queers, and those who support them. The assassin is not concerned with being found out, “Nobody bothers me/I got protection/The Guardia Civil are my friends…” In fact, he invokes “the good old days of the Inquisition” as
“The black assassination squads
doctors lawyers students”
Society’s contempt towards artists and its revulsion towards queers is summed up with the key lines,
“Because he was a poet
was he better than anyone else?
He was a goddamn fag
and we were sick and tired
of fags in Granada…”
Alonzo is so emboldened by his murder of Lorca, whom he describes as “a queer Communist poet”, that at the poem’s end, he declares “General Franco owes me a medal/for putting 2 bullets up his ass.”
That poem was among those selected for the 1976 publication Carnivorous Saint, a collection of Norse’s gay themed poems from the previous 25 years. Few poets of his generation had such a collection dating from World War II to then present day gay liberation. The book garnered Norse favorable coverage in the gay press. The Advocate featured him on its cover along with Rock Hudson and disco performer Sylvester, calling Harold the “American Catullus.” To the homophobic mainstream literary establishment Carnivorous Saint was dismissed as too focused on sex.
The bright rainbow of 1970s San Francisco darkened into the shadow realm of the 1980s. Reagan and Bush brought Anita Bryant’s crusade to the mainstream while AIDS brought nothing but death, misery, and fear of sex. Norse’s retreat from sociability and sexual freedom was an all too common reaction to the times.
By the 1990s his individual poems did not equal the quantity or quality of the previous decades as the focus turned to HOMO. Though it remained unfinished at the time of his death, HOMO was meant to be Harold’s magnum opus – a sprawling history of homophobia covering two millennia of religious and political persecution – written with poetry, Cut Up and prose.
Here are some excerpts:
“Ever since Justinian
Who wanted more power over the Church
Fifteen-hundred years ago
Passed the first law against same-sex love
With the perfectly logical excuse
Caused earthquakes, we have seen
Religions and politics
Condemn gay sex as crime and sin.
Later the Church got into the act.
The Spanish Inquisition threw
Faggots into the fire to burn
Witches and other heretics,
Especially the unconverted Jew.
Thus for a mad millennium
Or two the world has been in the grip
Of the criminally insane…
Remember the drag queens in Greenwich Village
Who fought the cops with their fists and any
Available objects? They
Sparked Gay Liberation, an
It is better to die fighting than
To live on your knees…
Pacifism does not work. I say this
Sadly. We’re up against
Ignorant armies and must
Defeat them or die.”
Though HOMO’s critiques are couched in historical fact and literary gossip, Harold still felt the stings of being called sissy, fairy, or queer even as he entered his ninth decade. From the killing of Matthew Shepard to the tragic suicide of 14-year-old Robbie Kirkland, his outrage and sorrow mounted over the pointless destruction of these beloved youths. The same young men that in Anacreon’s time would had been worshipped and loved as deities were nothing more than carnage to the gods of money and war.
Though “Requiem for St. Robbie Kirkland” consists of only four short stanzas, the sadistic onslaught of bullies is conveyed despite the poem’s brevity, which echoes Robbie’s brief life cut short. Writing this poem at the age of 82, Harold has become the poet sage, like his heroes Virgil and Procopius, reminding us that “Nature held sway.” The poem concludes,
“At 14 he put a gun to his head
and ended the torment
before he returned to ninth grade.
The suicide note said, “I hope I can find
the peace in death that I could not find
in life.” Was this what Christ taught?
He who was mocked and nailed
to the cross? Now in His name
false “Christians” dish out the same.”
The remaining productive years were focused on the publication of a massive edition of collected poems titled In the Hub of the Fiery Force, spanning over seven decades of poetic expression. Cared for by a close circle of friends, he died in 2009 at an assisted living facility in San Francisco. His last recorded words were “the end is the beginning.”
The occasion of the Harold Norse centenary is an excellent time to investigate his work, which has finally begun to receive its overdue acclaim. From entering the world as the illegitimate child of a Jewish immigrant during the end of the Victorian era, to his experiences as a queer artist through mid-Century Manhattan, continuing onto the expatriate Beat scene that helped beget the counter-culture movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, the life and poetry of Harold Norse provides us a remarkable opportunity to interpret the sweeping changes that took place in the 20th Century.
“Let Go and Feel Your Nakedness” speaks to the awakening Norse experienced, summoned forth in the poem’s final lines,
“Let go this moment, this hour, this day, tomorrow will be too late
Let go of guilt and frustration, let liberation and tolerance flow
Let go of phantom worries and fears, let go of hours and days and years
Let go of hate and rage and grief, let walls against ecstasy fall for relief
Let go of pride and greed, let go of missiles and might and creed
Let go the dead meat of convention, wake up the live meat of love”
1) Harold, his mother Fannie and step-father Max, early 1920s, Photo © Harold Norse Estate
2) Harold Norse circa 1937, Photo © Marcus Blechman
3) Harold Norse in Florence, Italy 1956 Photo © Harold Norse Estate
4) Cover of American Idiom 1990
5) Harold Norse with Mohammed, Morocco Photo © Paul Bowles
6) Harold Norse in Greece 1960s, Photo © Charles Henri Ford
7) Harold Norse in Union Square, San Francisco 1973, Photo © Frances McKann
8) Cover of Hotel Nirvana 1974
9) Cover of Carnivorous Saint 1976
10) Harold Norse & William Burroughs at Naropa University 1980, Photo © Michael Kellner
11) Harold Norse in his Albion Street home 1988, Photo © Allen Ginsberg
12) Harold Norse, Beat Museum 2008, Photo © Tate Swindell
13) Harold Norse, San Francisco 2008, Photo © Todd Swindell