we sailed into the harbor
all the church bells rang
the main street on the crescent shore
hung iridescent silks from windows
stucco house-fronts gleamed
rose, pistachio, peach
and a procession sang
behind a surpliced priest
carrying a burnished Christ
when I set foot on shore
a youth emerged from the crowd
barefoot and olive-skinned
and we climbed up rocky slopes
till dusk fell and close to the moon
at the mouth of a cave we made love
as the sea broke wild beneath the cliff
Harold Norse, Island of Giglio, In the Hub of the Fiery Force: Collected Poems of Harold Norse (1934-2003)
Born in New York City in July of 1916, Harold Norse, born Harold Rosen, was an American poet and writer who broke new ground beginning in the 1950s by his exploration of gay identity and sexuality through plain language and direct imagery.
The only son of an unmarried Lithuanian Jewish immigrant, Harold Norse earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature in 1938 from Brooklyn College where he edited its literary magazine and began writing poetry. While at the college, Norse entered into a relationship with fellow student Chester Kallman, who became a poet and opera librettist. He and Kallman became part of poet W. H. Auden’s inner circle of acquaintances after Auden and Christopher Isherwood relocated to New York City in 1939. Chester Kallman later became Auden’s companion until Auden’s death.
By the early 1940s as a member of Auden’s circle, Norse cultivated a number of relationships, both professional and personal. He met Allen Ginsberg on a Manhattan subway and became friends with James Baldwin after meeting him in Greenwich Village. Norse spent a summer with Tennessee Williams while the playwright finished his “The Glass Menagerie”, and in 1950 became friends with Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. After earning his Master’s Degree in English Literature at New York University in 1951, Norse met modernist poet William Carlos William who encouraged him to embrace a more direct, conversational language in his poetry.
After accepting Williams’s mentorship, Harold Norse found a common cause with the Beat Generation poets in their rejection of academic poetry and traditional metric formats. as well as, his peripheral status in society as a gay man. Norse began publishing his work in The Paris Review, The Saturday Review, and Poetry Magazine. In 1953, he published his first collection of poem, “The Undersea Mountain”. Frustrated with New York’s poetry scene, Norse began a fifteen year period of travel in Europe and North Africa. While in Italy, he translated the sonnets of Giuseppe Gioachino Belli from the Romanesco, the dialect of Rome, with the assistance of street hustlers.
Between 1960 and 1963, Norse lived in Paris , along with William Burroughs, Alan Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, at the hotel known as “The Bear” in the city’s Latin Quarter. He briefly collaborated with painter and performance artist Brion Gysin on Gysin’s cut-up Dada work. After traveling to Greece where he met songwriter and author Leonard Cohen, Norse went to North Africa where he became friends with stage actor Paul Bowles. He returned to the United States and settled in the Mission District of San Francisco in 1972, which became his home for the rest of his life.There he became friends with writer Charles Bukowski and met Arnold Schwarzenegger, at that time a beginning bodybuilder.
It was in San Francisco that Harold Norse’s literary career became very productive. In 1974, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s publishing house, City Lights, released Norse’s “Hotel Nirvana” Selected Poems 1953-1973” to critical acclaim. With the publication of “Carnivorous Saint: Gay Poems 1941-1975″, he was considered one of America’s leading gay poets. Norse followed these successes with two more collections: “The Love Poems 1940-1985” and his final volume, “In the Hub of the Fiery Force: Collected Poems 1934-2003”. In 1989, his autobiography, “Memoirs of a Bastard Angel: A Fifty Year Literary and Erotic Odyssey”, was published.
Norse was an outsider of society, Jewish, homosexual and illegitimate, who produced new and technically accomplished work from the fringes of the literary scene in the United States. With the gay liberation movement gathering momentum, his poetry was given a new sense of direction and meaning. Norse wrote new poems about the idea of masculinity, such as his “I Am Not a Man”, and works about unrequited gay love and loneliness. In his latter years, his work reflected on what it meant to be an aged gay man in San Francisco.
Toward the end of his life, Harold Norse was surrounded by a group of friends who looked after him. He still read his poetry at the age of ninety-one to enthralled audiences. Both a two-time National Endowment of the Arts grant recipient and a National Poetry Association Award winner, Harold Norse died on the 8th of June in 2009.
Note: For those interested, I highly recommend a visit to the Harold Norse Centennial website. Dedicated to preserving the work and legacy of Norse, it was established by his close. decades-long friend Todd Swindell. The site contains interviews, readings of Norse’s work, book reviews, videos, photographs, and other articles. The site is located at: https://haroldnorse.com