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literature

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Norse, Harold (1916-2009)  
 
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Norse regarded his 1958 work, "Classic Frieze in a Garage," as a "stylistic breakthrough." In the poem, the past and present coexist, and a new-found meditative stillness is introduced to Norse's poetry. In a letter, Norse related the genesis of the poem, "I actually saw, on a street in Naples, the incredible juxtaposition--in an old garage where mechanics were welding & greasing & blow-torching cars--two huge classic friezes, hardly the worse for wear, stood proudly and majestically over the Fiats, the mechanics & the gasoline!"

The poem concludes:

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but I saw Hermes in the rainbow
of the dark oil on the floor
reflected there
& the wild hair of the sybil
as her words bubbled
mad & drowned
beneath the motor's roar[.]

Among the Beats

In 1957 Williams wrote to Norse that a "gang now is . . . headed for Italy," a group of "young (not so young) poets." Referring to Allen Ginsberg, Jack Keruoac, and Gregory Corso by name, Williams also mentioned that another member of the group was living in a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan, alluding to Gary Snyder. Norse had recently begun practicing Buddhist meditation, which had been introduced to him by an American acquaintance he ran into in Rome. On learning that this new group of writers was attracted to Eastern philosophy and spirituality, Norse was very interested indeed. As he recalled, "The effect on me was electric."

Although associated with the Beat movement, Norse was not part of the original circle that became known as the Beats, and he is sometimes considered peripheral to the movement. But he certainly shared with the Beats nonconformist attitudes and openness to a variety of experience. He also shared their interest in colloquial expression, spontaneous writing, and literary experimentation.

The original Beat writers had an initial flurry of social activity in San Francisco and New York in the late 1940s and first became productive in the 1950s. By the time they became well known in 1957, the year of the obscenity trial of Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems and the publication of Kerouac's On the Road, those writers were no longer in America, but were frequenting a "flea-bag" hotel in Paris, described in a Life magazine article at the time and known since as the "Beat Hotel."

It is there--in 1960--that Norse caught up with the Beats by moving into the hotel at the invitation of William S. Burroughs. Already writing in a style consistent with the Beats, Norse did not have to conform his writing to any particular Beat attitude.

Prior to moving into the Beat Hotel, Norse spent a short residence in an apartment in Paris said to have been used by Arthur Rimbaud. There Norse experimented with "cut-ups" (allowing chance to become part of the creative process by cutting up prose and reassembling the random paragraphs into chapters). When he moved into the Beat Hotel many of the writers there, especially Gregory Corso, Burroughs, and Brion Gysin, were also utilizing cut-ups. A chapter of Norse's prose manuscript called "Sniffing Keyholes," which he describes as "a sex/dope scene between a muscular black youth called Melo and a blond Russian princess called Z.Z.," made even the often gloomy Burroughs laugh.

What remains of Norse's completed manuscript (part of it disappeared from the Beat Hotel while he was on a brief trip), including "Sniffing Keyholes," was first published, translated into German, in 1975 as Beat Hotel. The first American edition (in the original English) was not released until 1983. Scatological and deeply influenced by Burroughs, Beat Hotel is an important artifact from the days when the Beats were a focus of worldwide literary attention. The 1983 publication includes three postscripts by Norse important in their own right, one describing the last days of the Beat Hotel, another detailing the methodology of the cut-ups.

In 1961 Norse also gained a brief reputation as a visual artist when an exhibit of his "random" drawings premiered in Paris. Norse threw capsules of paint onto paper, which he would then rinse in the hotel's bidet and let dry. The exhibit sold out and brought Norse patronage from the elite of the Paris art world.

"Paris journal, September 1961," a section of a long poem, "From the 6th Arrondisement," which was written in the Beat Hotel, is representative of much of Norse's poetry. It is sexual without being sensational, vivid yet focused on an ordinary event. The poet's attention to detail, mood, and language elevates a journal entry to poetry:

Masturbate wildly. 3 a.m. A knock.
Throw open the door, naked.
Arab I used to know. No place
to stay, Crash here? OK. Shows
me his boat ticket. "I return
to Tunis in a week." Removes
shoes & socks, revealing huge
dirty feet, swollen from tramping. Asks
for scissors, slowly cuts
all his fingernails, then toenails.
Removes gray houndstooth suit.
Climbs into bed, mutters, "Je suis
très fatigué." Loud snores.
Next morning, without a word, he dresses
& laying a cold hand on my arm leaves.
Masturbate wildly.

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