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Norse, Harold (1916-2009)  
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Often categorized as a Beat writer, poet and memoirist Harold Norse created a body of work that uses everyday language and images to explore and celebrate both the commonplace and the exotic. His poetry is lyrical and confessional, expressing attractions and encounters not as novelty but as lived experience.

Norse was born July 6, 1916, in Brooklyn, New York, to an unwed immigrant Russian Jewish mother, and created his surname from an anagram of her name in Russian. In his autobiography, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel (1989), Norse surmised that his father was a German-American soldier. He was raised by his mother amid her ever-converting family (and their anti-Semitic spouses) and, for a while, an abusive stepfather.

Norse was drawn to literature in high school. In 1934 he began attending Brooklyn College, where he was the first freshman to win the annual poetry contest in the school's literary publication.

In his senior year at Brooklyn College, Norse met a freshman, Chester Kallman. They became lovers despite the sexually precocious Kallman's promiscuity.

In 1939 the two learned of an upcoming visit by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, who were to present their first American reading in New York. Having heard that Auden and Isherwood were also homosexual, Norse and Kallman decided to attend the reading, where they sat in the front row and winked at the visiting literary celebrities. Within months, Auden had pursued and attained Kallman, who would be Auden's companion for the rest of the poet's life. Norse's life of brushes with the great, near-great, and about-to-be-great was underway.

In 1951 Norse's talent was recognized by the well-known but not yet influential poet William Carlos Williams, who invited Norse to read at a program at the Museum of Modern Art in early 1952. Williams singled out Norse for being able to "use the direct image on its own," and he became an important mentor to him. Among the ways in which Williams influenced Norse was in the use of common language and conversational tone, and in the abandonment of traditional meter in favor of composing in the "metrical foot."

Norse's "The Railroad Yard," a poem in ten stanzas, first attracted the attention of Williams. In it Norse shows that he is not afraid of a taboo subject when, in stanza five, the poem's narrator receives candy and then a kiss from "An old man with a sack."

Norse's first book of poetry, The Undersea Mountain, was published in 1953, and was reviewed in such places as the New York Times and Poetry magazine. But, as Norse writes in his memoirs, "Instead of starting on the second book I decided to leave America." With a small financial windfall and the help of his mother, he headed to Europe with enough funds to last three months and have enough for a return ticket. He was to live abroad until 1969.

Roman Years

Norse first settled in Italy, where he lived from 1954 until 1959. Quickly learning the native language, Norse became acquainted with the work of the nineteenth-century Italian poet, Giuseppe Gioachino Belli. Sensing a similarity between Belli's Roman slang and the "Brooklynese" Norse had known growing up, Norse—"for the sheer joy of it"-- took up the project of translating some of Belli's sonnets (which number over 2000), a task that James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence had attempted only to abandon in failure.

In 1956 twenty-six of Norse's translations of Belli's sonnets appeared in the April issue of the Hudson Review. Following an enthusiastic response from readers, arrangements were made for the publication of a book that would contain more of Norse's seventy to eighty translations. However, because the printer considered the book obscene and "anti-papal," publication was delayed until 1960, when the contract between the publisher and the printer lapsed.

In addition to using various dictionaries, when translating Belli Norse also used the services of several street hustlers he knew. Asked how he accomplished the translations, Norse would reply, "With a dictionary in one hand and a Roman in the other."

A 1957 poem, "Victor Emmanuel Monument (Rome)," published in the Saturday Review, nearly got Norse deported from Italy when the Italian government deemed it political fodder for the Communists. The poem's last line describes underpaid soldiers or guards at night "picking up extra cash from man and boy." Because the poem had put the editor in a political controversy, Norse was never again published in the Saturday Review.

In 1957 Williams praised Norse's long poem "Florence," which appeared in Poetry. "I have never seen anything like it. It is really a masterpiece," Williams wrote, and added, "But as in any other masterpiece it incurs responsibilities. You can't repeat it. Are you going to change your style to conform to it?" Williams was struck by a section of the poem in which Norse expresses his repugnance at seeing some Renaissance art depicting Classical heroes, "realizing that such lust and madness for power was based on an indomitable will to crush, to destroy--trampling on women."

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A portrait of Harold Norse by Stathis Orphanos.
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