Literature, Poetry

Harold Norse:  Poet Maverick, Gay Laureate

Harold Norse: Poet Maverick, Gay Laureate, edited by A. Robert Lee and Douglas Field and published by Clemson University Press, is the first volume of essays on the enigmatic but overlooked poet and artist associated with the Beats and Gay Liberation poetry. In this blog post, the book’s editors reflect on why Norse was a lesser known figure and attest to his poetic talents.


2022 marks the centennial of Jack Kerouac, the “King of the Beats” whose novels of the 1950s and 1960s, among them On The Road, The Dharma Bums and The Big Sur, are essential reading on curricula of the counterculture. William Burroughs observed that On the Road “sold a trillion Levi’s, [and] a million espresso coffee machines,” but the Kerouac brand has gone decidedly up market. The fashionistas among you will have noticed Kerouac’s face adorning clothing by the fashion label Christian Dior. The Fall 2022 collection is, Dior claims,” A tribute to the work of Jack Kerouac,” “an initiatory journey from counterculture to couture. All roads lead to Dior.” 

Kerouac’s move into haute couture eclipses his posthumous foray into advertising Gap khakis in the early 1990s. As the Kerouac brand moves from countercultural capital to neoliberal  merchandising–including the opportunity to purchase a Kerouac overcoat— it’s a stark reminder, as Gregory Corso put in—with reference to Kerouac, Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg—that “three writers doe not a generation make.” And if the unholy trinity of Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac are the A-listers of their coterie, what about the lesser-known figures—those less anthologised, less visible, and less commercially viable?

Harold Norse: Poet Maverick, Gay Laureate is the first book devoted to the life and writing of a less well-known writer and artist whose career intersected with the Beat Generation, and who later becomes a leading Gay Liberation poet. Born Harold Rosen in 1916 (a surname he rearranged into “Norse”), he grew up in an impoverished Brooklyn home with his mother. The identity of his father was never known, which is reflected in the titles of his autobiography, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel: A Fifty Year Literary and Erotic Odyssey (1989) and his influential magazine, Bastard Angel, which ran for three volumes in the 1970s. As he roamed the streets of Manhattan in the 1940s, looking for love and companionship, Norse struck up friendship with the writer James Baldwin, who would in due course write the preface to his memoirs, also picking up a virginal Allen Ginsberg on the subway. He lost his first love, Chester Kallman, to W.H. Auden, but was adroit at dipping in and out of literary coteries. He spent a summer with Tennessee Williams, drank with Dylan Thomas, and was mentored by William Carlos Williams, who told him that he was the best writer of his generation. (A record of their correspondence, which is discussed in Harold Norse: Poet Maverick, Gay Laureate, was published as The American Idiom: A Correspondence.)

Norse developed as a writer, like his friend James Baldwin, after he left the United States. His home country had given sway to the punitive moralism of McCarthyism, a dangerous place in which to be openly—or even clandestinely—homosexual. Norse took off to Europe, spending the next fifteen years in Paris, Greece, Italy, and North Africa. In Italy, he translated the sonnets of GG Belli; these were published in 1960 as The Roman Sonnets of GG Belli, with the Roman’s dialect poetry transformed into Norse’s Brooklyn vernacular. In the early 1960s, he lived at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur in the Latin quarter of Paris, better known as “The Beat Hotel.” His neighbours included Burroughs and Corso, as well as the artist Brion Gysin. Norse was one of the first writers to appreciate and work with the cut-up process, which Gysin and Burroughs developed at the Beat Hotel. The aleatory practice inspired him to produce a series of astral ink paintings, known as Cosmographs, which involved soaking Bristol paper into the Beat Hotel bidet.

Norse’s return to the United States in the late 1960s resulted in a productive vein. His poetry, including the collection Carnivorous Saint: Gay Poems 1941–1976, established him as a leading Gay Liberation poet. His verse, including “I am not a Man,” bold, various, often Whitmanesque, addressed place and history, and subjects of aging, homosexuality and masculinity. In San Francisco, his home from 1972 until his death in 2009, Norse continued to create and innovate. His poetry volumes from this period include Karma Circuit (1973), I See America Daily (1974) and the City Lights publication, Hotel Nirvana (1974).

Norse produced over a dozen collections of poetry; he published his work in leading poetry magazines and he intersected with the Beat Generation. So why has his work remained at the margins of scholarly and popular interest? As the contributors explore in Harold Norse: Poet Maverick, Gay Laureate, Norse, who was working class, illegitimate, Jewish, and homosexual, was a quintessential outsider who intersected with various poetic coteries, but who resolutely followed his own path. He is a notable absentee from Ann Charters’s influential anthology, The Portable Beat Reader (1992), much to the detriment of his reputation. Perhaps he was considered too queer to be Beat, despite the prevalence of homosexuality within the Beat Generation.

And it certainly didn’t help that Beat Hotel, his cut-up novella, which he began in the early 1960s, wasn’t published in English from its first appearance in German until the mid-1980s. These details matter, but as the contributors in this volume attest, Norse was more than a literary Zelig, whose interest resides in his literary and sexual coteries. Reading Norse is to become aware of his genuine creative claims and importance. His work, for sure, is a prism in the cultural history of mid-twentieth century America—from Surrealism to the Living Theatre, and from the Beats to Gay Liberation Poetry. But also, and as the contributors of Harold Norse: Poet Maverick, Gay Laureate seek to explain, Norse was a prodigious American poet whose distinctive mastery of form and voice invites, and assuredly deserves, ongoing critical attention. Harold Norse: Poet Maverick, Gay Laureate takes necessary bearings.

Harold Norse: Poet Maverick, Gay Laureate is available to order on our website.

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