Today’s show is a tribute to the late poet and Gay icon Harold Norse (1916-2009). Talisman Press has recently published a new selected poems by Harold Norse. Edited by Todd Swindell and with an introduction by Harold’s old friend and cruising buddy, Neeli Cherkovski, it’s an excellent passageway into the work of a man admired by writers as diverse as James Baldwin, William Carlos Williams, W.H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg, and Charles Bukowski. The title of the book is I’m Going to Fly Through Glass, and the cover features a remarkable 1938 photograph of the young poet executing a balletic leap, a tour jeté en l’air. Other photographs are contained in the book as well. Jack opens the show with a piece he published soon after Harold’s death and then plays excerpts from an interview he did with Harold in 1991.
I was asked recently, “Who reads or remembers Harold Norse?” It was a good question, and I would have to admit that the answer is very few people—and, further, that these people are much more likely to be Californians than New Yorkers. Yet everyone who reads Norse remarks that he is a very good poet. Why isn’t he better known? Admired people admired his work. William Carlos Williams, James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, many others—all thought he was a fine writer. Charles Bukowski, who admired very few poets, unstintingly admired Norse. I think the problem is that Norse’s imagination never moved towards what might be called spectacular or scandalous or attention-grabbing modes. Think of the difference between Norse’s excellent, explicit gay poems and a book like Jean Genet’s Nôtre Dame des Fleurs. The same tension that played itself out on a stylistic level in Norse’s work—should he write formal verse, should he write something freer?—was also present in his psyche. (Note, incidentally, that the concluding, climactic line of the free verse “I’m Not a Man” is a line of almost exact iambic pentameter.) For all Norse’s genuine courage, his risks tended to be in areas others had explored before. Beat Hotel is a very fine book, but there is Naked Lunch. Norse has a fine poem about his mad mother in a rest home—but Ginsberg had already written “Kaddish.” There is no Waste Land, no Howl—and certainly no Maximus Poems—in his oeuvre. Yet is this Norse’s problem or our own? We live at a time when it is almost impossible to praise a poet without calling him “great”! Norse was not a “great” poet, but he was a very good one. Williams, Baldwin, Ginsberg, Burroughs, et al could give him praise, but they could not give him their audiences. Shouldn’t there be a place for a man who, in Auden’s phrase, spent his life in “writing well”? Isn’t it the point of magazines like American Poetry Review (APR) to direct readers towards the little known, the careful, caring writers who kept the flame alive but who never used it to burn anything down?
In his memorial poem to Harold Norse, Norse’s longtime friend and advocate Neeli Cherkovski wrote, “You / were the man / who showed me / at least one way / out of solitude / and back into the self.” In 1993, I gave Harold a cassette tape of Walt Whitman reading his poem, “America.” The only place Harold could play the tape was in his message machine—and that fact gave him a poem. I’ve always loved Harold’s poem because it shows not only his love of Whitman—a major factor in his writing—but also his charm, his wit, his love of community, and his love of poetry itself, particularly of poetry as it manifested in that “American idiom” which Walt Whitman was among the first to enunciate and which Harold Norse clearly and vibrantly continued.
Walt Whitman Called Today
for Jack Foley
Walt Whitman left a message on my answering machine today.
He called long distance. I found him personal, enthralling.
His voice was vibrant, sexy, full of warmth,
Lusty in age, still powerful, still a natural force:
Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love.
Ancient artifact of wax, lone sample of eternal voice,
Early, imperfect, scratchy background of drowning din,
Roaring surf-like waves of sound rolled over his words,
Like static from seas of Time, haunts of Spirit’s mystical deeps,
Rising and surging, lapping syllables, cradling Space,
Reaching from 19th Century Jersey shores to me.
Many decades now since first I read your leaves, dear Walt
(A boy of sixteen, rocking and rolling in your cradle of grass),
A century after your death you recite in my room,
From Edison’s wax cylinder, four lines remaining,
Miraculously preserved, discovered, radio broadcast
Forty years ago, recorded, then melted away!
Here retained on cassette plugged into my answering machine
(O wondrous your Brooklyn accent, Walt, like mine!),
Close, familiar, at last in the flesh, your message received
And answered in kind, inspiring communal love,
Before I, too, am recycled in Eternity.
And this is perhaps Harold’s most famous poem, “I’m Not A Man.” It was written in San Francisco in 1972:
I’m not a man. I can’t earn a living, buy new things for my
family. I have acne and a small peter.
I’m not a man. I don’t like football, boxing and cars.
I like to express my feelings. I even like to put an arm
around my friend’s shoulder.
I’m not a man. I won’t play the role assigned to me—the role
created by Madison Avenue, Playboy, Hollywood and Oliver Cromwell.
Television does not dictate my behavior. I am under 5 foot 4.
I’m not a man. Once when I shot a squirrel I swore that I would
never kill again. I gave up meat. The sight of blood makes me
sick. I like flowers.
I’m not a man. I went to prison resisting the draft. I do not
fight back when real men beat me up and call me queer. I dislike
I’m not a man. I have never raped a woman. I don’t hate blacks.
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.
I’m not a man. I have never had the clap.
I’m not a man. Playboy is not my favorite magazine.
I’m not a man. I cry when I’m unhappy.
I’m not a man. I do not feel superior to women.
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.
Part Two of Two. A special feature of today’s show is Harold Norse’s acceptance speech upon receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Poetry Association in 1991. This remarkable speech has never been transcribed or published.