The world said goodbye last week to Harold Norse, one of the great American poets of the 20th century. He died at the age of 92 from natural causes.
A contemporary of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Norse was an undeniable member of the Beat poets although he never gained the fame of his confreres, a fact he regretted but took some personal responsibility for: “I won’t lift a finger to publicize my work. It has to come from the outside.”
He had close associations with many literary greats including James Baldwin, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Tennessee Williams and W.H. Auden (for whom he worked as a personal secretary). William Carlos Williams told him he was “the best poet of your generation.”
Norse lived his early adulthood in Italy and Paris, then spent the rest of his life in California, the last 39 years in San Francisco.
He is admired for being an outspokenly gay writer whose work unveiled unabashedly homosexual topics as early and the 1940s and 50s. Both his subject matter and his plain, straight-forward, American writing style cast him as a trailblazer early on. He worked right through to his later years, publishing his last collection of poems when he was 86 years old and even reading in public at the age of 90.
If you’re new to Harold Norse and want to get to know him, here are three good places to start:
Carnivorous Saint: Gay Poems 1941-1976 (1977)
Harold Norse: The Love Poems, 1940-1985 (1986)
In the Hub of the Fiery Force, Collected Poems of Harold Norse 1934-2003 (2003)
I’m Not a Man
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 feeling.
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’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 when real men beat me up and call me queer.
I dislike violence.
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.
San Francisco, 1972