I have always admired Anne Sexton’s “Her Kind.” It is as good and purposeful as the nib of a fountain pen sinking into a bloviating patriarch’s fleshy old fanny.
It starts off:
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
We are not in a classroom, so let’s forget about “the speaker” and imagine this is Sexton herself. Picture the glamorous Anne, her lovely blue eyes scanning a bunch of boring houses 10,000 feet below her. Alone and under cover of darkness, she is out on the town doing her hitch. Or rather, she has done her hitch; it is on her resume, and she’s not hiding it.
But who is that “lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind”? Why, it is still Anne, speaking in an arch tone as she puts on a pair of male gaze-goggles and then flings them aside.
“I have been her kind,” she confesses with the mind-bending solipsism of a true sorceress.
The middle stanza amps up the weirdness:
I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.
Honestly, can anyone read this aloud without laughing? And yes, “A woman like that is misunderstood,” but this one is so deep into parody she can’t be bothered to care.
On to the final stanza, which finds our heroine defiantly describing what she has done (not what has been done to her) in a male world intent on debasing and destroying her:
I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.
Like Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” Sexton-as-witch is an exhibitionist taking charge of her spectacle. She knows her tormentors will hyperventilate at the sight of her “nude arms” and get all queasy with delight when her thigh begins to burn.
She mocks them with each self-centering ‘I’ rhyme she throws down on the page. Swerving, swirling, she nevertheless speaks in a measured verse that approaches rhyme royal. She is that sure of herself even as her ribs crack. And notice that she never dies, quite.
To borrow a couple of lines from Emily Dickinson, she is “dying in Drama — / and Drama — is never dead –.”
And yet Sexton insists: “A woman like that is not ashamed to die.”
That line is a raised middle finger with a painted, pointed nail.
It clinches the poem; it is the truth of “Her Kind.”
I wish it had not been the truth of Sexton’s life, but I salute the courage it took for her to say what she said and live as long as she was able to stand being alive.
Godspeed, Anne! Let starlight split the black waves as you swim toward us again and again.
It is the middle of summer, the heart of the watermelon, and I’m sitting on a patio looking out at hills and cypress trees and listening to people splashing in a pool I’ll swim in later on. There are people in that pool murmuring in languages I don’t speak, but I can tell they’re happy. So am I–it would take an act of will not to be.
How does happiness happen? How does it happen to me? Do I need a pool and a patio and a white butterfly and just the right combination of breeze and Italian to strum the strings of my soul’s harp? Surely not! Maybe not. Um ….
Happiness comes and goes, and that’s OK with me. To poach a phrase from Wallace Stevens in “Sunday Morning,” I have no desire to live in a paradise where ripe fruit never falls. Happiness can and should be pursued, but sometimes the pursuit feels like an endless game of tag with Usain Bolt. On days like that, it’s better to leave Usain alone and just do your work, whatever that might be. If you don’t have any work, find some: mow the grass, change the litter box. Floss, whatever.
Often happiness is a remedy, a balm, a way out. And the balm, the escapism of it, can become a problem if you fixate on it. As a longtime student of the Beat Generation authors, many of whom played around endlessly with heroin and cocaine and blah, Benzedrine, blah, I’ve always prided myself on my complete disinterest in narcotics. Chocolate and/or wine will almost always suffice on good days and bad, thank you very much. But when I landed in the ER back in February, I was happy to make the acquaintance of morphine. I remember our one-night stand with great fondness. But: never again, if I can help it.
Happiness can bring tears, as it did two days ago when I stood at just the right place in the Uffizi Gallery and looked at Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and then at his Spring. There were hoards of tourists milling around me, but it was my moment nonetheless. I felt very large and very small at the same time. Maybe what happened to me in the Uffizi was not exactly the onset of happiness; maybe it was the pure joy of being human. And that is pretty damned good.
There was a time when doctors prescribed travel to people feeling melancholy. Why don’t they do that anymore? Why don’t they say, “Go on a trip, you slug-a-bed. Go to a museum in some place you’ve never been.” Even a trip to the next town over can pump up the dopamine. Or, if you are really, really depressed and unable to go far, take a stroll down the familiar aisles of Food Lion–or your own, fall-back supermarket. Just go.
In any case, here we all are–alive and breathing the air that inspirited saints and geniuses and rotten criminals and cats and dogs and rats for more centuries than I care to count. We must make something of this air, this day! If you hear a splash, that’s me!
I’ve often wondered about Robert Frost’s famous line, “I’d as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.” I know he was making fun of free verse, which he saw as a lawless waste of his time. But wouldn’t playing without a net actually be harder in some ways than the familiar version of the game? And if that is so, doesn’t it follow that writing a truly memorable free verse poem might be more challenging than writing one in traditional meter and rhyme?
For thoughts on this matter and insights into the marvelously crustaceous Frost, I turned to poet and scholar Henry Hart, whose new biography, The Life of Robert Frost, is just out from Wiley Blackwell. “Frost was constantly making wisecracks about free verse poets playing tennis with the net down,” said Hart, a professor of English at the College of William and Mary.
Why did Frost act like free verse was so ridiculous? According to Hart, it was the poet’s way of thumbing his nose at his rivals Ezra Pound and Carl Sandburg, who in their different ways were expert writers of free verse. Frost “tried writing free verse when he was close to Pound in London, and it was prosaic. He knew writing good free verse was difficult—just as writing good formal poetry was difficult. He preferred writing formal poetry because he was a conventional guy, but he also felt he needed the restraint and challenge of form.”
As for Frost the tennis player, I learned that the author of A Boy’s Will and North of Boston had taken up the game as a teenager while working one summer in Maine. It became one of his favorite activities–so long as he won. Hart said, “He was certainly passionate about tennis, but he wasn’t all that good and, as in most things, he was almost pathologically competitive.”
Frost was so competitive that he became furious when his daughter Lesley beat him at the game. According to Hart, the Pulitzer Prize winner stormed off the court shouting, “My children think that because they’re the children of a poet, that gives them license! But what they don’t know or understand or appreciate [is] … I know more about the English language than any man alive.”
I couldn’t resist asking Hart, a longtime tennis player, his thoughts on tennis without a net. It turns out he agrees with Frost: “I suppose playing tennis with the net down or without the net would just be silly.” Still, he reminded me that the subject of his new biography was more concerned with poetry than tennis when making his remark: “Frost was emoting when he used the metaphor to mock free verse; he was just trash talking.”
Not quite done rallying back and forth on this topic, I decided to lob a few questions to several other tennis-playing writers in various genres.
In the case of William Pritchard, the eminent critic and author of Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, I wasn’t sure he played tennis, but something told me that the English professor emeritus at Amherst College had hit a few overhead smashes in his time. He was quick to write back that yes, indeed, he played tennis “until Old Age, etc.” As for playing the game without a net: “I can’t imagine what it would be like to play without a net. No fun, no restriction, what the hell can’t lose!”
Invited to contemplate net-free tennis, Boston-based novelist and short story writer Jessica Treadway responded an hour before she was scheduled to play a match–very much in keeping with her literary flair for timing and suspense. “I don’t think I’ve ever played without a net, but my immediate reaction to the idea of doing so has not to do with whether it’s harder or easier, but with whether I’d want to do it, and the answer is no. The analogy that came to mind was no-ad scoring, which I dislike. To my mind, it is not ‘real’ tennis.”
The author of Lacy Eye and How Will I Know You added, “I also wouldn’t want to do it because I’m used to having a net, and I like the game the way it is. I wonder if someone never having written poetry would prefer free verse because it does seem that it would be easier?”
Keith Clark, professor of English and African & African-American Studies at George Mason University, likewise nixed the idea of playing tennis without a net. Compared to the game he knows and loves, the netless version would be “infinitely dumber and less interesting, mind-numbingly less interesting, in fact.” The author of The Radical Fiction of Ann Petry and Black Manhood in James Baldwin, Ernest J. Gaines, and August Wilson makes time for tennis even during the busiest weeks of the semester at GMU.
As for Frost’s remark, the ever-erudite Professor Clark noted, “I think Frost’s comment speaks to his classical approach to the art of poetry, which eschews radical approaches to form. Not to say that he wasn’t aesthetically daring, but free verse to him seemed a bridge too far.”
Carol Henderson, author of Losing Malcolm and Farther Along: The Writing Journey of Thirteen Bereaved Mothers, made it clear that tennis without a net is not high on her to-do list. “You need the net to gauge distance, height, depth,” said this dedicated tennis player and writing workshop instructor, who secludes herself at home in Chapel Hill, N.C., to watch Grand Slam matches on a large-screen TV. “Playing or watching tennis without a net would be a waste of time.” What about Frost’s quip echoing in English classes across the land? “It’s not an apt metaphor.”
Finally, I turned to Philip Holland of Boston, novelist and author of one of my all-time favorite short stories, “Mentor,” about a club tennis pro trying to teach a singularly unpromising young boy how to play the game. He wrote, “Believe it or not, I have played a few times without a net, in those New England springs in my hometown before the nets went up and our team could officially practice. Here’s what I remember: without a net, the game is much easier on the person hitting the shot, and
much harder on the person receiving the shot. Perhaps you experienced the same, if you ever tried? The person hitting the shot, being much less constrained, could hit it lower and harder, and with all kind of crazy angles, or even lower and softer–and the person receiving had to deal with all that additional variability.”
With the philosophical turn of mind that makes his fiction so engaging, he continued, “I might say this, in response to Mr. Frost. Perhaps like tennis without a net, free verse too might be a bit easier for the author, as it is for the ‘author’ of the shot, but more difficult for the reader, as it is for the receiver of the shot, in that by removing the ‘constraints’ of form, rhyme, meter, etc., not unlike the net, it might free up the poet but make it more difficult on the other end to process his or her offering.”
Weighing all these observations, I suspect a tennis player of the caliber of Serena Williams would see a kind of “ghost net” even if no tangible net were there to guide her shots. She would know when she or her opponent hit the ball even an inch below the ghost net, and she would use her knowledge of the net, even in its absence, to play her best game. On a parallel note, various critics have written about the ghost of meter lurking within exemplary free verse. Truly expert free verse–for instance, the later poems by Adrienne Rich and just about everything by Lucille Clifton–makes use of meter (and rhyme) when it suits the needs of the poem. In short, Frost’s famous comment may say more than he realized about the subtle skills and awareness involved in writing free verse. Deuce point, Mr. Frost!
When Barack Obama and Donald Trump met at the White House shortly after the election, President Obama was, as always, a statesman and gentleman. To Mr. Trump he said, “We now are going to want to do everything we can to help you succeed, because if you succeed, then the country succeeds.”
We all understand the generous spirit in which President Obama expressed that sentiment, but I want to pause and consider the notion of success. We are anticipating an administration rife with conflicts of interest and a total lack of respect for facts and the truth. During the campaign, Donald Trump encouraged his followers to believe and propagate lies and to wreak mayhem in the name of those lies. He is no gentleman, no statesman.
I’m not the first person to hypothesize that Trump’s definition of success has everything to do with his own ego and pocketbook and very little to do with the future of our country. If he succeeds by his own terms, the country will not succeed: the country will sag; the moral core of the nation will rot.
Let’s turn away from him and toward the saving words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran cleric and Nazi dissident imprisoned in Germany in 1943 and executed by the Nazis in 1945. In his posthumously published Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer writes eloquently about success:
As long as goodness is successful, we can afford the luxury of regarding [success] as having no ethical significance; it is when success is achieved by evil means that the problem arises. In the face of such a situation we find that it cannot be adequately dealt with, either by theoretical dogmatic armchair criticism, which means a refusal to face the facts, or by opportunism, which means giving up the struggle and surrendering to success. We will not and must not be either outraged critics or opportunists, but must take our share of responsibility for the moulding of history in every situation and at every moment, whether we are the victors or the vanquished.
In our national history, we have seen goodness succeed time and again–goodness coupled with fairness. Look at the 1st Amendment. Look at the 13th and the 19th. Look at all the people you know whose lives and prospects were forever brightened by civil rights legislation. Look at that freakin’ beautiful rainbow flag and think about how proudly it waved on the day same-sex marriage was legalized. Of course, setbacks and outrages and hatred accompanied and followed in the wake of each of these milestones. Still, we know that our leaders in those instances were doing what they could to make things better for those of us alive today.
Now here we are in December of 2016, and I want to believe that goodness will prevail in the next presidential administration. If that happens, it will only be because Trump has changed in profound ways that seem unlikely, given what we know of him and the people he has chosen as his advisers. I don’t believe he has earned the benefit of a doubt; he has only earned our closest, most searing scrutiny.
And yes, I’m an outraged critic. But in the coming months and years, I’m going to try to remember, and act on, Bonhoeffer’s point about taking responsibility. It is very easy to point fingers and write blog posts. It takes a lot more energy and brainpower to mobilize and work toward a better outcome than the one we’re facing now.
Bonhoeffer’s further thoughts, on heroism, have given me still more to ponder. Extremists and armchair critics alike would do well to wrestle with the following:
[T]o talk of going down fighting like heroes in the face of certain defeat is not really heroic at all, but merely a refusal to face the future. The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live. It is only from this question, with its responsibility toward history, that fruitful solutions can come, even if for the time being they are very humiliating. In short, it is much easier to see a thing through from the point of abstract principle than from that of concrete responsibility. The rising generation will always instinctively discern which of these we make a basis for our actions, for it is their own future that is at stake.
How will the coming generation live? That is the question Bonhoeffer asks us to keep foremost in our minds. And how will that generation judge us? How will I be judged? These are matters to address in solitude, over dinner tables, in classrooms and public forums. Let’s think it through, talk it out, put it in print, on the walls, in the airwaves, on the screen and stage.
We owe future generations the effort it takes to discern the difference between ethical success rooted in goodness and fairness, and a corrupt version of success rooted in calumny and evil. We don’t need martyrs; we need people who can look an image of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the eye and say, “I hear you,” and mean it. We need to believe that we are capable of living in this world and making it better, not worse. And then we need to do it.
Lately I’ve been thinking about Richard Wright’s famous protest novel, Native Son (1940). The book is a page-turner like no other, and there is much to learn from it during this long season of exhibitionistic murders.
Wright’s Chicago-born African American protagonist, Bigger Thomas, is the native son in question. From the very first pages, he is a criminal in the making: young, brooding, physically powerful, horrifyingly poor, inclined to rob rather than earn, and marginalized in all ways due to his race. Though he is ignorant and unenlightened, a furtive intelligence peeks out from behind his inarticulate rage and despair. He is capable of having ideas, very bad ones.
He can’t catch a break, and it’s obvious he never will. When he’s offered a job as chauffeur for the wealthy white Dalton family, there appears to be a glimmer of respectability in the offing, but you know Bigger will mess things up somehow.
For those who haven’t read the book, I’ll tread lightly over the particulars. Suffice it to say that Bigger accidentally commits a terrible deed. He compounds it in his macabre attempt at a coverup, and then deliberately commits further heinous crimes. Once the manhunt is on, the press inflames the whole city with racist falsehoods. Bigger is finally caught in a cinematic showdown with the cops, his black body flung against the Chicago snow.
For all of the book’s riveting dramatic action, it is the understated final conversation between Bigger and his lawyer, a Jewish Communist named Boris Max, that I keep thinking about. They are coming at this meeting from very different points of view. Max is tense and sad; Bigger is eerily equanimous. Max has come to comfort Bigger and say goodbye; Bigger has figured things out on his own and needs to talk, perhaps even comfort Max.
It turns out he listened very carefully to Max’s lengthy and high-minded courtroom presentation, a spirited defense that had everything to do with abstract sociology and little to do with the individual defendant. He has concluded that Max was correct: he is the inevitable and unfortunate product of a racist city and racist society and therefore, by Bigger’s own reckoning, not to blame for anything whatsoever.
Going still further, he has decided his actions–the killings–were good. They were the right thing to do. He’s figured out a way to justify himself and become his own hero.
“What I killed for must’ve been good!” Bigger’s voice was full of frenzied anguish. “It must have been good! When a man kills, it’s for something. … I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ’em.”
Isn’t this wild? Isn’t this familiar?
The killer in Orlando and the killer in Dallas are our very own Bigger Thomases: angry, hopeless, desperate young men who found a sick justification for their actions. They are entirely to blame for what they did: like Bigger’s, their actions are indefensible. Yet we need to look at our society–our nation bulging with firearms and boiling with racial, ethnic, and religious tensions–when we contemplate how these modern-day Biggers came into being. With Native Son as a point of reference, they can be seen in the context of conditions that make them not just possible but terrifyingly likely.
Native Son is not a didactic screed but rather a classic example of literary realism with naturalist flourishes. It invites us to look, see, and think. We don’t need to read far into it to notice that Bigger is hardly the only native son gone berserk. In memorably lurid detail, the novel illustrates exactly how racism dehumanizes oppressors and victims alike. The virulently racist white policemen, the rabid white prosecutor, and the race-baiting press all behave in unconscionable ways. Their actions cause us to feel, at times, a modicum of sympathy for Bigger and prevent us from dismissing him as a mere sociopath.
Think, now, of the murderous white overseers of enslaved Americans, the KKK members who lynched black men and women for decades after the Civil War, and last year’s white murderer of black churchgoers in Charleston–native sons, one and all. They are on the opposite side from Bigger, but no less demented in their perverted self-justification of their deeds. This is racism in America: everybody suffers, everybody loses.
Native Son is not light summer reading, but this has not been a light summer. We need to read and reread this book. Its truths are entirely relevant to our time.
During times of upheaval, art of all kinds can offer solace and refuge. As an antidote to the horrors we are all grappling with these days, I recommend to you the life and writing of Harold Norse (1916-2009), an out gay man who grew up in the 1920s and 1930s. In this, his centennial year, let’s have a look at who he was and what he was all about.
The Brooklyn native was a smart, sexy guy with a winning smile. He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1938 and later earned an M.A. from New York University. His elegant lyric poems received high praise from William Carlos Williams, who called him the best poet of his generation. First in Europe and then in San Francisco, Norse found his milieu among the Beat writers. His numerous books of poetry, his experimental novel, The Beat Hotel, and his memoir were published by both mainstream and small presses beginning in 1953.
Here’s Norse writing in Memoirs of a Bastard Angel (Morrow, 1989) about a letter he received from W.H. Auden:
Wystan had repeatedly said, and had written in a letter to me, ‘Live every moment as if it were thy last,’ quoting an Anglican hymn he had sung in childhood. And although the context of this line was religious, I could believe the thought without the religion. There was no other way to live. Certainly not if you were in your twenties and the most devastating war in history had just ended. I was lucky to be alive. I was lucky the government did not have room in its military machine for young men designated 4-F because of ‘feminine reactions.’
But Norse did fight during World War II–in New York City. One day on Eighth Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, he encountered a drunk beating up a peddler and hollering anti-Semitic epithets:
Nobody made a move to help the old man. The crowd’s passiveness and the helplessness of the old peddler at a time when millions of innocent Jews were being terminated in the gas chambers of Europe proved too much for me. I pushed my way forward through the throng and hovered a moment indecisively. Then, almost without my knowing it, my fist shot out of the crowd and the drunk went down, flat on his back, his head thudding on the asphalt. A cheer rose from the crowd, which began to disperse, many thanking me warmly, shaking my hand.
Norse was a man of many talents. In the late 1950s he arrived in Paris and soon began experimenting with cut-up writing, a technique that William Burroughs made famous. Norse was also painting:
I had begun painting at a suggestion from Julia Laurin. I threw colored Pelican inks at random on Bristol paper and washed them off in the bidet with startling results: a series of maplike drawings of outer and inner space in the most vivid colors and minutely precise details, as if they had been meticulously drawn by a master hand. Yet my hand never touched them. I allowed everything to happen, letting the laws of chance take over, acting as a medium through whom these colors, shapes, and designs would flow, dictated by whatever forces reside in the unconscious. With the feeling that I was charting new territory in the visual arts I worked compulsively, calling the results ‘Cosmographs’–cosmic writings. I was no draftsman, but I was an artist. When I showed them to Burroughs [… ] he was so enthusiastic that he wrote the introduction to my first one-man show, which opened a year later in March 1961 at the English Bookshop, 42, rue de Seine.
These are just a few glimpses of Norse, someone I knew little about until I became friends with Todd and Tate Swindell of San Francisco. The Swindell brothers have done a great deal to promote Norse and other San Francisco Beats who haven’t gotten the attention they deserve.
A writer and activist, Todd Swindell had admired Norse’s poetry for a long time before he began helping Norse around the house near the end of the poet’s life. After Norse died, Todd compiled his archives. He also took on the enormous task of editing I Am Going to Fly Through Glass: The Selected Poems of Harold Norse (Talisman House, 2014). Later this month, he will be presenting a talk, “Cut Out of the Cut Ups: Harold Norse at the Beat Hotel,” at the European Beat Studies Conference in Manchester, England. In July, Todd and Tate Swindell will host and participate in a series of discussion panels commemorating the centennial of Norse’s birth. For more info on these panels (two in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles), go to the Events page at haroldnorse.com.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Todd Swindell by email. Here’s what he had to say about his old friend Harold Norse.
What does Harold Norse add to the Beat Movement?
Harold adds a strong connection to Modernism to the Beat Movement. He was publishing in magazines like Poetry in the 1940s. When W.H. Auden arrived in the States, Harold was among the first Americans to connect with him, and he became Auden’s secretary. Harold also got to know Anaïs Nin, Dylan Thomas, and James Baldwin.
Without Harold, the Beats would not have such a rich international dimension. He lived in Paris in the late 1950s and traveled widely. We read often of New York City and San Francisco, but a great deal of the Beats’ influence came out of what happened in Paris, Tangier, and the Greek Islands, and Harold was part of that scene. Nor would we have had Harold’s magazine Bastard Angel, from the early 1970s, publishing a new generation of writers such as Andrei Codrescu and Neeli Cherkovski in the same pages as Bob Kaufman and Diane di Prima.
Where was Harold living when he was editing and producing Bastard Angel, and how long did it last? Where is it archived?
Bastard Angel magazine began shortly after Harold moved to San Francisco in 1971, inspired by the city’s poetry scene and its mixture of younger and older poets. Issue #3, the last one, came out in the fall of 1974. The mock-ups and other production material are archived at the Lilly Library at Indiana University. Harold sold them a part of his archives in the early 1980s. Most of his papers are housed at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.
How did Harold get along with Allen Ginsberg? Did they have much contact?
Harold met Allen in the winter of 1944, a week before Ginsberg met Kerouac. It was on a subway train, very early in the morning heading to Greenwich Village, when Allen entered the empty car wearing a red bandana around his neck, taking a seat opposite Harold. When the train’s rumble would quiet at each stop, Harold could hear the 18-year-old mumbling to himself while his head bobbed as if he were in a trance. Eventually he recognized “The Drunken Boat” being recited in French. “Rimbaud!” Harold shouted. “You’re a poet!” Allen replied. They went back to Harold’s apartment on Horatio Street and compared poems. The pair would have likely met later at parties or bars in the Village, but they were acquaintances more than friends, similar to Harold’s connection with Frank O’Hara.
There was a subtle rivalry between Norse and Ginsberg. In Harold’s Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, hementions the time Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky arrived in Paris in 1961 on their way to India. At a party filled with champagne and hashish, Peter pestered Harold to disrobe. After swigging and toking, he complied, but then Peter disappeared into the bathroom. Eventually most of the guests ended up in their birthday suits, as Allen sternly guarded the bathroom door. The whole story is well worth reading.
When I was gathering Harold’s archives, I found correspondence to Allen asking him for a letter of recommendation. Harold was trying to obtain a paid teaching position. Ginsberg replied he didn’t have time to comply and ultimately such a letter would not make a difference. In his defense, Ginsberg was inundated with such requests.
In Harold’s archives at Indiana University, there is a series of photographs by Gerard Malanga taken in 1973 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art during a poetry reading by John Ashbery. Allen and Harold were both in attendance wearing the colorful hippie garb of the day. You can see their bright smiles. As you know, Ginsberg was a talented photographer and he photographed Harold in the kitchen of his Mission District apartment in 1988. It is one of the most beautiful photos taken of Harold.
Did Harold have a workaday job, or was he able to earn a living as a writer?
Harold’s paid employment varied throughout his life. In New York City, he taught at colleges like Cooper Union. When he left for Italy in ’53, his finances were very strained. At first he worked dubbing English films into Italian and then taught English, on and off, for a couple years. During his years abroad, Harold was supported by a couple of patrons who were from wealthy families but lived frugally. This support was usually a vacant apartment or money for food—but only the bare necessities.
When Harold repatriated to California in 1969, he tried to obtain a regular teaching position but was systematically rejected by petty professors jealous of his time abroad. There was an image projected of Harold being too wild because of his poetry. In the 1980s he had some stints at a college in San Jose and at San Francisco’s New College. Harold scraped by his whole life, but of course he’d been doing that since he was a child. His parents were always leaving furnished rooms under cloak of night because they couldn’t pay the rent.
I read that he rearranged the letters in his surname, Rosen, to come up with Norse. Why did he do that? What was his attitude toward his Jewish heritage?
Like his hairpiece, Harold’s name change was something he never spoke of. According to his memoirs, Harold’s new name came from childhood readings in Norse mythology and because his mother’s family were Nordic Jews, blue-eyed blondes from Lithuania. Though his mother was suspicious of religions (and people), her siblings converted when they married spouses who were Catholic.
Harold embraced his Jewish heritage when the Nazis rose to power. Also, he saw how prejudice arose from baseless stereotypes whether it was blacks, queers, or Jews. For instance, Harold—muscular, hairy, butch—was never suspected of being queer. His swarthy complexion and upturned nose could have him pegged as anything from Italian to English to German.
What are some of the poems you especially admire in I Am Going to Fly Through Glass?
A selection of my favorite poems can change from day-to-day. For now…“Piccolo Paradiso” is a love poem for the ages. “Believing in the Absurd” is a snapshot of Harold’s time at the Beat Hotel. “California Will Sink” is a prophetic lamentation about global warming. “Remembering Paul Goodman” encapsulates the queer poetic geniuses of 1940’s Manhattan. “Let Go and Feel Your Nakedness” merges the lusty odes of Catullus with the liberating playfulness of James Broughton.
What were some of the challenges of compiling and editing this edition of selected poems?
My original idea was to photocopy a chapbook of Harold’s poetry and circulate it amongst friends, a stoking of the fire, as it were. I’d self-published a memorial chapbook of poetry from Harold’s friends like Ira Cohen, Mel Clay and Eddie Woods after he died in 2009. (Readers can email me at email@example.com to purchase a copy.) It wasn’t until Neeli Cherkovski suggested a full-length collection that I set my sights higher, which meant going back and reading all the poems again.
The 2003 edition of Harold’s collected poems is comprehensive but poorly organized and needlessly repetitive. I wanted to illustrate the development of Harold’s poetic voice, mirrored by his world travels. Including photographs from Harold’s archives accented this progression. Neeli contributed a brilliant introductory essay that motivated me to include additional poems.
It was hard not to give up when publishers repeatedly turned down the manuscript. I was on the verge of self-publishing when Ed Foster from Talisman House came in with a wonderful offer to print 700 copies—considerably larger than the usual small-press poetry print runs.
Tell me a story about Harold Norse that only you would know.
Harold’s last years living alone in his cottage apartment in San Francisco were fraught with loneliness, compounded by lack of restful sleep. Though social by nature, he had become increasingly isolated. There was an element within his psyche which could often sabotage an opportunity.
Many folks who knew Harold longer than I have remarked on how he would perpetually kvetch about his work not being recognized. I was in my twenties when we first met and naively unaware of Harold’s role in that situation. I could only be supportive and enthusiastic. As far as I was concerned, the value of his work obviated Harold’s shortcomings.
One day, venting his woes, Harold expressed concern that he sounded paranoid. His complaint wasn’t specific to his poetry not getting the attention it deserved but more about the difficulty of not getting enough sleep and lacking money and companionship. The day before, I had been reading his City Lights collection Hotel Nirvana, which contains the poem “These Fears Are Real Not Paranoid.” I blurted out the title and Harold looked at me wide-eyed as I explained it was the title of one of his poems.
He was not convinced. I had him locate a copy of the book so I could read the poem aloud. When I was done, Harold had tears in his eyes. “I’m hearing this poem for the first time,” he said. “What do you mean?” I asked. “We are unable to see ourselves,” he replied, “That’s why I write poetry–for the reflection that comes from the reader.” It was then I begin to appreciate what my friendship offered Harold beyond housecleaning and conversation.
To read a selection of Norse’s poems published in Poetry magazine, click here.
We keep having these days, and then we have the day after.
On the day after, there is shock and pain and horror; there is fear; there is the latest bit of maddening news that does nothing to solve anything.
And today, where I live, there’s a breeze rippling the catnip and lamb’s ear, the one blooming, the other about to bloom.
How much grief can a single body hold? How much love and joy? If you look into the eyes of any old woman or old man on the sidewalk in your town, you’ll see the history of pain in America, in the world. You’ll see agonizing deaths and illness and Jim Crow and rape and lies and infidelities and car accidents and smashed dreams. Amid the ashes, the wars, the broken bones, you will see kaleidoscopic bits of yourself.
You’ll also see starlight and cornfields and a newborn’s first smile. First jobs and teary reunions and bonfires on the beach. Long embraces on back stairways. New York City glimpsed from an airplane. Graduation day. River water on cold toes. You’ll see yourself, again.
Once, years ago, not long after my mother died, my friend Jay was consoling me on the elevator at work as we went to teach our classes. He told me what a nun said to him during his own time of loss: “Look for Jesus in the breeze, not in the gale.'” The elevator door opened, and I put that remark away to ponder for a lifetime.
We all have our own ways of dealing with private grief, politicized outrage, bottomless fear and sorrow. We think our thoughts, we do what we can.
In my corner of the world, on the day after, my eyes are tired. I have read enough. I glance again at the ripening flowers, the sky, the bumblebee. What would they say, what are they saying? I look and listen. The breeze travels on, from here to the moon and on to the ocean.
On a country road not far from where I live, there’s a house I never notice except in the spring. Dozens of daffodils press against the front of this ragged little place. It looks abandoned, but the daffodils couldn’t care less. They are wildly happy the way daffodils always are, their gold faces drinking in the sun and sky.
Who planted them, I wonder, and when?
I dial back the years to 1950 or so and picture a young woman in calico with an apron full of bulbs. She kneels down in the light of a breezy September morning and gets to work. As her trowel pierces the red-clay earth, she thinks about her ailing mom or her husband’s upcoming birthday or a poem she would like to write if she can ever find time. She drops in the first bulb and keeps going down the row.
“I’ll have these to look at in the spring,” she tells herself.
She is sturdy and strong. A week after planting the bulbs, she learns she’s pregnant with her first child. The joy she feels flows out of her hands and hair and into the air around the little house. When the daffodils bloom, she is nearly eight months pregnant, big and round and eager to get on with things. Bending down to gather a bouquet, she laughs at herself when she nearly topples over.
The bulbs will replicate over time. She and her husband will have four babies in seven years; three will survive. The name of the oldest, the one growing inside her while she planted those bulbs, will be etched on a shining wall in Washington, D.C.
When the news of her son’s death arrives, the woman will be living far from the daffodils. She will be separated from her husband, angry at the world. It will be ages before she can laugh again.
But the time comes when the tight petals of her heart slowly open. She takes night classes, has grandchildren, helps a fragile friend. The years drift by.
One day a nurse at the doctor’s office comments on the beauty of her eyes and gives her hand a reassuring squeeze. She goes home, takes off her glasses, looks in the mirror: her eyes are as blue as the sky above Rapidan, Virginia.
It’s been a long time since she thought of that place. Something comes to her–a flickering of light, a rush of gold. Wasn’t there a poem she always meant to write, a few things she really wanted to say? She had meant to say them all these years.
The telephone rings: her granddaughter, on her way to take her to lunch.
She smooths her hair and sits down to wait. Outside the high windows of her apartment, a hawk flies by. It is a clear, calm day. The kitchen clock ticks. She rummages around in her purse for the notepad she uses for her grocery list.
The buzzer sounds just as she writes a single word, followed by a year. “It’s a beginning,” she thinks as she stands up and hurries to answer the door.
The news is not good these days, yet I keep coming back for more. I live out in the country and can’t get a national newspaper delivered to my house. Nor can I get TV reception without one of those big ugly dishes planted in my yard–and I refuse to defile the property in that way. This means I depend on the web for news.
I could ignore the news sites and spare myself a daily dose of sorrow and anger and Schadenfreude. But I’m not there yet. I read the articles about the Presidential campaign and North Korea and global warming and then scroll down past the clickbait to the comments. With few exceptions, they are spiteful, repetitive, bullying, and staggeringly unoriginal. They are cowardly in their anonymity. They are the essence of frustration, hard little cubes of excrement put out there for fellow keyboard jockeys to sniff and kick.
The Washington Post‘s Gene Weingarten has compared a news story with a comments thread to a steak dinner with a side order of maggots. Just as one would be hard pressed to look at the steak without taking note of the maggots, I can’t read an online news story without peeking at the comments. This is a habit I need to break, for my own mental health.
Nobody ever said free speech would be pretty. And I understand that publications want readers to linger on their sites, commit their eyeballs to a commercially profitable experience, and maybe even read the pop-up ads. But I miss the days when I used to open my front door in the morning and find the newspaper hidden at the base of the azalea. I read it while eating breakfast and continued in the evening after work. I didn’t read it off and on throughout the day.
Sometimes I would read the letters to the editor, and occasionally those letters made me mad. But those writers had taken the time to organize their thoughts and compose a lucid letter with a beginning, middle, and end; they signed their names and gave their towns. Their submissions had been vetted by an editor and their publication was an honor, not a given.
Newspapers still print letters to the editor, of course. But the real action, such as it is, takes place in the comments threads. Those too-often vitriolic threads are ropes that strangle hope and goodwill and take the birdsong out of an early spring morning.
The candidates keep saying they get it, they know Americans are angry. I bet we’d all feel less angry if we got off our computers and took a walk around the block or strolled around the yard. I think we all need to be quiet for a while so we can learn to listen to each other again.