Swindell’s assiduous effort to memorialize him goes beyond dedicated. He has not only created a posthumous website for him and edited a posthumous collection of selected poems, I Am Going to Fly Through Glass, he has also organized and recorded readings of Norse’s poetry by other poets. But his latest project may be the grandest yet — three separate centennial celebrations: two in San Francisco (at the Mechanics’s Institute on July 6 and at the Beat Museum on July 9) and one in Los Angeles (at Beyond Baroque on July 23).
The devotion to Norse began early. Swindell writes in an email: “When I was growing up gay in [California’s] conservative Orange County in the 1980s, Harold’s poetry saved my life.”
Norse’s two major books alone of the many he wrote — In the Hub of a Fiery Force: Collected Poems 1934-2003 and Memoirs of a Bastard Angel — should by rights have enshrined him in the American literary pantheon at large. But he is little known outside of Beat circles or the gay community.
Norse, who died in 2009, made a multitude of literary connections over a lifetime spent as an expatriate mainly in Rome, Athens, and Paris, with earlier years in New York and later years in Los Angeles and San Francisco. He’s received praise from too many luminaries to list by name, but here are four: Charles Bukowski, who appeared between covers with him (and Phillip Lamantia) in Penguin Modern Poets 13; James Baldwin, who wrote the preface to his memoir; William Carlos Williams, who once called him “the best poet of his generation” and whose correspondence with him was published in The American Idiom; and William S. Burroughs, who wrote the foreword to his cut-prose novella Beat Hotel.
Norse was not his real name. Born Harold Rosen, he simply rearranged the letters of his last name. It was his mother’s name. His mother was an unwed “illiterate immigrant,” Swindell notes, who gave birth to him in Brooklyn on July 6, 1916. He never knew his biological father.
In a recent interview I was asked why — “considering what an interesting, well-connected poet he was” — Norse had not gained “the name recognition of the more famous Beat poets.” I gave a simple answer:
Hal needed a better PR agent or a better strategy. He was strictly a literary man, which doesn’t cut it. Ginsberg became legendarily famous for his activism. Burroughs became a celebrated cult figure by way of the underground press. Even Gregory Corso’s antics drew attention. But Hal didn’t do too badly in the glory department. His name is right up there, second from the top, on the memorial plaque at what used to be the Beat Hotel.
Better than that plaque, though, is Baldwin’s generous tribute to him in his preface to Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, ending with these words: “If light ever enters the hearts of men, Harold will be one of those who has helped to set it there.” And now, with Swindell as his posthumous PR agent, maybe he will get at least some of the wider fame he hungered for.