Tuesday, May 13, 2008

I Get Around

Another book review for Gay Community News, published in 1989 or 1990.

Memoirs of a Bastard Angel
by Harold Norse
New York: William Morrow & Co. Inc., 1989
448 pp.
$22.95 hardcover

I remember seeing copies of the City Lights edition of Harold Norse's Carnivorous Saint around in the 60s, but I think I was put off by the title, being uninterested in saints, carnivorous or otherwise. Later I read the Gay Sunshine interviews with Norse, and found them both interesting and amusing. Interesting because I hadn't grasped, when I'd read about W. H. Auden's American milieu, that Norse had been an intimate of Chester Kallman's; amusing because Norse could go from rhapsodizing about Moroccan boys' total lack of hangups about homosex ("the sex 'problem' as we know it does not exist" among them, he claimed) to griping about their annoying hangups about homosex: "three orgasms a week, no kissing, and you can't fuck them. . . .This is how they probably justify their masculinity to themselves -- by not allowing themselves to enjoy it too often." But when Love Poems 1940-1986 was published by The Crossing Press in 1986, I bought it (because I'm impressed by anyone who published gay poetry as long ago as 1940), read it, and enjoyed it. And when my editor offered me Norse's memoirs to review, I was glad to take the assignment.

Harold Norse is a poet, and a good one, but as a prose writer he's about on the level of the "as told to" people to whom celebrities tell their careers. (For example: "To say that I was not awed would be a bold-faced lie.") Moreover, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel contains so many amazing howlers that it seems barely to have been copyedited or proofread. Take Norse's comment on his rich uncle (please!): "A less unlikely Stalinist would be hard to find" -- I think he means "more unlikely" here, no? Most of the time, though, I was so dazzled by the parade of names through Norse's life that I didn't care how he wrote. He seems to have been part not only of Auden's milieu but everyone's. One night on the IRT he picked up a scared teen-aged Allen Ginsberg, riding into Greenwich Village to cruise for Whitmannic angels; he shared a Provincetown cabin with Tennessee Williams while the latter wrote The Glass Menagerie; he was an unrequited love of James Baldwin's, he went drinking with Dylan Thomas on his American tours, he was initiated into opiates by William S. Burroughs, listened to the Pan pipes of Joujouka with Paul Bowles, and worked out in a Santa Monica gym with Arnold Schwarzenegger. He did seances with Julian Beck and Judith Malina, invented cutups with Burroughs and Brion Gysin, and at Robert Graves's behest the Sufi teacher Idries Shah tried, unsuccessfully of course, to "cure" Norse of homosexuality. Anais Nin, the Duke of Windsor, E. E. Cummings, Paul Goodman, Leonard Cohen. . . the cavalcade of stars winds through Memoirs of a Bastard Angel like a conga line. (Unlike a lot of memoirs, by the way, this one has a thorough index, making it easier to track your favorite celebrity through Norse's life.).

There are a couple of chapters on the writing of poetry, based on Norse's correspondence and discussions with William Carlos Williams. In their first meeting Williams said:

Don't worry about how many feet a line must have! Who the hell cares? What people want, when they read a poem, is to be arrested immediately -- held by the words! Stopped in their tracks -- held by the words. Get their attention in the first line -- then hold it! The form can't do that. Only the words, the words in new, surprising combinations, can do it! You have to shock and surprise. They won't be interested if your words are used conventionally -- or if you have a riot of words. That's just verbiage. Garbage [215].

As a poet who has worked in both fixed and open forms, I must respectfully dissent. In the first place, questions of technique need not concern the reader but they had better concern the poet. Writing in fixed forms isn't necessarily more restrictive than playing music in 4/4 time: the regular meter, the measured lines give the artist something to play against, which creates tension and adds interest to the piece; the reader may not know how or why it works, but can still enjoy the result. I don't think any advocate of fixed forms has suggested that the words of, say, a sonnet don't need to grab your attention. Nor does the absence of fixed form guarantee interesting content: I've read a lot of seriously boring open verse. Which brings me to Williams's argument that poetry should "shock and surprise", which is analogous to prescriptions I've seen for other arts; the trouble is that shock and surprise only work the first time, or first few times, you experience a piece. The kind of art to which people return over and over again throughout their lives does something deeper than surprise them. Williams was probably a better exemplar to other poets than he was a theorist, as Norse concedes in his typically, charmingly inconsistent way: he is understandably contemptuous of academic criticism, but when Williams told him to work on his use of consonants, "I asked what he meant about consonants, but he never explained. He was hopeless on details. He failed miserably on the technical specifics in which the academics excelled" (231).

Memoirs of a Bastard Angel is not a book to read for its style or sensibility (like, say, Isherwood's Christopher and his Kind), but for its glimpses into American, European, and North African gay and literary life in our times. Just imagine that the garrulous, slightly boozy old man who sits down next to you at the bar one night and starts telling you his life story, turns out to have known and slept with just about everybody you've ever heard of -- and is a major American poet to boot. And maybe if enough people buy Norse's Memoirs, Morrow will break down and publish his Collected Poems.

P.S. 2008: In his ninety-second year, Norse is still alive -- at least, I couldn't find an obituary for him. Morrow didn't publish Norse's Collected Poems, but in 2003 Thunder's Mouth Press did. In the Hub of the Fiery Force: Collected Poems 1934-2003 is over 600 pages long, of which over 100 contain previously unpublished work. There's even a Myspace fan page for him, though it hasn't been updated in a while.

P.P.S. 2009: Norse died on June 8, at the age of 92.