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Jan Herman

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Harold Norse, R.I.P.

Posted: 06/16/09 11:42 AM ET

He died in San Francisco just short of his 93rd birthday. I met him on a bitterly cold winter day in Paris, in 1962. I was keeping warm sitting in a seedy little cafe behind the Place de l'Odeon. It was a neighborhood hangout where you could buy pot and waste your time all day. I was writing on a napkin when I felt someone hovering over my shoulder. He asked what I was writing. A poem, I told him. He said he was a poet, too, and introduced himself. I no longer recall what we talked about, but it didn't take long for him to invite me back to his room at 9 rue Git-le-Coeur, the so-called Beat Hotel. He broke out his hashish and regaled me with stories of the expat life.

I was 20, just out of college, trying to become an expat myself. He was more than twice my age and seemed to know everyone I knew only from books and magazines. Not just his former inmates at the Beat Hotel -- Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg and, most notably, William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, all of whom had recently moved out -- but also William Carlos Williams, W.H. Auden, James Baldwin, Anais Nin, Tennessee Williams... the names went on and on. He gave me a slim volume -- it was "The Roman Sonnets of G. G. Belli" in his translation (with a preface by Williams) -- and I staggered home dazzled by our encounter. Years later, in 1968, he offered to let me publish his poem "Hotel Nirvana" in The San Francisco EARTHQUAKE, a little magazine I edited. It began:


... and continued for nine pages like that. City Lights republished it in 1974 as the title poem in Hotel Nirvana: Selected Poems 1953-1973, now out of print. When I left San Francisco in the fall of 1971, he was about to leave Venice, California. We arranged for him to take over my flat and furniture. He stayed on there for five years. If you've never read his Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, do so at once. As James Baldwin wrote in the preface, "... if light ever enters the hearts of men, Harold will be one of those who has helped to set it there." So long, Hal.