Memorial for Harold Norse

“I am not a man, I won’t play the role assigned to me— the role created by Madison Avenue, Playboy, Hollywood and Oliver Cromwell,” wrote the late beat poet Harold Norse.

And that is how friends and fans remembered the longtime Mission District resident  Monday night at  Bird & Beckett Books and Records .

“He was beyond any categorization,” said longtime friend and once rival Erika Horn. “Like Shakespeare, gay straight and everything in between.”

Norse, a Brooklyn native who passed away earlier this month  at 92 lived on Albion Street for the last 35 years.

Harold Norse at Abandoned Planet, Photo by Katia Fuentes

“His happiest times in the city were in the Mission,” said Neeli Cherkovski. , Norse’s partner and the evening’s host. 

The poet, who counted W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, and Charles Bukowski as friends, frequented Abandoned Planet Bookstore at 518 Valencia and Muddy Waters Coffee House nearby.

To keep up with his healthy eating habits, Norse shopped at Rainbow Grocery where he spent most of his time talking to the stock boys, said Cherkovski who is also a poet.   

“They were tall, blond, blue-eyed— everything Harold  and I loved,” he said.

Among those present at Bird & Beckett on Monday were longtime friends, fans, and publishers.

“He brought me out of the closet,” Cherkovski told the packed small bookstore.

Cherkovski began the evening by reading three intimate poems about, “exploring the gay underworld of San Francisco together.”

“You were my blond, so blue eyed, so thin and smooth, and in sleep you smiled, like a death mask I had seen long before in a Mexican museum,” Cherkovski read.

Horn recalled writing an essay challenging one of the Norse’s essays.

“It was a little too testosterone,”  she said.  

After reading it, Norse asked to meet her. They met over at dinner in Venice, California thanks to a mutual friend.

“I couldn’t agree with what he was saying,” she said.  “Then I began to appreciate him incredibly because I think he is a great poet.”

Memorial at Bird & Beckett (Photos by Rigoberto Hernandez)

Jack Foley a poet and longtime friend said, “He would turn from an ordinary man to one with flashes of imagination, it was marvelous to watch.”
Foley will air old interviews with Norse in August on KPFA-FM.  In them Norse discusses  poetry and his childhood.

“He spoke with a very common voice.” Cherkovski said. “What makes his poetry so beautiful he gave it to us in the language we speak and had no preconceptions on how a poem should be.”

Nevertheless, he was well educated with a B.A. in English Literature from Brooklyn College and an M.A. in English and American poetry from New York University.

One popular topic of discussion was Norse’s long life, which the guests credited to his genes, good eating habits and the people who surrounded him. Norse  passed away of natural causes.

Cherkovski recalled Norse asking the doctor how long he would live after having bypass surgery ten years ago. When the doctor said he would live well into his 80s Norse responded, “Is that all?”

Adelle Foley, who knew Norse for 14 years, said she admired his spirit to live. “After his bypass surgery he was very relaxed and lived a very good life.”

Cherkovski thanked the friends  who made Norse’s  last years full of grace.

“It’s these people who come forward it’s like they are necessary and they show up, that’s what happens to a bastard angel,” Cherkovski said in reference to one of Norse’s work by the same name.

There will be another memorial for Norse at the Beat Museum in North Beach on July 12.

Lydia Chávez

I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor at Berkeley’s J-school until 2019. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. The Tribune...

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