Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Harold Norse - I Am Not A Man

I first heard of Harold Norse when he was mentioned in a biography I read about W. H. Auden.  The biography told how, in 1939 Norse and his then friend/lover, Chester Kallman, went to the first poetry reading that Auden and Isherwood presented in America.  Auden met the pair after the reading and from that meeting Chester Kallman went on to become Auden’s lifetime lover and companion.  Harold Norse went on to become an accomplished poet in his own right – homosexual/gay liberationist; part of the beat generation (Ginsberg, Bukowski); befriended by William Carlos Williams who gave strong endorsement and support for his writing, calling him ‘the best poet of his generation’.  My next encounter with Norse was when I read his book, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel.  From Harold’s account of the meeting with Auden, I get the feeling that Norse believes it was he who Auden really fancied on that fateful reading night, but that his friend Chester went behind his back and ‘cut his grass’, so to speak.  The book is a good read if you’re OK about the homosexual, pre-aids lifestyle scene told with frank honesty.
Despite my introduction to Harold Norse, I have not read a lot of his poetry – not easy to find here in Australia – bits and pieces on-line.  One poem that I like and have been influenced by is ‘I am Not a Man’.  This poem would have presented a much more powerful statement back in the time it was written, and for that it serves as an interesting benchmark against which to measure social change.  When I read this poem now, forty-one years after it was written I am strengthened to believe all barriers, all prejudices, all bigotries, vilifications, persecutions, can disappear as our society evolves (hastened by people like Norse who are willing to stand up and speak out, and who have the ability to eloquently record it for the record).  I Am Not A Man is a challenge for all males who may be blindly caught up in some societal fabricated norm of what it has got to be to be a ‘man’.

I Am Not A Man
(Harold Norse, 1916 – 2009)
I am not a man. I can’t earn a living, buy new things for my family.
I have acne and a small peter.
I am not a man. I don’t like football, boxing and cars.
I like to express my feelings.
I even like to put my arm around my friend’s shoulder.
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.
Television does not dictate my behaviour.
I am not a man. Once when I shot a squirrel I swore that I would never kill again.
I gave up meat. The sight of blood makes me sick. I like flowers.
I am not a man. I went to prison for resisting the draft.
I do not fight when real men beat me up and call me queer. I dislike violence.
I am not a man. I have never raped a woman.
I don’t hate blacks. I don’t get emotional when the flag is waved.
I do not think I should love America or leave it. I think I should laugh at it.
I am not a man. I have never had the clap.
I am not a man. Playboy is not my favourite magazine.
I am not a man. I cry when I am unhappy.
I am not a man. I do not feel superior to women.
I am not a man. I don’t wear a jockstrap.
I am not a man. I write poetry.
I am not a man. I meditate on peace and love.
I am not a man. I don’t want to destroy you.
Notice in the last line how Harold stops reflecting on himself, looks up, and addresses his audience.  That gesture is like a hammer blow that triggers a sense of shame – I don’t want to destroy you (so what’s compelling you, that you feel you have to destroy me?)
Reading Norse’s I Am Not A Man, made me think of areas of my life where I feel I’m out of step with the accepted norm.  One of those areas happens to be the town I’m living in – there’s a word, ‘parochial’.  Don’t get me wrong, Newcastle offers everything you might tick in a top ten towns to live in survey – open space, great beaches, fishing, boating, sport, on the doorstep of fine wineries, a nice, safe place to bring up the family, etc.  However, not having been born and bred in Newcastle, I see a problem with how the locals believe it’s so damn good that they just want to leave it the way it is; keep it a secret; become inbred.  So I’m thinking of the things I find irritating about the staunch defenders of this town, and I set it down with, ‘I am not Novacastrian’.  Working on my poem, I became aware of something about Harold’s expression compared to my expression.  Harold presents a calm balance between what he is not and what he is.  However, where I found I could easily state what I was not, by attacking the thing that set me apart, I was at a loss to state what I am.  I’m going to have to work on that!
2011.  Newcastle in NSW, Australia, is a working class town – former steel-works, coal shipping port, industrial blue collar jobs.  People born here, have their family from here, call themselves ‘Novacastrian’.  I’ve lived in Newcastle for near on twenty years now, but I’m still quick to point out that I don’t come from ‘round here.
I am not Novacastrian
I’m not Novacastrian,
I’ve never spent a weekend pig shooting
on somebody’s private property
somewhere west of Nyngan or Narrabri, or somewhere.
I’m not Novacastrian,
I don’t have a holiday house at Bluey’s Beach
nor do I hitch my caravan to my Toyota land cruiser
each year at Easter,
drag it to the same park, same site
somewhere near Tuncurry
or on the banks of the Clarence River.
I’m not Novacastrian,
I don’t own a boat,
go fishing off the drop-over,
Stockton beach, Nobby’s,
or tow my kids around the lake on a rubber do-nut.
I’m not Novacastrian,
I don’t know how to build my own home
from plans I drew up myself,
with scraps of building material
pilfered from work, or a mate’s work
or bought second hand at Bunnings.
I’m not Novacastrian,
I don’t know any of the Knights players, personally
I think the entertainment centre’s a barn
the art gallery, a barn,
I won’t go to the trots, the show, the workers club,
Mattarra festival,
I don’t get excited over a Saturday night out
in Darby or Beaumont Street,
stagger around drinking, drunk, socially loud
in front of bullet-headed bouncers outside the Brewery
or Finnigans and ego charged youths from up the Valley.
I’m not Novacastrian,
I will vote out any political party
that has done nothing in twenty years
to secure funding for projects in their electorate,
that allows a city to stagnate, ripen
with concrete cancer rot,
I don’t point out, with pride
examples of inaction such as
the Great Northern, the Post Office,
the rail line, the Hunter Mall, Honeysuckle.
I’m not Novacastrian,
I haven’t worked in the one shed for thirty-five years,
owned the one house, paid for by the time
I was twenty-five.
I’m not Novacastrian,
I don’t get jealous
if you happen to have more than I’ve got,
nor do I gloat if you’ve got less than me,
or lose what you’ve already got,
I don’t count knowledge, education,
experience and culture
as things to get jealous over.
I’m not Novacastrian,
I don’t use the model car a man drives,
motor bike, chain saw, golf clubs or brand of beer
to classify him as a dick-head,
or someone clever.
I’m not Novacastrian,
I don’t ride a push bike I had when I was a kid
in traffic along Stewart Avenue, wearing a crash hat
made from an ice-cream container.
I don’t own a furnace jacket from the steelworks
or use bicycle clips to hold up track-suit pants.
I’m not Novacastrian,
I’m not Novacastrian.

                                      J. O. White

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