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‘An astonishing life’ — Poet Leslie Norris

A national treasure in Wales, is retired but still writes at Orem home

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The old poet doesn't walk as well as he once did. At 83, his mind is keen to take in the world as always, but the legs aren't so willing. He heads out the door for his walk early each morning with his dog, Tansi, trotting at his feet. He walks only a few blocks near his home along the Orem river bottoms, and then on the return trip his legs begin to ache and he must stop and pretend to look at the trees until he recovers.

This is a damnable thing for Leslie Norris. He has always been a walking man. He walks for pleasure and exercise, but mostly he walks to turn his keen eye on the world and see what it says to him. He walks to turn things over in his mind, from the mundane to the profound, hoping for the magic to happen again, a few scraps of words or a line or two that will start another poem.

He doesn't entirely understand the process himself; all he knows is that what he ruminates and observes while walking — the people he meets along the way, the river, the sunrise, the birds — are where the poetry begins. He needs walking the way a carpenter needs a hammer and wood, but the walks are growing shorter.

"It's terribly hard," his wife Kitty observes.

"So frustrating. He thinks best when his legs are moving. He believes to have an idea, it's got to come from something tangible, something he is a part of, something he sees."

Norris lives in the Utah suburbs, which seems a strange place for an internationally recognized poet, much less one who grew up in the lush Welsh countryside. Except in academia, he is little recognized in his adopted state and country, yet he is a poet of considerable renown across the sea and a favorite son and national treasure of Wales. It was a strange turn of events that took him out of a humble coal-mining town in Wales and plunked him down in the desert at Brigham Young University.

He has published some two dozen books of poetry, short stories and children's books. He has won honorary degrees. He was a candidate for poet laureate of England, which eventually went to Ted Hughes, the former husband of the late poet Sylvia Plath. He is the subject of at least two books and one video. He has done readings at some of the great festivals in the world and once served as poet in residence at Eton College. He has done almost everything in the literary world from teaching poetry at every level of school to doing a poetry reading in front of thousands in Westminster Abbey upon the presentation of Dylan Thomas' memorial stone in Poets' Corner.

Ask Ken Brewer, poet laureate of Utah, to comment on Norris' standing in the literary community and he chuckles and stammers, as if this is the dumbest question he ever heard because, well, doesn't everyone know?

"He's got to have the biggest literary reputation in the state," he begins. "He's an internationally known writer. He's certainly the major star in the state."

Norris officially retired from BYU a couple of years ago after heart surgery but only formally. BYU named him its poet in residence, essentially subsidizing his poetry while also utilizing him as a roving ambassador and tutor of poetry and literature. Who better for the job than the warm, humorous, mild-tempered man whose work is immediately accessible in a way many poets are not?

Author James Dickey once wrote that poets would kill for Norris' authenticity of voice. Jerry Johnston, a Deseret Morning News editorial writer and columnist and a personal friend of Norris, explains it this way: "He has one of the clearest voices, his own way of saying things. It's not a derivative of other poets or tradition. It's not putting on a front. He speaks as who he is. You recognize it as him. And he writes in a very authentic, measured, precise way that is very alive."

Brewer says simply, "Leslie is an absolutely immaculate writer. The craft is superb but hidden. It's like the substructure of a house. You see the exterior, but you don't see how well it's built. It's not intrusive."

The words and the music of his words came from his father George. He grew up a sensitive, observant, aware boy in a hardscrabble steel and coal town, Merthyr Tydfil, which was one valley over from the town that was the setting for the book, "How Green Was My Valley."

His father George was a tall, athletic man who missed his chance for education and professional training while fighting World War I. He worked as an engineer in the mines until a falling rock broke his back. "We would stick pins in his back and he would never feel them," recalls Norris.

George was only 27 and the Depression was on. He took a job delivering milk seven days a week, 365 days a year, with no holidays. They were poor, but they were one of only a handful of families in the town who had employment.

George was innately intelligent in prep school — he won many of the academic prizes — and a voracious reader. Each night he would come home and immerse himself in a book. He committed hundreds of poems and parodies to memory, which he liked to recite while carrying Leslie on his tall shoulders "up in the clouds." As his father's official librarian, responsible for returning and checking out his father's books, Leslie became acquainted with literature and began reading at an early age.

"My father came home every day after work and read books," recalls Norris. "We could play around and make the most terrible din, and he never even seemed to hear us. . . . He was the only one who was allowed to read at the table. He'd eat a whole pie without knowing it. He'd say, 'Is there no pie today?' "

They were an academic and athletic family. George himself competed in track and field for money. Leslie became a fine soccer player who received offers to play professionally. He continued to play soccer and run track into his 30s. But his passion was his words.

Leslie was the boy resident poet of the Norris house. In the summer he liked to lie on his back in the grass with the feel of the earth against his back and the clouds scudding by overhead, plucking stalks of grass from their tubes and chewing on them. "I would look until I would demand to see the motes of the air," he says in the biographical video, "Crossing Borders." "I would look until it was not merely the clouds but the tiniest structures of the rim of the clouds."

He sat cross-legged on the short grass,

Intent, still, staring into a sky

Without clouds until he saw the world

Transformed into its motes,

the visible element

Of his meditation. — Excerpt from “A Blade of Grass”

Years later, Peter Makuck, a professor at East Carolina, would note of Norris, "He sees what he sees because he's ready, because he's always on duty, because he doesn't miss anything."

That includes something as mundane as a wall. Norris had an epiphany at the age of 12. He was walking home alone one hot summer afternoon when he noticed the sandstone walls of the houses he was passing. As he tells it in "Crossing Borders," "I put my finger on the wall and it was rough and I could feel the individual grains, and then I put my hand against the wall and little grains fell to the ground, tiny things, and I suddenly knew that my life was going to be the recognition of solid things like this and making relationships of the real world, of the material world, and that the only way to do that was to have the words that stood for stones and rocks and mountains, and that the rhythms would create the formation of such things, and I was going to do this all my life."

Norris was moved to write poetry even as a boy. "I thought everyone did that," he recalls. As a teen, he sometimes rode a bike 28 miles to a neighboring town just to sit at the foot of a handful of poets as they met in a small room above a bookstore. Among those poets: Dylan Thomas and Vernon Watkins. The older men drank beer and read their poems and discussed them while the kid, largely ignored, listened. They would go on all night, but eventually, Norris would retire to a tent he had set up on the edge of town and ride home the next morning.

Sitting at a picnic table on his back porch, Norris relaxes with Tansi asleep in his arms. He loves dogs. In his study, there are several dog trophies sharing shelf space with the hundreds of books that are lined up floor to ceiling. For years he showed fox and Welsh terriers and was a patron of dog and horse racing. He has written magazine articles about terriers. The local shelter called him when Tansi showed up.

Kitty, his wife, keeps coming out to check on him. "Are you all right, love?" she says in her tiny voice. This is how they talk to each other. She brings cookies and coffee and juice on a tray and sets them on the table. "Thank you, love," he says.

He is such an innately kind, pleasant man that a poet once teasingly chewed him out for not being the stereotypical brooding poet. How could he consider himself a poet, after all, if he was so even-tempered?

"The thing about him is that he is just a wonderful human being," says Brewer. "That doesn't always go together."

Kitty says he is frequently singing and whistling around the house. But she notes that he is always thinking, always keeping his senses open for his art. She knows this well. It has been just the two of them. They have no children. They have been married for 56 years.

Hudson tells us of them,

the two migrating geese,

she hurt in the wing

indomitably walking

the length of a continent,

and he wheeling above

calling his distress. — Excerpt from “Hudson’s Geese”

"It's a useless craft really," he is saying. He is talking about poetry of course. "You don't make any money. But it's a great craft. You create worlds. The Scottish word for poet is 'maker.' So is the Greek word."

But there is that matter of money. Even poets have to eat. He became a teacher to earn a living and discovered he had a passion for it and was sidetracked by it. He published his first book of poetry at 20; he published a second book two years later. And then he didn't publish another book for 15 years.

"I was a very naive kid," he explains, stroking his dog absentmindedly. "I thought you published your poems, then you die when you're 30. And when I hadn't died, I thought, well, you're not a poet, are you?"

He immersed himself in teaching school and virtually left his poetry behind. He prepared his lessons and spent all day in classes during the week. On Saturdays he coached a soccer team and on Sunday he played soccer himself. "Life was good," he says. Eventually, his renown as a teacher earned him a series of promotions, to principal, then to the university level and finally to the university administration at South Hampton Institute of Education. By then he was earning a good salary, but he wasn't teaching and he wasn't writing much and he was unhappy.

"I didn't whistle, I didn't sing, I was going to die," he says. So he quit and for a year, "I didn't make a cent." He wrote children's programs for the BBC for a while, but eventually he returned to his poetry.

"I had to make a choice: Am I an educator or a poet?" he recalls.

He began writing more while also accepting poetry reading engagements and teaching university courses. He worked during the week and on weekends retired to a farm he kept in Wales, where he could do his writing.

He accepted an invitation to teach summer term at the University of Washington and discovered he liked it. He did this for several years in the '70s. One of his doctoral students had connections at BYU, and one thing led to another. He was invited to give public readings and lectures for two weeks at BYU. In 1983, at the age of 61, he was asked to teach at BYU for six months. He wound up staying two decades.

For seventy hardening

seasons I’ve watched

the stopping of waterfalls.

some of the time

I knew and perhaps

understood how water

changed in winter,

what happened to molecules,

how the structures

of elements could petrify

In a night from bounding liquid to

an obdurate smoothness.

Not any longer.

All that’s confusing now.

I am content to

watch the world turn cold

with its old grace. — Excerpt from “Bridal Veil Falls, Early Winter”

"I'd never heard of Provo," he says. "I had never seen anything like that. The snow was dirty by the roads. There was not a bit of green. Kitty said to me, 'Do you think you can make it for six weeks?' But there it is. We've been here all these years. Although it is a beautiful place, it is mainly because of the people we are here. They have been very welcoming. I don't think there was another gentile on the staff when I came."

Years later, they sold their house in Sussex when they realized they were here to stay.

"The students were very much a revelation to me," he says. "They are able and hardworking. There was no tension as there was in some universities at that time. If I made an assignment, it would be done. It was a pleasure for me to go to school. What I taught in my classes was more intense than I had taught previously. Some of it had been part of my doctoral classes."

"We've never had to worry about money because of BYU," says Kitty. "It subsidizes Leslie's poetry. It's been wonderful. Without BYU, I don't know what would have happened."

In "Crossing Borders," Guy Lebeda of the Utah Arts Council says of Norris, "He perceives more of the experiences of life. He has antenna for receiving information that you and I don't have. He's living the most intense life that I know of."

Norris, who was held spellbound by the mere touch of a sandstone wall and the clouds rolling overhead, still has his antenna up and working. Once he was out in the yard when he heard a small boy next door talking to his dog. "There are three things I want you to remember," the boy told the dog. Norris rushed over to the fence to hear what the boy would say. From that experience came a children's book, "Albert and the Angels."

Ask Norris about the creative process and this is what he says: "I think I do most of my work walking about. I let my mind go. Most of my work is waiting really. I wait for the poem to come in and be ready and welcome it. But I train for it. I study every day."

His study consists of reading. These days he favors Yeats, Wordsworth, Henry Vaughn. "He reads for pleasure what other people read for penance," says Kitty. "It's not accessible to most people, but nothing's inaccessible to Leslie."

He used to write daily, although he claims much of his work was tossed in the garbage bin at the end of the day. Kitty would come in to the office later and read through the stuff, and, if Norris is to be believed, threw it back in the bin.

These days he writes most of the poem in his head and lets "the image breed. Then I get a couple of lines and come home as quickly as I can and write. Sometimes it's gone. If they are really strong signals, the thing will come back strong. Now I'm getting signals from parts of the poem I have not gotten to yet. I'll write them on the side. I'm getting all the images. Then I get the last one when I know I'm not going to get anymore. Now is the time of labor."

As a teenager, he sent his poems to Watkins, a poet he admired. After one of the bookstore meetings, Watkins took Norris aside and told him he didn't work hard enough on his poems. As Norris recalls it in "Crossing Borders," Watkins told him, "You really just scribble them down and you never look at them and read them properly. Put them in a drawer for six weeks and preferably for six months and take them out and those that are dead throw them out and those that have a spark of life, work and work and work and work until there is nothing more you can do with them. And then if there is not a mark of that work, if the poem seems to be completely spontaneous . . . then you've got a poem."

At first Norris thought the advice was ridiculous, but it later took hold. He views the time of laboring over his poetry on paper, in long hand, with a certain reverence.

"I am seeing the world more clearly," he says. "I come back and polish it, making it smaller and smaller. It's also incredibly oral and highly musical. I can hear the pattern of it. Sometimes I forget the words but remember the tune."

There are times when he works straight through meals or notices that he has changed into his pajamas and can't remember doing so. When he is finished he reads the work aloud to himself. Once a cop saw him walking on a road at 2 a.m. with a sandwich in one hand and his latest poem in the other, reciting it out loud to himself. "What are you doing?" the cop asked.

Pointing to the brick wall of his house, Norris says, "I like a poem to be like that wall, linked hard, with each word so important that it couldn't stand without it."

After a day's work he reads his poem, then takes it to Kitty. "Is this any good. Is it worth going on with?"

Ask Kitty what Norris is like when he feels a poem coming in, she says, "Horrid. He is a sweet man. He's always about the house singing. But when the poem is on the way, he is a bear. He's grumpy. I don't think he tastes dinner. But I'm glad because of what's on the way."

The process of polishing, as Watkins once urged, never really ends for Norris. "Even when I am doing a reading," he says, "I'll think you were wrong there. I can see a weak word."

After eight decades of writing, he still marvels at the process of it all. "The poem is the total mystery," he says. "You don't know what's going to start it. If someone asks me to write a poem about something, I can do it, but it's not really a poem. The gift doesn't exist if you make it up. I have to be given these poems. I think they're floating about somewhere. My job, my duty really, is to receive them and make them as clear as I can. . . . I'm sure there are a finite number of poems in the world."

"Time," he concludes, "will decide if it's any good, or if it's even a poem at all."

"Still," he adds, "I don't really know what makes them poems, you know."

He is collecting the Christmas poems he has written annually for friends at the request of an English composer who wants to put them to music. He is doing some work for BYU. "And I am waiting for other poems to come to me," he says.

"It's an astonishing life," he says during a quiet moment. "It doesn't seem like a career. Whatever I have done, I have devoted it to poetry."

E-mail: drob@desnews.com