The Hermit Poet

April 12, 2006

One Last Song for My Mentor: Leslie Norris (1921-2006)

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 11:50 pm

I just found out today that my first real poetry mentor, Leslie Norris, passed away last week on April 6. I’m not certain what exactly to say, but I feel the world has grown more silent. I will miss his warm Welsh accent, his reminisences and stories, the deep insights into craft, and how easily with just a word or two he could lay bare the real unseen heart of the poem. He was a rare genius, and as noted on other blogs, rarer still for the kindness and generosity which flowed easily from him without pretense or affectation. He simply cared — about people, about nature, and most especially, about language.

Obituary in Salt Lake Tribune
He once told me that if you mention bees in a poem, you should become the world’s leading authority on bees. That there was never room for guesswork — the poet was obligated to know as much as possible about the world and the details of the poem, even if that detail never made it into the poem. This advice still governs my writing today.

I learned the finer details of revision from Leslie Norris. His questions opened doors. His one or two word suggestions transformed the ordinary into the transcendent. He always found a way of opening up the discussion without condemning or belittling the poet. His teaching manner is ultimately one of my greatest influences as an instructor.

For me, it is this closing poem in his Collected Poems which sums up so much of what I loved and still love about this poet and this man:

His Father, Singing

by Leslie Norris

My father sang for himself,
out of sadness and poverty;
perhaps from happiness,
but I’m not sure of that.

He sang in the garden,
quietly, a quiet voice
near his wallflowers
which of all plants

he loved most, calling them
gillyflowers, a name
learned from his mother.
His songs came from a time

before my time, his boy’s
life among musical brothers,
keeping pigeons, red and blue
checkers, had a racing cycle

with bamboo wheels. More often
he sang the songs he’d learned,
still a boy, up to his knees
in French mud, those dying songs.

He sang for us once only,
our mother away from the house,
the lamp lit, and I reading,
seven years old, already bookish,

at the scrubbed table.
My brother cried from his crib
in the small bedroom, teething,
a peremptory squall, then a long

wail. My father lifted from
the sheets his peevish child,
red-faced, feverish, carried
him down in a wool shawl

and in the kitchen, holding
the child close, began to sing.
Quietly, of course, and swaying
rhythmically from foot to foot,

he rocked the sobbing boy,
I saw my brother’s head,
his puckered face, fall
on my father’s chest. His crying

died away, and I
read on. It was my father’s
singing brought my head up.
His little wordless lullabies

had gone, and what he sang
above his baby’s sleep
was never meant
for any infant’s comfort.

He stood in the bleak kitchen,
the stern, young man, my father.
For the first time raised
his voice, in pain and anger

sang. I did not know his song
nor why he sang it. But stood
in fright, knowing it important
and someone should be listening.

3 Responses to “One Last Song for My Mentor: Leslie Norris (1921-2006)”

  1. Ivy Says:

    Neil, thanks for that poem — it’s astonishing.

  2. Ken Aitken Says:

    Neil, I am saddened by this news as I know you are.I knowq he was a good friend and mentor to you. He will be missed.


  3. Dr Brian Mendonca Says:

    22 November 2007

    Dear Neil,

    I am so sorry to know we have lost Mr Norris.

    Can you please tell me who to contact for copyright permission to publish his poem ‘Tiger’?

    This is for a book Oxford University Press, India, is doing for teaching English to school children in India.

    With deepest condolences,


    Senior Editor
    Oxford University Press
    New Delhi

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