Leslie Norris

Born in 1921 in Merthyr Tydfil, Leslie Norris was a prize-winning Welsh poet and short story writer who became a Humanities Professor of Creative Writing, a Karl G. Maeser Distinguished Faculty Lecturer, and poet-in-residence at Brigham Young University.  Norris is the author of over thirty books of poetry and stories, with individual poems and stories appearing in over 200 periodicals. During his lifetime, his work received the Cholmondeley Poetry Prize, the David Higham Memorial Prize, the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Award, the AML Award, the AML Award for poetry and the Welsh Arts Council Senior Fiction Award. He received an honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Glamorgan and an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from BYU.  Norris is the only writer to have been elected a fellow of both the Welsh Academy and England’s Royal Academy of Literature. 

Norris’ parents were George and Mary Jane Norris: George Norris worked as a miner but after the First World War became a milkman due to health problems. Norris himself was a voracious reader and entranced by poetry at an early age; he was deeply influenced by the Welsh poets Dylan Thomas and Vernon Watkins. Norris began publishing his own poems at age 17. He dropped out of school due to financial difficulties, then worked for the next two years as a rates clerk in Merthyr’s Town Hall.

Disinterested in remaining in the small industrial town in which he was born, Norris joined the Royal Air Force at 19 during the Second World War, training briefly to be a pilot before he got blood poisoning from steel ropes and was discharged in June 1941. Norris then left Wales to enroll in the teacher training programs at the City of Coventry College and the University of Southampton. In 1948 he married Catherine (Kitty) Morgan, a chemist, and taught at various schools around the U.K.. Between 1952 and 1958, Norris taught in Yeovil and Bath, then moved on to work as headmaster of Westergate School, Chichester. 

Norris’ first collection of poetry was published in 1941, but it wasn’t until his collection Finding Gold was published in 1967 by Hogarth Press that his reputation grew; two more collections swiftly followed: Ransoms (1970), which won the Alice Hunt Bartlett Prize, and Mountains, Polecats, Pheasants (1974). Norris’ growing literary reputation brought him fame in America and, in 1973, he left England with Kitty to be the visiting Theodore Roethke Memorial Chair of Poetry at the University of Washington. His time in America proved to be creatively fulfilling, and he eventually gave up his current teaching post at Bognor Regnis in England in order to live off his writing. A noted fiction writer as well as poet, Norris’ first collection of short stories, Sliding (1978), soon appeared, which won the David Higham Memorial Prize; his second, The Girl from Cardigan (1988), won a Welsh Arts Council Prize. 

In 1983, at age 61, Norris was appointed Christiansen Professor of Poetry at BYU, a visiting position meant to last six months; Norris stayed for the next 20 years. Norris proved to be a popular and widely admired poet in Utah, especially with his colleagues and students at BYU. Though Norris himself was not Mormon, he felt welcomed by his LDS students and colleagues, and in interviews called himself “an honorary member” of his local LDS ward, allowing that some of the religious symbolism from the Book of Mormon had influenced his later work. Of Utah itself, Norris admitted in an interview, “Although it is a very beautiful place, it is mainly because of the people we are here.”

Famed for his dynamic reading style, Norris gave numerous public readings and recorded his poetry for the BBC’s school programs. During his life, he published translations, reviews, and biographies, and wrote often of his pre-war experiences in a Wales deeply affected by the Great Depression. He was a candidate for the position of England's poet laureate, a position that went instead to Ted Hughes in 1984. The American poet and writer James Dickey said of Norris that “poets would kill for [his] authenticity of voice.” Today Norris is considered one of the most important Welsh writers of the post-war period, and is fondly remembered by his former colleagues and students at BYU.

Leslie Norris died on April 6, 2006 in Provo.

Work

Bibliography

Poetry

Tongue of Beauty. London, Favil Press, 1941.

Poems. London, Falcon Press, 1946.

The Ballad of Billy Rose. Leeds, Northern House, 1964.

The Loud Winter. Cardiff, Triskel Press, 1967.

Finding Gold. London, Chatto and Windus, 1967.

Curlew. St. Brelade, Jersey, Armstrong, 1969.

Ransoms. London, Chatto and Windus, 1970; Newtown, Powys, Gwasg Gregynog, 1987.

His Last Autumn. Rushden, Northamptonshire, Sceptre Press, 1972.

Mountains, Polecats, Pheasants and Other Elegies. London, Chatto and Windus, 1973.

Stone and Fern. Winchester, Southern Arts Association, 1973.

At the Publishers'. Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, Priapus, 1976.

Ravenna Bridge. Knotting, Bedfordshire, Sceptre Press, 1977.

Islands Off Maine. Cranberry Isles, Maine, Tidal Press, 1977.

Merlin and the Snake's Egg. New York, Viking Press, 1978.

Hyperion. Knotting, Bedfordshire, Sceptre Press, 1979.

Water Voices. London, Chatto and Windus—Hogarth Press, 1980.

Walking the White Fields: Poems 1967–1980. Boston, Little Brown, 1980.

A Tree Sequence. Seattle, Spring Valley Press, 1984.

Selected Poems. Bridgend, Glamorgan, Poetry Wales Press, 1986.

Sequences. Layton, Utah, Gibbs Smith, 1988.

Norris's Ark. Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Tidal Press, 1988.

A Sea in the Desert. Bridgend, Glamorgan, Seren, 1989.

Collected Poems. Bridgend, Glamorgan, Seren, 1996.

Recording: Poems, with Dannie Abse, Argo, 1974.

 

Short Stories

Sliding. New York, Scribner, 1976; London, Dent, 1978.

The Girl from Cardigan. Bridgend, Glamorgan, Seren, and Layton, Utah, Gibbs Smith, 1988.

Collected Stories. Bridgend, Glamorgan, Seren, 1996.

 

Other

Glyn Jones. Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1973.

Editor, Vernon Watkins 1906–1967. London, Faber, 1970.

Editor, Andrew Young: Remembrance and Homage. Cranberry Isles, Maine, Tidal Press, 1978.

Editor, The Mabinogion, translated by Lady Charlotte Guest. London, Folio Society, 1980.

Translator, with Alan Keele, The Sonnets to Orpheus, by Rainer Maria Rilke, Columbia, South Carolina, Camden House, 1989.

Translator, The Duino Elegies, Rainer Maria Rilke, Columbia, South Carolina, Camden House, 1993.

Links

Literary Worlds: An Exhibit of Leslie Norris' Life and Work