'An astonishing life' — Poet Leslie Norris

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

Published: Sunday, April 18 2004 12:00 a.m. MDT

Leslie Norris, with some of his works in front of him, sits in his study at his Orem home. Although retired, BYU has named Norris its poet in residence.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News

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."

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