'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

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.

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