'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

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

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