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Internationally renowned writer and Brigham Young University professor Leslie Norris spent nearly eight decades crafting lyrical poems and stories from words that flowed into his mind. Now, those words will serve as comfort for those who mourn him.
Norris, a native of Wales who called Utah home for the past 23 years, died of a cerebral hemorrhage Thursday in a Provo hospital. He was 84.
"He's one of the best poets, really, quite aside from his fame. He's one of the best poets ever in the English language," friend and BYU colleague Alan Keele said Friday. "He's able to get to a deep level, a level that resonates with everyone."
Norris was known for his ability to capture the power of nature and the universal sensibilities it could represent. With simple language and technical perfection, his poems captivated readers.
The late Utah Poet Laureate Ken Brewer, who died March 15, called Norris a "major star in the state." Last year, Utah poet David Lee called him "one of the greatest living poets on Earth."
Norris earned numerous prizes, including the David Higham Memorial Prize, The Katherine Mansfield Memorial Award, the Welsh Arts Council Senior Fiction Award and the Cholmondeley Prize, which is widely considered Britain's greatest poetry award. He was the first writer to be named a member of both the Welsh Academy and England's Royal Society of Literature.
"We have been fortunate to have so noted a poet as a resident of our state," said Margaret Hunt, director of the Utah Arts Council. "We mourn this great loss to our community."
Norris is survived by his wife of 57 years, Catherine "Kitty" Norris of Orem. Funeral services have not been finalized.
George Leslie Norris was born in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, on May 21, 1921, and grew up absorbing the work of poets including fellow Welshman Dylan Thomas. He taught at secondary schools in Britain, eventually becoming a university lecturer. Though he published his first poems in his 20s, he went another 20 years without publishing a book before The Loud Winter in 1967. Eventually, he published dozens of books and short stories and hundreds of poems.
In the 1970s, he was teaching at the University of Washington when a former BYU student asked him to speak in Utah. That engagement led to a weeklong seminar, which led to a semester teaching at BYU, then a year. By then, some of Norris' closest friends were in Utah, and he decided in 1983 to make this his home. The university named him humanities professor of creative writing and poet in residence - a title he continued to hold after his official retirement in 2003.
Keele recalls helping Norris learn to ski on one of the poet's first visits to Utah. "He starts telling us about his acquaintance with Dylan Thomas, and I started thinking, 'Who is this guy?' I thought he was just here to ski."
Norris, a lover of nature, began writing poetry as a child. He composed in the outdoors from the beginning, often drawing on his youth in Wales and using the natural world for inspiration and as a metaphor for deeper meaning. He also won praise for his melodic reading style and concern for generations of students.
Colleague and fishing partner Doug Thayer says Norris often dropped by his friends' offices at BYU for chats and storytelling. "He was just a splendid person, and a blessing to everyone's life. . . . He would tell stories in that wonderful Welsh voice of his, and he was just so charming."
He continued writing and was active visiting friends and speaking at local events until his death. When he died, he was working on a series of autobiographical poems. He often said he didn't create poems; they came over him like fevers. "I think I would like people to know that I am a totally serious poet," he said in an interview last fall with The Salt Lake Tribune. "It is the main activity of my life."
Border, boundary, threshold, door -
Orpheus moved either way, the living and the dead
were parted by a thin reflection
he simply walked through. But who can follow?
For all boundaries I have crossed over, flown over,
knowingly, unknowingly, I have no answers;
but sit in the afternoon sun, under mountains
where stale snow clings in shadowy patches,
remember my friend, how he had sung,
hope he is still singing.
- from "Borders," an elegy to John Ormond, 1990