Knowing Knott: Essays on an American Poet
(Tiger Bark Press, 2017)
I Am Flying into Myself: Bill Knott, Selected Poems: 1960-2014
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017)
When Bill Knott’s death at the age of seventy-four was reported on March 12, 2014, a number of friends, fans, and professional associates questioned the truth of the story. After all, this was the same Bill Knott who presented his first book, The Naomi Poems, as a posthumous collection of poems by “St. Geraud (1940 – 66)”; the same Bill Knott who, in 1963, under a fictitious name, informed the editor of a magazine that “Bill Knott” had died “a virgin and a suicide”; the same Bill Knott who believed, according to recently-deceased poet Thomas Lux, that “all Americans should declare themselves dead and live from then on posthumously.” There have been many odd birds in American letters, but according to those who knew, loved, and often abided him, Bill Knott was a full-blown eccentric whose tireless and occasionally tiresome antics seemed both a logical extension of his strange but brilliant poetry and a formidable barrier between a troubled man and those who tried to support him.
Exasperation was the name of Knott’s game, and virtually everyone he worked with has a story to tell. How appropriate, then, is Knowing Knott, a collection of essays by well-known poets and literary associates who bear witness to the beautiful burden Knott was to them and/or others. “Being Bill Knott is not something you should try at home,” editor Steve Huff warns in the collection’s introductory essay; and yet:
It could be argued that ruminating on his idiosyncrasies, his furies, as well as his kindnesses, so well detailed in Knowing Knott, casts a distorting shadow on the work. But no, the anecdotes are illuminating, the difficulties and crossed swords are somehow lessons in the school of the human soul.
Huff isn’t reaching. Beyond gathering a series of gripping testimonials, the essays in Knowing Knott offer additional ways of understanding the poet and his poems.
As most of the collection’s contributors recognize, Knott’s behavior was in part an expression of deep insecurities born out of a difficult childhood. Stephen Dobyns explains: “When he was seven, his mother died giving birth to his sister. Three years later his father put Bill and his sister in an orphanage and committed suicide. Bill was beaten up there and sexually abused.” The result of these experiences meant that when he was old enough to leave the orphanage, complete a stint in the army, and begin work as an orderly “cleaning up shit” in a Chicago hospital, “Bill didn’t know how to act. No one had taught him anything. He had no social graces.” In many instances, Knott’s lack of social graces translated into outright rudeness. Stuart Dischell recalls watching one professor from a Boston-area college approach Knott in public and invite him to read at his school, to which Bill, embarrassed by the attention, told a blatant lie: “I’m sorry I don’t know the streets around here”—and left the man standing alone. Thomas Lux calls such behavior “defensive rudeness”: “Someone would approach him and say something like ‘I loved your book.’ And Bill would say, ‘Then you must have terrible taste in poetry.’ And turn on his heel and walk away.” William Corbett suggests that such rudeness “might be seen as instances of his never having learned the defenses, such as charm, that ease our way through life.”
According to all of the writers here, Bill Knott found plenty to be defensive about. As Corbett continues: “he cast himself as a tormented crybaby no matter how irrational his tears.” The poet was openly bitter in conversations, through letters, and then on his well-trafficked blog site about his outsider status in the world of American poetry, despite having been published by Random House, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Iowa, BOA Editions, and Farrar, Strauss and Giroux (FSG). If his relationships with those presses were short-lived, Knott himself must shoulder the blame. Former publishers Huff, Galassi, and Lux all relate, with remarkable restraint, bizarre interactions with the poet. They tell of moments when Knott felt betrayed or resentful about minor miscommunications or oversights. In such cases, Knott’s reaction was completely out-of-proportion with the concern at hand and sometimes led to unsuccessful lawsuits. According to Jonathan Galassi, when FSG published Knott’s last trade title, aptly called The Unsubscriber, “Bill was vocal, and hilarious, about his unhappiness at being published within the traditional system”; he made several public comments to this effect and eventually “became adamant that [FSG] revert rights in his work to him so he could make his poems available on line.” As Galassi continues: “It was the first and only time that an author has accused me of betraying him by printing his work.” Michael Waters, who included Knott in one edition of the influential Poulin-Waters anthology, Contemporary American Poetry, sees in Knott’s tantrums a misplaced bid for attention. Quoting Dan Hofstadter’s assessment of Alfred de Musset (a potentially arcane reference Knott would have admired) Waters says: “‘His self-infatuation was so mingled with hatred that it may be considered a case of unreciprocated self-love.’”
Not all of the anecdotes in Knowing Knott catalogue Bill’s exasperating behavior. Dewitt Henry, one of Bill’s colleagues at Emerson College, observes: “Bill’s students flourished… [their] evaluations, letters, and testimonies characterized him as one of the outstanding teachers in the field, at Emerson and elsewhere.” John Skoyles also asserts that “Bill was a great teacher, and not only in the classroom. His blog was full of perceptive and startling observations about poets and poetry. His posting on Facebook pointed followers to arcane treasures.” He could be financially generous as well. Several of the essayists note his sensitivity to students’ penury. Peter Jay Shippy recalls Knott taking him to a diner and ordering his student the entire menu: “I ate hummus, French fries, falafels, schnitzel, macaroni and cheese, Baba Ganoush, kabobs, and hard-boiled eggs for weeks.” Students were not the only recipients of such grand generosity. Skoyles and Lux both remember Knott sending each an unsolicited 1000 dollars when he learned of their respective hardships.
Such generosity sometimes led to more personal connections. Former student Star Black writes of Bill mailing her a five-dollar bill to copy and send him some of her poems because he believed in her work. Years later, Black and Knott would become lovers, enabling her to observe the man more fully: “His commitment to privacy was twofold: it allowed him comfort and uninterrupted concentration to produce new work and it protected him from misconceptions by some readers who may mistake the ‘I’ in his poems for that of a diarist.” Given this commitment to privacy, it’s no stretch to assume Bill Knott would have hated the existence of Knowing Knott.
After 2004, Knott ceased seeking traditional means of publishing his work, though this did not stop him from writing new poems. In fact, Knott was one of the first established American poets to take advantage of the internet as a viable publishing platform. Through his own archive and blog site (now, unsurprisingly “under construction” until further notice), one could download PDFs of his work or, for very little money, often no more than the price of shipping, the poet’s self-produced books could be ordered through online merchants like Amazon. (One of the most fascinating essays in Knowing Knott is furnished by poet Timothy Liu, who is an avid collector of Bill’s limited editions.) In fact, less than three weeks before his death, Bill released Collected Poetry 1964 – 2014, which included 964 poems, for virtually nothing. Those few who saw the listing and took advantage of the opportunity will not need to purchase I Am Flying into Myself: Selected Poems 1960 – 2014, a posthumous tribute (or ironic revenge) from FSG. Edited and lovingly introduced by Thomas Lux, I Am Flying into Myself features one-ninth of Knott’s entire oeuvre, a meticulous selection that makes an ideal showcase for Knott’s genius.
But if I Am Flying into Myself is a deserved platform for the poet’s posterity, its very existence seems bittersweet. On one hand, Knott wanted his poems available to everyone for free. On the other, FSG could—and should—claim that few people took advantage of this generosity while the poet lived. A handsome cloth edition offering a fraction of the poet’s work for twenty-eight dollars may reach more readers. This may say more about American consumerism than anything else: put a perfectly good chair on the side of the road and it might sit there for a week; sell the chair at a respectable price and people take notice. Whatever the case, we should feel as lucky to have I Am Flying into Myself as we do to have Knowing Knott. Lux carefully curates Knott’s enormous body of work to provide an excellent representative sampling of the poet’s varied moods and modes.
Indeed, a front-to-back reading of I Am Flying into Myself reveals that there is no one kind of Knott poem. While it is true that he was drawn to particular structures and forms, his range within these is stylistically and thematically varied. As the late Marvin Bell once noted of the poet’s work, “every Knott poem is a surprise because the man himself has been a constant student of means. Knott can sing like an open-throated nightingale or twist the neck of syntax until it turns blue.” According to Huff, Knott took exception to Bell’s observation, though it is accurate. The differences in voice and attack between poems in similar forms is striking. Consider the fluid, transparent grace of Knott’s “Click”:
From the bottom of my well
I see the sun and moon just
once a day, which is nothing
when compared to you above
who see them both so often,
so open-shared, so totally:
and yet I believe that in that
instant when daily the sun
and monthly the moon fill
my circle rim up there, I am
illuminated in a way you can
never be, quenched entirely
and all sealed in light. See:
I’m whole now. No cracks in me.
“Click” possesses many features common to a Knott sonnet: moments of slant and interior rhymes; a visual consistency in lineation; surprising enjambments; a rejection of iambic pentameter in favor of well-conceived individual rhythms; and a deft handling of assertions and turns. While its diction and phrasing are contemporary, the poem recalls some of the playful wonder found in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s miscellaneous Pre-Raphaelite lyrics, such as “Penumbra” and “A Match with the Moon.”
Knott’s sonnet, “The Unsubscriber,” seems radically different:
Like all children, you were a de facto
Member of the Flat Earth society;
Believing nothing but what you could see
Or touch or whatever sense led to
Fruition: mudpies made summer beneath
A tree whose measured shade endowed decrees
Between light and dark; such hierarchies
Gave you implicit, a sophistic faith—
(Fallacious fellowship!)— Youth’s adherents
Ignore the fact that most factions reject
Their lyric league (which only fools have stayed
Striplings of) and none condone its nonsense:
No one loves that vain solipsistic sect
You’d never join, whose dues you’ve always paid.
In contrast to the subtle simplicity of “Click,” “The Unsubscriber” wears its heightened diction, persistent end-rhymes, and various syntactic contortions proudly on its proverbial sleeve. Knott’s crabbed density here shares affinities not with Rosetti’s more obscure lyrics but John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs. However, a closer inspection reveals that “Click” and “The Unsubscriber” are quite similar in theme and scope. Both poems flaunt the wisdom of an outsider who prefers his distance: from a disadvantaged position at the bottom of a well, the speaker in “Click” savors a fleeting moment of sun and moon that is ironically more whole than we who have access to their lights several hours each day; as a poet who has never found easy fellowship with the “lyric league” of the establishment, the speaker in “The Unsubscriber” sadly pays the dues to a club he would never join, but remains forever free of its “Fallacious fellowship.”
Certainly, “Click” and “The Unsubscriber” demonstrate two ways of singing a similar truth. However, sometimes dramatic differences can be seen within a single Knott sonnet. The opening octet of “Oct-Nov (Michigan Memory #4)” echoes the effervescence of Gerard Manley Hopkins:
The bacon of the ankles crackles, and the sky
Perks up birds this coldsnap morning—every
Breath sheds a breath—effect, brief-bloomed steam-sheaf…
Puddles huddle in frost. Past the barn path
Shoots hill-pastures which rose to winter early
And sun-shucked clouds blast off from: migrants that fly
South—mouths that wet-nurse icicles—hatch forth
A form, a furious precision I sloughed
The bucolic setting is lovingly catalogued, and the euphonic patterning of end and interior rhymes suggests an ecstatic apprehension of the senses similar to Hopkins’s “instress.” How surprising, then, is the accompanying sestet, written with plainer sobriety:
At birth, preferring life. And like the wind
Can reduce anything to description—
Running to finish my chores, beneath my scarf
I’ll feel my chinbone seek my collarbone,
As if the flesh has ceded and the skeleton
Now must precipice itself against all warmth.
The initial phrase—“At birth, preferring life”—completes the sentence begun at the end of the eighth line. This enjambment signals a seamless switch from the apprehension of nature to a reverie about the coexistence of life and death, a reverie that “sloughs” off the chiming jubilance of the poem’s painterly pleasures for the starker chill of revelation. Even the grammar switches in the twelfth line, from past tense to a conditional present that is never and always.
Although Knott’s persistent sonneteering resulted in over 400 poems, many will remember him for authoring some of the language’s greatest micropoems. I Am Flying into Myself provides an impressive selection of these. Some of Knott’s micropoems seem shockingly laughable but are, in fact, nuanced comments upon the absurdities of our world. In “Dear Advice Columnist” the speaker says:
I recently killed my father
And will soon marry my mother;
My question is:
Should his side of the family be invited to the wedding?
“Stumped” is equally startling, though more analogical:
I wish I could count
up to one without
first cutting off
nine of my fingers
Other Knott micropoems are so powerful they dig deeper than any short poem by Ezra Pound, H. D., or William Carlos Williams. “Goodbye” and “Death” are famous cases in point. But consider the slightly-less known “Minor Poem”:
The only response
to a child’s grave is
to lie down before it and play dead.
This is not the urbane imagism of “In a Station at the Metro” or the homespun Americanism of “The Red Wheelbarrow”; rather “Minor Poem” references a theme as universal and heartbreaking as the anonymous author’s “Western Wind.” I would willingly sacrifice half of American poetry for “Minor Poem” and not feel any poorer for it. Almost as powerful is Knott’s three-line poem “Worse”:
All my life I had nothing,
but worse than that,
I wouldn’t share it.
The psychological density achieved in so compressed a space, without ornament or metaphor, is as remarkable as any number of Cavafy poems written in a similar vein, though the voice is unmistakably Knott’s own.
Of course, there are a number of impressive short and longer poems absent from I Am Flying into Myself. By no means a Knott completist, I could name at least a dozen I wish were included, but it’s hard to take issue with Lux’s choices: every one of the poems selected is excellent in itself and useful in demonstrating yet another dimension of Knott’s surprising range. A personal favorite is “The Day After My Father’s Death.” Neither sonnet nor micropoem, this tender autobiographical poem transforms a moment of personal history into a compelling origin story:
It’s too complex to explain,
but I was already in
the orphanage when dad died:
and so that day when I cried,
to keep the other children safe
from my infectious grief
they left me in lockdown
in some office where I found
piles of comicbooks hid
which they had confiscated
from us kids through the years,
and so through wiped tears
I pored quickly knowing
this was a one-time thing—
this quarantine would soon end—
I’d never see them again:
I’d regret each missed issue,
or worse than that I knew
that if a day ever did come
when I could obtain them,
gee, I’d be too old to read
them then, ‘d be him, dad.
In the opening lines, Knott declares the facts of his circumstance simply and directly, letting the inherent pathos of the situation speak for itself. So plain and straightforward the language seems that its arrangement into well-metered rhyming couplets may not be initially apparent. The subdued handling of the form, however, does not disguise the pitch of the speaker’s experience, nor its mythical implications: the boy’s expression of grief is contained through isolation, where chance delivers him the ironic gift of the comicbooks, “confiscated” from his fellow orphans over the years. That he devours them “quickly”—as his access to them is measured in hours, maybe minutes—he suspends the loss he feels for a man who had already orphaned him before he was irrevocably orphaned in order to seize and savor a new and forbidden knowledge. The boy may be young, but he is wise beyond his years: this exploration has an expiration date, for if “a day ever did come / when I could obtain them, / gee, I’d be too old to read / them….” In one of literature’s great moments of visual and auditory punning, the final word of the poem could easily be “dead.” The sight rhyme of “read” in the previous line further suggests this. The boy equates his father with an irrevocable past, and this pursuit of forbidden knowledge as the path to the future. It’s a devastating yet oddly affirmative truth that only a poet of Knott’s depth and honesty could manage—and it’s one of countless reasons why we should turn to him again and again.