Bill Knott’s primal poetry.
I met Bill Knott in late 1968, or in early 1969, at William Corbett’s house, a gathering place for poets in Boston’s South End. I’d read Knott’s highly acclaimed first book, The Naomi Poems, from Big Table, in the spring of 1968. It was published under the pen name Saint Geraud (1940–1966). I was immediately struck, poleaxed, by the emotional power of the poems. Mostly short, intense lyrics, they were unlike anything I’d ever read and moved me to the bone. I felt, before I’d read Emily Dickinson’s famous comment, as if the top of my head was taken off. Many were love poems. Most were written in his early and mid twenties. There was urgency, a longing, a wild and plaintive high-note sound that was maybe particularly attractive to a twenty-two-year-old man. Forty-seven years later, as I stand on the terrible threshold of senescence, Knott’s poems still lift the hairs on the back of my neck. His anguished poems about the war in Vietnam were among the first I’d read on that subject, and I still believe them to be among the strongest. It is the war that my generation either can’t forget or refuses to remember (sometimes both).
Unfortunately, he also wrote in one poem that he couldn’t see the difference between several prominent American poets and “aviators dropping a bomb on Vietnamese women and children.” This was egregiously rude, of course, and flat-out dumb, not to mention self-destructive, and added more to the controversy of early Bill Knott.
By December 1970, Knott was living on a couch in the kitchen of the apartment my college roommate and I rented in Somerville, Massachusetts. Sometime in early 1971, he published his second book, Auto-necrophilia, also with Big Table. This was a thinner book than The Naomi Poems. He was flat broke and needed the eight-hundred-dollar advance—enough to eat and pay rent for several months.
My college roommate and friend, Joseph Wilmott, and I started a small press (Barn Dream Press) around this time. Between 1970 and 1974, we published two of Knott’s books. The first was Nights of Naomi, published in early 1971. By this time, Knott had dropped “Saint Geraud” but, still claiming posthumousness, was now Bill Knott (1940–1966). The second book, Love Poems to Myself, was published in 1974 under the name he used for the rest of his life: Bill Knott.
William Kilborn Knott was born in Carson City, Michigan, on February 17, 1940. He died in Bay City, Michigan, after failed heart surgery, on March 12, 2014. When he was seven, his mother died while giving birth; the child also died. His father, a butcher, died by drinking poison three years later. Knott told me that he believed his father’s manner of death caused the chronic stomach problems he himself suffered throughout his life. When his father died, Knott was already in an orphanage (for reasons “too complex to explain”) run by the Loyal Order of Moose, in Mooseheart, Illinois. There, for several years, he was bullied and abused. He was sent for a year to a state mental hospital, where he was also bullied and abused. His uncle got him out, and he lived on the uncle’s farm for a few years before he joined the U.S. Army in the late 1950s. He served his full enlistment and was honorably discharged in 1960. A great deal of his service time was spent guarding our nation’s gold reserves at Fort Knox. He liked to say the greens and fairways of the officers’ golf course were always dry and snow-free in winter, the heat from the bullion in the vaults beneath keeping them so.
The last time he saw his younger sister, Joy, was when she “graduated” from the orphanage at nineteen. He had a niece and nephew he never met.
By the early 1960s, Knott was living in Chicago and working as a hospital orderly. He took a poetry workshop taught by John Logan, and a little later worked with Paul Carroll, editor of Big Table Books. Some of the poets in Chicago who knew Knott at the time were Charles Simic, Kathleen Norris, Dennis Schmitz, Naomi Lazard, and William Hunt.
In 1964, James Wright received a letter from Kenneth Rexroth asking if Wright could recommend some younger poets to him. Wright wrote back about “an unmistakably beautiful, deeply fertile, unaffected, marvelous poet … A young man of about 25 years of age who has the wonderfully unpoetic name of Bill Knott.”
Enough has been said about a letter Knott wrote to a magazine, in 1962 or 1963, under a fictitious name, saying that Bill Knott was dead and died “a virgin and a suicide.” It was despair and a youthful affectation. And let literary history acknowledge this obvious fact: being a young poet, particularly a young male poet, is almost a disease, a cement mixer of joy ripsawed by a realistic sense of the impossibility of the task! Knott said he used Saint Geraud as a pen name because even though he was honorably discharged from the army, he never reported for reserve duty and thought the army might track him down and make him return to active duty. When he told me this, I remember thinking, Of course, the army has a special unit scouring first books of poetry looking for reprobates like Bill.
When asked, years later, why he used a pen name, he said it was because two poets he admired—Pablo Neruda and Paul Éluard—were pen-named poets, and that made him feel justified. We should look at the pen name in a similar manner as the fake suicide letter: so what!
Saint Geraud, by the way, was the name of a character he lifted from a nineteenth-century pornographic novel, the kind in which it takes forty pages to get the top button of a woman’s blouse unbuttoned.
I thought one of Knott’s reasons for insisting that his name include “(1940–1966)” made some odd sense: He believed all Americans, not just combatants, were casualties of the Vietnam War, because, as Americans, we all shared the responsibility for and were all wounded by that illegal and immoral war. Hyperbole, of course. He knew where the real blame lay: “there are the destroyers—the Johnsons, Kys, Rusks, Hitlers, Francos—then there are / those they want to destroy—lovers, teachers, plows, potatoes.” Therefore, Knott said, all Americans should declare themselves dead and live and write from then on posthumously. Hyperbole, ditto. It’s a metaphor of the absurd, but it’s a readable metaphor. It’s satire, bitter satire you can taste on your tongue. It’s funny and dead serious: “Like a spigot on a corpse.” Or, a little more gently, “Like a water-lily on crutches.”
Wilmott and I started Barn Dream Press with little money during our last semester of college. Wilmott went into the printing trade, and we published, during a four-year run, several broadsides, chapbooks, and three full-length books, by poets such as William Matthews, Charles Wright, Marvin Bell, Paul Hannigan, William Corbett, Helen Chasin, and Michael Palmer. We started working on Knott’s book Nights of Naomi in the fall of 1970.
I was hired as a night watchman at a local college, which provided two meals a day and pilferable light bulbs and toilet paper: I had the keys to everything. It was around this time that Knott lived on a couch in our kitchen for a few months. I’d get home about one A.M. Knott would invariably be watching old movies on two black-and-white TVs, a smaller one on top of a larger one. He got up constantly to change the channel on one or the other, while keeping the sound on only one TV.
By late January of 1971, Knott had moved to an apartment deeper into blue-collar Somerville.
Nights of Naomi was printed by letterpress on fine watermarked paper in an edition of a thousand copies: 874 bound in blue paper, 100 hardbacks bound in dark blue boards numbered and signed, and 26 hardbacks lettered A through Z signed with a personal inscription by the author. Typical: “Larry, thanks for bailing me out of jail that night in Albany.” Neither had Larry bought the book nor had Knott spent a night in jail in Albany. We later published a second edition of a thousand copies with a completely different design and this time with offset printing.
When Wilmott and I got the first hardcover copies from the bindery, we took some to Knott’s apartment. It was still cold, probably March 1971. After much banging on the door, he finally let us in. All the windows were boarded up from the inside. His phone and electricity were cut off. The only room he used was the kitchen. All four burners of the gas stove were on for heat. There was a mattress on the floor. He sat on it. I forget where, or if, we sat. We handed him a copy. He flipped through the pages for a few seconds and then tossed the book over his shoulder into a pile of trash surrounding an overflowing wastebasket! He made an excuse about needing to work, and we were back on the street.
A few days or weeks later, Knott explained to me that he’d been expecting “a crummy mimeographed book.” He said he was overwhelmed by how good it looked. He said he couldn’t believe we cared enough about his poems to make such a well-produced book. (He might have also, legitimately, felt we weren’t capable of producing such a book.) Bill had serious self-esteem problems—and who wouldn’t, given the hand he had been dealt. It became clear to me years later that Knott was then profoundly clinically depressed. It’s my feeling that he lived with various levels of depression (I don’t know if he was ever treated for it) for the rest of his life.
It should be noted that, in an age of massive self-medication, Knott very rarely drank alcohol, and he stopped even occasional use of cannabis by the early 1970s, because he felt it was interfering with his automatic writing exercises. The one substance on which he seemed to have a dependency was Lipton instant ice tea. He drank it constantly, with tap water, no sugar, no ice.
Nights of Naomi was one of the few books of American hard-core surrealism I’d read. By hard-core, I mean blunt-force surrealism, I mean there was nothing neo-surreal about it. It was straight from the surrealist manifestos, but entirely his own. The poems are violent, dark, and guttural. I remember Knott telling me at the time that he refused to read or write or look at art that wasn’t surreal. He was still only twenty-nine or thirty, and surrealism is a young man’s game. Only months later, he left fundamentalist surrealism behind but always maintained high levels of unpredictability and verbal (as well as aural) imagination in his poems. He was frequently playful, often with heart-tearing (“as quickly as the rumor of meat / up and down a soup-line”) insight, and always original.
In the fall of 1973, we were both teaching at Columbia College in Chicago. That Thanksgiving, we were invited by a colleague to share dinner with her family and a few others. Just before the turkey arrived, Bill excused himself from the table. The host waited for him to return before he started carving. Bill didn’t return. A few days later, I went to his place and asked him what happened, why did he leave? He said it was too painful for him to be in a warm family situation.
In early 1974, Barn Dream Press published another book of Knott’s: Love Poems to Myself. The title isn’t narcissistic: the love poems in the book are dedicated to women he loved. Patrick Botacchi, another college friend, also in the printing trade, joined our publishing venture. Love Poems to Myself was printed offset but was still very handsome. It had a striking four-color cover, which was very rare in those days for a small press. When Knott first saw this book, he didn’t toss it over his shoulder. Instead, he got a legal-aid lawyer and attempted to sue us. I’d said to him in a letter that we’d use a painting by a very good painter, his girlfriend at the time, on the cover. Due to a miscommunication, Barn Dream used another design. Nothing came of this lawsuit. Knott told me later that the lawyer had said: “Sue them for what?” A few times, when I’d run across the book, particularly in the Boston/Cambridge area, the covers were torn off. I don’t remember this incident changing our friendship. I saw him very frequently in these years—in Boston/Cambridge, Ohio, Chicago, Iowa, New York, at the MacDowell Colony. We corresponded regularly.
I’ve spoken of Bill’s eccentricities, even some mistakes he made. I haven’t gone into any analytical reasons for why I love his poems. The words analytical and love seem incompatible to me. I haven’t said much about why I loved him, the man. I want to make it clear that his idiosyncrasies and even his suffering made up only a small part of the man I knew. In my opinion, Knott did not become an exceptional poet because he was an orphan, because of abuse, because of poverty, because of illness, because of any kind of suffering. Everybody suffers. Knott became an exceptional poet despite those things.
He follows an ancient poetic pulse and impulse: the poem, especially the lyric poem, and even more so the sonnet, “is a small vessel that takes a turn a little over halfway down.” Knott possessed a wide range of subject matter, a long working life, and a prodigious work ethic.
In the late 1970s (we were on a subway in New York City, going uptown), he showed me a notebook that was filled, over and over, with different variations on two lines that later showed up in his great poem “The Closet.” I wish I could remember which two lines, but I can’t.
He approached poems from many different angles and was (see above) a relentless rewriter. Once in a while, I think, he over-distilled certain poems. His humor is often biting—and bitten, self-deprecating, self-denigrating, self-abnegating; darkly, darkly so, sometimes. But he also can be flat-out funny. I mean laugh-out-loud funny. He was a hard-core, card-carrying surrealist, a poet of stunning lyric tenderness, and he was a brilliant and innovatively traditional metricist. Sometimes all three at once.
You will find many sonnets of many kinds in this book. There are also dozens of other examples of traditional craftsmanship. Like all good artists, he learned the rules before he began to bend and break them. Knott is a deeply American poet (he came from the heartland and returned there in his last years), but he loved to quote W. B. Yeats’s famous exhortation, “Irish poets, learn your trade / sing whatever is well made.” I heard him say many times: “Poetry is an art form, poetry is a craft.”
He loathed clichés. He disdained preciousness. As dense as some of his poems can be, they rarely defeat comprehensibility. Some are so lucid and straightforward, they are like a punch in the gut, or one’s first great kiss. There are poems in syllabics, in various rhyme schemes; and the longest poem in the book, about ten pages, is in seven-syllable lines of full- and half-rhymed couplets. In his so-called free-verse poems, Knott pays fierce attention to pacing, diction, tone, syntax, line breaks. And always: noises, sonics, music, sounds. He agreed with Robert Frost: “Words exist in the mouth not in books.” His intense focus on every syllable, and the sound of every syllable in relation to nearby sounds, is so skilled that the poems often seem casual: art hides art. He writes for the voice and the page, equally.
As Thomas Wentworth Higginson said after reading some of Emily Dickinson’s poems, “When a thought takes one’s breath away, who cares to count the syllables?” Poems in this book will take your breath away, providing you have breath when you read them. Something Knott shares with Dickinson is a sense of compression, distillation, of trying, always, to make more happen with fewer words. He loved her poems fiercely and those, too, I think for similar reasons, of Marina Tsvetaeva, the great Russian poet: for their courage and imagination. Knott’s poems think in images, in the “higher algebra” of metaphor. He loads his poems (see “Every Rift with Ore”). His imagination is relentlessly poetic. He loved Paul Valéry’s supposed response to the question of why he didn’t write prose: “Because I cannot stand the idea of writing a line like ‘And then Madam put on her hat and walked out the door.’”
Knott often favors highly accented language (“old woe clothes”) and compound words (“shroudmeal”). Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: “Stress is the life of it.” Knott loves play and puns that express mischief and/or satire (“Rilkemilky,” “gangplanking,” “mal-de-mess,” “immallarméan”). He liked neologisms and semi-neologisms. He is not averse to using a noun, such as “precipice,” as a verb. Scientists now tell us this kind of verbal surprise causes little explosions in our brains. He liked, sometimes, to make the reader hear two words in one word, and to make both work in context.
Knott can be outraged (and outrageous), “thorny,” original, accessible, electrical, occasionally impolite, and heartbreaking. His love poems are exquisite.
Hundreds of lines, if lifted from Knott’s poems, can stand, or almost stand, as poems by themselves. In fact, there are several one-line poems in this book and even a huge two-word poem (three, if you count the title).
In all these crossings, these vectors, Knott’s high imagination, great skills, singular music, and crazy-beautiful heart meet and often result in unforgettable collisions.
As perpetually insolvent as he was in the years described earlier, Bill was also incredibly generous. One year (1979?), he got an National Endowment for the Arts grant and gave me a thousand dollars (I didn’t ask) because he knew I was broke. Although he was never a classroom teacher of mine, I learned more about poetry from him than from anyone I’ve ever known. He had read all of English and American poetry. I’m tempted to say twice. He’d recite from Wordsworth or Shelley and many others as long as you let him. He was more familiar with foreign poets in translation than anyone else I knew. I remember him mock-raving about the above-mentioned Marina Tsvetaeva on a bus in Chicago. He was outraged that her poems were so hard to find in English. Other passengers seemed unconcerned.
His deep admiration for the poetry of others is what helped him endure and continue to write so well, despite worsening health problems, to his own exacting standards, into his seventies.
If someone ever does a concordance of Knott’s work, I predict that his two favorite words will be clone, as a noun or verb, and pore or pores, as in those little entrances and exits in our skin. I loved his laugh: a kind of chortle, never too loud, unguarded. He never lost his flat Midwestern accent. His hands were beautiful. At least two different women told me this, and one compared his hands to those of John Donne in the anonymous portrait found on the cover of many of his collections.
Knott published twelve print books between 1968 and 2004—with small presses, university presses, and major houses. Sometime around 2005, he decided to forgo traditional print publishing and put all his poems online, for free. He also published many books through Amazon.com and sold them for the price of printing and mailing.
Bill Knott could be the embodiment of the Groucho Marx joke about not wanting to be in a club that allowed members like him. With Bill, however, it wasn’t a joke. I saw in him, most often, a kindness, an acute mindfulness of others, even a sweetness, much more than I saw anger or withdrawal or rudeness. Was he contradictory? All right then, he was contradictory.
I believe Bill Knott stood out in the rain and was struck by lightning at least the dozen or two dozen times to qualify (using Randall Jarrell’s formula/metaphor) as a great poet. He is one, in a school of one, among the American poets. I believe this will become more and more evident, maybe even obvious (if these kinds of things continue to matter in our culture), as the decades, like barges, keep moving toward the sea.
Excerpted from I Am Flying into Myself by Bill Knott, edited and with an introduction by Thomas Lux. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Thomas Lux (1946–2017) was the author of fourteen books of poetry and one book of nonfiction.