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Bill Knott, 1940-2014

By (March 13, 2014) 2 Comments

Bill Knott’s first book, The Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans, was published under the pseudonym “Saint Geraud” along with the legend “1940-1966.” This based on a 1966 letter to Epoch magazine announcing that Knott, then only 26, had committed suicide in his North Clark Street apartment in Chicago, the same apartment that Charles Simic later described as furnished with little but empty Pepsi bottles, a giant Yvette Mimieux poster, and the brilliant young poet himself, crumpled around his talent, crazy about words, and looking, as Thomas Lux would later write, like he had “been struck by lightning at least twenty-two to twenty-three times.” Possibly Lux was describing the young Knott’s talent and not his congenitally rumpled façade, but the descriptor works both ways. As it happened, Bill Knott, the author behind that hoax letter in Epoch, survived not only his own pseudo-suicide but the wider fame that surrounded it, dying only this afternoon at age 74.

In his early work, Knott was spare, surreal, besotted, and enraged.  The gorgeous and obscene crowd together across his lines. In “Whimsical Tears, Or? The Theory of Posthumous Poetry”  from his second collection, Auto-Necrophilia, he invents a new school in parody of Frank O’Hara’s “Personism” (itself a parody of Charles Olsen’s “Projective Verse”), sending up both poetry and poetics, “In the end, or promising young end, I’m sorry / I’m not able to fix this new school of poetry into the middle of your “uhhs”, / like a spigot on a corpse.” But fear not:

The truth is somewhere,
In books used to wedge open doors,
in newspapers jammed under the radiator to hold it up.
Like poets drooling in springtime
When the air is rosy as flush as bathtub sex.

He distinguished himself then, as now, for the grace and drollery of his short poems, one of which reads, in its entirety, “Hope … Goosestep.” Another, “Sleep,” resembles celestial graffiti:  “We brush the other, invisible moon. / Its caves come out and carry us inside.”

His poems make fun of themselves while he stutters angrily into our faces. “Lyricism is the elaboration of a moment’s cowardice,” on the other hand, “None of the other movie stars understands me.” There’s great colloquial mimicry in his early work, as well as anger about the war in Vietnam, the corporatizing of America, all written like adolescent rants that verge on indulgent incoherence before they erupt into beauty.

As one of our editors described last month in an essay for the Poetry Foundation:

Since the tangled sonnets of 1989’s Outremer, Knott has explored the possibilities of formal verse, even as the language from which he built that verse grew simultaneously thicker and more disjunct, until the lyrical density of his earlier work was finally matched by a syntactic density just as complex. Portmanteau words abound (a leaning tower that “slanticulates” our words; blandly repeating epitaphs are “ubiquitudes”) and aural rhythms crackle. Stéphane Mallarmé hovers around these verses, as do Gerard Manley Hopkins and Hart Crane, as in “Dream Amid Bed-Woods,” wherein the speaker urges his readers to pull themselves up “past hammock heights” into the “composite canopy” of a forest roof.

…must you trust
The ease in these boughs, the sway of whose loft
So often now wakes vows to never rest,

To somehow remain alow, to resist
All berth above…

Author of some of the finest poems written by an American in the last 50 years, Knott grew disillusioned with the poetry establishment (large and small presses alike) and turned to printing his own work samizdat, in stapled chapbooks (stuffed with his own rejection notes). He lashed out in all directions in later years, all the while continuing to produce poems that no one else could have written, some of which can stand alongside his best work. This is towering praise.

The intensity of our grief at an artist’s death should not be a measure of how widely their work was known, but how intensely it was loved, and by whom. Knott’s poems are and were a beacon to younger writers, a constant reminder that the innovative can be classically beautiful, and that on the page, the coldest anger can fire the mind.

Knott’s self-published books are already listed on Amazon as out-of-print and, because he owned all of the rights to his work, they may be out of print for some time. With luck, an enterprising publisher will step in before long and give us the kind of Selected Knott abhorred in life, one that will storm the minds of readers for longer than he would have believed


(Sergey) (Yesenin) Speaking (Isadora) (Duncan)
by Bill Knott

I love Russia; and Isadora in her dance.
When I put my arms around her, she’s like
Wheat that sways in the very midst of a bloody battle,
-Un-hearkened to, but piling up peace for the earth
(Though my self-war juggles no nimbus) Earthquakes; shoulders
A-lit with birthdays of doves; piety of the unwashable
Creases in my mother’s gaze and hands. Isadora “becalmed”
Isadora the ray sky one tastes on the skin of justborn babies
(Remember, Isadora
When you took me to America
I went, as one visits a grave, to
The place where Bill Knott would be born 20 years in the future
I embraced: the pastures, the abandoned quarry, where he would play
With children of your aura and my sapling eye
Where bees brought honey to dying flowers I sprinkled
Childhood upon the horizons, the cows
Who licked my heart like a block of salt) Isadora I write this poem
On my shroud, when my home-village walks out to harvest.
Bread weeps as you break it gently into years.

Dream Amid Bed-Woods
by Bill Knott

You must pull down sheets from these linen trees,
Blankets too, a pillowcase in full leaf,
But can’t: to snooze amidst their fruits, beneath
The sheath of that composite canopy’s

Roost, you must raise yourself past hammock heights—
Up where its deepest roots feel doubly sapped,
The dormitory orchard might lie wrapped
And ripe with you, whose foliage still invites

More lure of surface sleep. But must you trust
The ease in these boughs, the sway of whose loft
So often now wakes vows to never rest,

To somehow remain alow, to resist
All berth above: you must push off this soft
Palleted grove, this tall, forest mattress.

by Bill Knott

The taller the monument, the more impatient our luggage.
Look, look, a graveyard has fancy dirt.
Historians agree: this is the pebble which beaned Goliath.
Every billboard is theoretically as beautiful as what lies unseen behind it.

Mouth: the word’s exit-wound.
It is impossible to run away face-to-face.
Shadow has closed the door out of you to you, but not to us.
The sign on the wall advises: Hide your gloves beneath your wings.

Even sculptors occasionally lean against statues.
Migrations?! Fate?! Life swears up at ledgelife.
All the sad tantamounts gather. They want, they say, to errand our ways.

Please aim all kicks at the ground.
Address all blows to the air.
We are to be barely mentioned if at all in the moon’s memoirs.

by Bill Knott

Going to sleep, I cross my hands on my chest.
They will place my hands like this.
It will look as though I am flying into myself.