Bill Knott (1940-2014) was born in Carson City, Michigan. His mother died when he was 6, his father when he was 11, and he was sent to Illinois for the next several years. He lived in an orphanage until he suffered a breakdown and was sent to an asylum. He attributed his emotional reserve and his dismissive’ attitude to his poetry to that fraught childhood. “Doubt seems to be my normal state which the poem or its origin suddenly and briefly overcomes. I know I can’t write a poem. I have no right to write a poem… I grew up in an orphanage, no family, no money, no educational opportunities. No background, no breeding. Scum like me can’t write poems.”
Published under the pseudonym Saint Geraud, a name he found in a French pornographic novel, Bill Knott’s first book The Naomi Poems, appeared in 1968, two years after a mimeographed letter, allegedly written by a friend of the poet, stated that he had committed suicide at 26 in his room in a tenement on North Clark Street in Chicago and that his body was on its way back to his native Michigan for burial. The letter went on to claim that Knott had killed himself because he was an orphan and virgin and that he couldn’t endure any longer without being loved by somebody. The Naomi Poems proved that he was alive and launched a vital career, even if he never reached the heights he wanted. He published many books of poetry, self-published many others, and was awarded the Iowa Poetry Prize and a Guggenheim fellowship. He enjoyed assailing the poetry establishment, the PoBiz whose upper echelons seemed forever closed to an orphan from the Midwest who promoted, if that is the right word, his rejection slips by pasting them on his office door and by posting them on-line.
A prolific writer, Bill Knott published with major houses and minor presses, and he enthusiastically used blogs and Twitter to offer his work free to a new, wider audience. He was a genuinely comic writer – “the tragicomic seems my natural mode” – constantly puncturing the pomposity of American poetry and self-deprecating his own work. “The comic mode as I see it is an essential aspect of verse written in English. As a USA poet I am ergo distant geographically and perhaps historically from that tradition. Writing in the comic mode is my attempt to bridge that gulf, to refute the “American” poetic tradition and to return to the English. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the comic mode is a way for USA poets to try to free ourselves from the sanctimony and tendentiousness, the stale pomposity of “American” poetry, and to regain some link with the vital English heritage.”
That comic, often tragicomic, prowess is, in my view, at its best in the short poems. I have included a wide selection below. I hope you like them.
Brief Poems by Bill Knott
My Favorite Word
“Attentionspan” is my favorite word
because I can never finish
reading it all the way through.
Cueballs have invented insomnia in an attempt to forget eyelids
The only response
to a child’s grave is
to lie down before it and play dead
Retort to Pasternak
The centuries like barges have floated
out of the darkness, to communism: not to be judged,
but to be unloaded.
Bill Knott’s Note:
See the last lines of “Garden of Gethsame,” which is the last poem of ‘The Poems of Yurii Zhivago,’ the verse supplement to Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.
Perfume opens its eyes of you.
I shall be the shepherd of your hair.
A dawn made of all the air I ever breathed.
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.
If you are still alive when you read this,
close your eyes. I am
under their lids, growing black.
Even when the roads are empty,
even at night, the stopping
tells the truth.
At your light side trees shy
A kneeling enters them
After your death,
Naomi, your hair will escape to become
a round animal, nameless.
When our hands are alone,
they open, like faces.
There is no shore
to their opening.
Dear boys and girls,
please don’t forget to
underline my words
after you erase them.
the door is open
but the wall
which the door opens
continually waits for it
Poem To Poetry
you are an electric,
a magic, field–like the space
between a sleepwalker’s outheld arms!
Hair is heaven’s water flowing eerily over us
Often a woman drifts off down her long hair and is lost
no other flake can find
Advice from the Experts
I lay down in the empty street and parked
My feet against the gutter’s curb while from
The building above a bunch of gawkers perched
Along its ledges urged me don’t, don’t jump.
Hope . . . goosestep.
You’re like a scissors
popsicle I don’t know to
whether jump back
Ceilings ring with morning’s occasions;
but evening’s toll us to the floor.
I only keep this voice to give to anything afraid of me
At the Crossroads
The wind blows a sheet of paper to my feet.
I pick it up.
It is not a petition for my death.
Just hope that when you lie down your toes are a
We brush the other, invisible moon.
Its caves come out and carry us inside.
Maybe (to H)
a stopsign stranded
in a sea of cacti
won’t grow needles
maybe but then
even I take on some
of human when
I’m with you
The closer it gets to the sea the more
it aches for its source, the wound
that sprung it from the ground.
People who get down
on their knees to me
are the answer to my prayers
If I had a magic carpet
I’d keep it
Right in front of me
Perpendicular, like a door.
on the one hand
but on the other hand
Rice thrown from
an open grave marks
the height of a ceremony
somewhere in our lives.
Fingerprints look like ripples
because time keeps dropping
another stone into our palm.
A nose surrounded
by a flaw—
hark, that’s my face
The sweat on my forehead
when it’s in my eyes.
I wish to be misunderstood;
to be understood from your perspective.
THE FINAL WORD
Our farewells lack the plausibility of our departures.
20 self-published books by Bill Knott, available free.
Bill Knott Poetry Forum – open for discussion and interpretation oh his work.
Remembering Bill Knott – A Memoir by Robert P. Baird in The New Yorker.
Keep Moving Toward the Sea – A Memoir by Thomas Lux.