Editors Note: Bill Knott passed away on March 13th, 2014. The following essay was first published on January 21st, 2014.
Bill Knott is probably the closest thing the American poetry establishment has to a rebel. Over the course of his career he has published with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, BOA Editions, and Random House, but his most recent books are all self-published. Among them, Collected Poems 1960–2013 is a coffee-table-sized edition; its contents were simultaneously (and briefly) made available in their entirety on Knott’s website before it was taken down, along with poems from a smaller but still considerable collection, New Poems from the Last Six Years. Because they are as cheaply produced as possible, and promoted only by Knott himself, the new books (containing no index or table of contents) stand as a kind of rebuke to the gorgeously produced, deckle-edged volumes from major publishers, and also to the often fetishistically beautiful volumes by smaller presses. They are brutal packages for an often exquisite art.
As Knott writes in the front matter of the Collected, “[T]he order of the poems is meant to be random, neither chronological nor thematic, though I may have failed to achieve that intention in all instances.” Note that a conscious decision is here rephrased as a failure. This is typical of Knott, as is his playful decision to begin the Collected with a short poem, “Goodbye.” It’s from his first book, 1968’s Naomi Poems, Book One: Corpse and Beans, which offers, coincident with commencement, a farewell:
If you are still alive when you read this,close your eyes. I amunder their lids, growing black.
This syntactically simple but metaphysically dense lyric is representative of Knott’s early verse. It’s full of the sort of revelatory twisters championed by Robert Bly as an example of what he called Leaping Poetry, or poems that “leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again,” and what others referred to as Deep Image writing. Knott’s shaved-down verses of the period seem to share an approach in common with the W.S. Merwin of The Moving Target or the Mark Strand of Darker, and in fact were anthologized alongside Merwin and Strand in the 1978 collection Surrealist Poetry in English.
These early poems are romantic, expressionist (“The beach holds and sifts us through her dreaming fingers”), and angry about imperialism, particularly in Vietnam. “Soon there will be no ideas but in things,” he writes in “To American Poets,” “in rubble, in skulls held under the oceans’ magnifying-glass.” Knott goes on to remind his contemporaries:
…Youare not important. Your black mountains, solitary farms,LSD trains. Don’t forget: you are important.If you fail, there will be no-one left to say so.If you succeed, there will also be a great silence. Your names,an opensecret in all hearts, no-one will say. But everywherethey will be finishing the poems you broke away from.
Elsewhere in the book, as in “(Poem) (Chicago) (The Were-Age),” the surrealism is harder, angrier:
On the lips a taste of tolling we are blindThe light drifts like dust over facesWe wear masks on our genitalsYou’ve heard of lighting cigarettes with banknotes we used to light ours with Jews
As books and years accrete, Knott refuses to commit to a single school or mode. In the Collected, we find experiments with direct confessional poetry, such as “The Closet,” about a boy exploring his mother’s wire coat hangers after her death, alongside absurdist fables such as “Poème Noir,” an expert mystery in which a man accidentally frames himself for murder. (Denis Johnson acknowledged “Poème Noir” as the inspiration for his novel Already Dead, thanking “the poet Bill Knott, from whose genius springs the plot of this tale.”) Interspersed with these are persona poems, riffs on colloquial speech as rhythmically inverted as the free jazz of Dream Songs, and short poems such as “Death”:
Going to sleep, I cross my hands on my chest.They will place my hands like thisIt will look as though I am flying into myself.
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 here, from “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 trustThe ease in these boughs, the sway of whose loftSo often now wakes vows to never rest,
To somehow remain alow, to resistAll berth above…
In both the latest Collected and in New Poems we find villanelles and sestinas (“Hollywood Nightmare” should be taught in classes on form), heptasyllabics, rhymed sonnets, and long poems in rhyming couplets, all of them as tightly crafted as anything from the New Formalists of the 1990s. A fellow reader told me she thought Knott had “escaped into formalism.” Perhaps. But I can’t think of any contemporary of Knott’s who has managed to engage so variously with all of the styles and movements around while retaining throughout a voice that is so recognizably his or her own, even if said voice now resembles “a spaceship flooded with roadmaps: / The guidebooks that marked and led me here are / Archaic. All the ways they praise have lapsed.”
Poetical renown has long been one of Knott’s subjects, along with the trap of the “self,” the taunting existence of the numinous and its maddening inaccessibility, male uselessness, rage against American empire, love, loneliness, and defeat. But Knott’s relationship to fame is not as simple as either rejection or impotence. There is real neglect, but Knott has developed a public character (and perhaps a private one as well) that righteously trumpets that neglect, waxes sarcastic. Though it rubs some readers raw, Knott’s outspokenness energizes a healthy debate on the role of class and pedigree in publishing and the role of publishing in one’s reputation. As he explained in an interview in the June 2006 issue of Memorious:
Mark Strand has the right to write a poem, not me. He went to Yale; he lives on the yacht of his youth. Me, I grew up in an orphanage, no family, no money, no “educational opportunities.” No background, no breeding. Scum like me can’t write poems. After his Ivy League education, C. K. Williams lived in Paris on a trust fund for ten years while he wrote his first book; me, after high school and two years in the army I worked as a hospital orderly while I wrote my first book.
When his real accomplishments are praised, he avers that his admirers have missed the point, even if he does so with a forked tongue: if praised and published poets such as John Ashbery or Robert Hass are “somebody,” then a self-published poet must be “nobody.” Ergo, presuming these values spring from a corrupted source, Knott’s act points a finger not at himself but at the establishment, the average reader’s middlebrow affinities, the dirtiness of publishing.
In New Poems, Ashbery is mocked as a foolishly apolitical pawn of American cultural hegemony in the pastiche “Ashbery’s Visit to Pahlevi, 1972 (After James Wright’s ‘Eisenhower’s Visit to Franco, 1958’)” about the then-ruler of Iran. Pahlevi’s “police fill the prisons / With dissidents. Ashbery follows / His fellow celebrants to the banquet.” Another poem, “The Two-Room Theory,” is an almost unquotably filthy parody that recasts Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” as an obsequy to Stevens’s thwarted libido and frigid wife: “kiss her feet to make her horny / and she just lies there numb on / that damn dumb sheet she / sews fannytails across.” That’s one of the more respectable bits. Knott knows this is adolescent, and that’s part of his point. “I don’t want to live with the alone tonight / Stay lost at home on my own tonight,” begins “The Alone Tonight,” but alone he must remain. The world, he asserts, particularly the poetry world, has no use for him, his verse a generic brand, “Knott’s / Best: to buy me takes / a blind eye. A lack of taste.” To achieve American renown is to be complicit in a criminal culture. Better to be the hunger artist than the impresario who barks for bread.
Most people who believe themselves poor poets do not repeatedly and publicly announce themselves as such, nor do they publish a Collected Poems. But Knott does show signs of real ambivalence about his role: he joined Facebook to praise the work of younger poets and damn his own, then abruptly deleted his page. He posted the text of all his poems on a blog, then removed it. Knott is a trickster, and part of the pleasurable madness of his poems is the sense that he’s pulling the rug out from a world that’s too busy going mad to notice him. In “Weltende Variation #I,” an homage to Jacob van Hoddis, nothing can salve the horrors of the world except perhaps our ability to laugh at them and to see them plain. Meanwhile, all we have is conspiracy, hypocrisy, incompetence, malice, foolishness, snobbery, and pointless self-abnegation:
The CIA and the KGB exchange Christmas cardsA blade snaps in two during an autopsyThe bouquet Bluebeard gave his first date rebloomsMany protest the public stoning of a guitar pick
Railroad trains drop off the bourgeois’ pointy headA martyr sticks a coffeecup out under a firehoseMoviestars make hyenas lick their spaceshipGod’s hand descends into a glove held steady by the police
At their reunion The New Faces recognize each otherA spoiled child sleeps inside a thermometerA single misprint in a survival manual kills everyoneThe peace night makes according to the world comes
To what extent was the hurt that Knott performs inspired by real professional neglect? When, prior to publishing his 2004 collection The Unsubscriber, FSG arranged to have some of his short poems published in Poetry, Knott wrote of being crushed and feeling betrayed. “They ‘accepted’ poems from FSG, but not from me, never from me,” he wrote on his blog, “and don’t believe those fucking hypocrites if they tell you anything different.” Eventually Knott walked away from FSG too. (“It was clear that for Bill,” FSG president and publisher Jonathan Galassi told the New York Observer in 2011, “being published by us wasn’t good for him psychically.”) Black Ocean’s founder, Janaka Stucky, says he finds Knott’s early books to be “some of the best American poetry collections of the 20th century—and they’ve been highly influential on poets and artists of my generation.” When he asked Knott if he could bring these early works back into print, Knott turned him down. “If I don’t want to do it with Farrar Straus,” he wrote, “why would I want to do it with Black Ocean?”
If Knott is a failure, he tells himself and his readers, it is because of his continued attraction to success—one can’t exist without the other. Knott can envision transcendence, a connection with the source of the richest verse. He envies a poet such as Rilke, “the lucky little bastard / the kid who oops was daily / dropped not down but upward.” Just so, “Dream Amid Bed-Woods” can be read as a poem about the why of such a quest, the effort of reaching, hauling oneself “off this soft / Palleted grove.” Although the sublime, as in “The Balloon That Lived on the Moon,” induces nothing but reflections on “How endlessly / You are not a part of it,” we doggedly pursue it still; as in “The Climb,” we posit a perfect self and “Know him as the truer you, / the perfected precursor emitted by / this act of aspiration alone, this try—“
In New Poems’ final poem, “Letter to a Landscape,” Knott aims to paint the world (“first offering the blank canvas / a cigarette and a blindfold—”) but finds it impossibly upsetting: our fame-drive in overdrive, our distraction, our lust for damage, history a scar that “has inherited us with face / ruses.” Still:
Each brushstroke I heap you with is brokenby its cry. Aspirations try, but why, whydoes Hiroshima always forget to duck?Let landscape stand for letter. Let it lack.
To the great pleasure of his readers, Knott continues to muster his army of symbols: his mirrors, moons, clones, doppelgangers, and old movie scripts. He tries everything, fails against an ideal, and dramatizes his professed failure in language more alive than you’ll find in books from some of the finest presses, the most successful of his coevals.