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The New Yorker Remembers Bill Knott
Nearly fifty years ago, in the fall of 1966, a mimeographed letter made the rounds among poets, critics, and literary magazines, announcing that a twenty-six-year-old writer named Bill Knott had killed himself in his Chicago apartment. The letter, ostensibly written by a friend of Knott’s, said that the poet was a virgin and an orphan, and that he was tired of living without being loved. Though Knott had published poems in little magazines, he was not especially well known; still, the news, which came just a few years after Sylvia Plath’s suicide, was unsettling. In 1968, however, a poetry collection called “The Naomi Poems” was published, which told another story. While the cover suggested a posthumous, pseudonymous production—its author was advertised as “Saint Geraud (1940-1966)”—the introduction, by Paul Carroll, disclosed that the name behind the nom de plume was Bill Knott. Furthermore, Carroll wrote, Knott was not dead; he was “alive and writing today (although the poet tells me that he would rather have this not known).”
When word came again, last week, that Knott had died, no one knew quite whether to believe it.
Baird also notes Knott’s penchant for the comment section (ah, the old days), his constant self-deprecation, and resistance to the poetry world:
…Elisa Gabbert, a poet who studied under him at Emerson, told me that she eventually came to believe that some of Knott’s pranks, like the anti-blurbs, were part of an elaborate performance: “It was kind of a goof, but that was his whole life. It was a really grand goof.” At the same time, she said, his anxieties about fame seemed utterly genuine: “He was just so suspicious of praise and of success.” Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of FSG, who edited two of Knott’s books, including “The Unsubscriber,” recalled meeting Knott at a writers’ workshop in Vermont: “He was pretty hostile. I thought, Well, why? I think he had a kind of phobia about the establishment. Belonging was not his thing. It made him uncomfortable. I decided, in the end, that it was just better to admire him from a distance.”
Knott’s voluble self-flagellation may have been some strange play for publicity, but the facts of his biography raise the uncomfortable possibility that at least some of his stunts—even, perhaps, his faked suicide—were expressions of unbearable inner turmoil. Like his alter ego, Saint Geraud, Knott was an orphan. His mother died when he was six, his father died when he was eleven, and he lived in an orphanage in central Illinois for eight years. He did a stint in a state mental hospital—“How I survived that hell I’ll never know,” he once said—which was followed by two miserable years on his uncle’s farm, and two more in the Army.
In his later life, Knott faulted himself for not being able to turn these experiences into poetry. But, here, as in most things, he protested too much. One of his best poems, “The Closet,” takes us back, wrenchingly, to the aftermath of his mother’s death, when he was six years old:Here not long enough after the hospital happened I find her closet lying empty and stop my play And go in and crane up at three blackwire hangers Which quiver, airy, released. They appear to enjoy Their new distance, cognizance born of the absence Of anything else.
For decades, Knott had assembled private volumes—collections of sonnets, say, or love poems—which he printed and distributed in limited runs. When print-on-demand made publishing as easy as uploading a PDF file to a Web site, he let his anthological impulse run out to its illogical extreme.