RIP Bill Knott
We are deeply saddened to hear of Bill Knott's death, as word has trickled out through Facebook and across the internet. Open Letters Monthly reports on Knott's passing and the legacy he leaves as a rebellious, irascible, and deeply admired poet.
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.
The obituary goes on to describe Knott's disillusionment with the poetry establishment and his turn toward self-publishing:
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[.]
Although his books are out of print, you can read the poems he contributed to Poetry over the years, along with a selection of other works here. In January, we published this appreciation of Knott's work by John Cotter.