I AM FLYING INTO MYSELF: BILL KNOTT’S SELECTED POEMS
I met Bill Knott in late 1968, or in early 1969, at William Corbett’s house, a gathering place for poets in Boston’s South End. I’d read Knott’s highly acclaimed first book, The Naomi Poems, from Big Table, in the spring of 1968. It was published under the pen name of St. Geraud (1940-1966). I was immediately struck, pole-axed, by the emotional power of the poems. Mostly short, intense lyrics, they were unlike anything I’d ever read and moved me to the bone. I felt, before I’d read Emily Dickinson’s famous comment, as if the top of my head was taken off. Many were love poems. Most were written in his early and mid-twenties. There was urgency, a longing, a wild and plaintive high-note sound that was maybe particularly attractive to a 22-year-old man. Forty-six years later, as I stand on the terrible threshold of senescence, Knott’s poems still lift the hairs on the back of my neck. He was one of the first poets I’d read who addressed the war in Vietnam, and his anguished poems about that period in our history—“which so many refuse to remember and so many can’t forget”*—I still believe to be among the strongest on that subject.
Unfortunately, he also wrote in one poem that he couldn’t see the difference between several prominent American poets and “aviators dropping a bomb on Vietnamese women and children.” This was egregiously rude, of course, and flat-out dumb, not to mention self-destructive, and added more to the controversy of early Bill Knott.
By December of 1970, Knott was living on a couch in the kitchen of the apartment my college roommate and I rented in Somerville, MA. Sometime in early 1971, he published his second book, Auto-necrophilia, also with Big Table. This was a thinner book than The Naomi Poems. He was flat broke and needed the $800 advance—enough to eat and pay rent for several months.
My college roommate and friend, Joseph Wilmott, and I started a small press (Barn Dream Press) around this time. Between 1970 and 1974, we published two of Knott’s books. The first was Nights of Naomi, published in early 1971. By this time, Knott had dropped “St. Geraud” but, still claiming posthumousness, was now Bill Knott (1940-1966). The second book, Love Poems to Myself, was published in 1974 under the named he used for the rest of his life: Bill Knott.
William Kilborn Knott was born in Carson City, MI, on February 17, 1940. He died in Bay City, MI, after failed heart surgery, on March 12, 2014. His mother died, as did the child, while giving birth when he was seven. His father, a butcher, died by drinking poison, three years later. Knott told me that he believed his father’s manner of death caused the chronic stomach problems he himself suffered throughout his life. When his father died, Knott was already in an orphanage (“for reasons too complicated to explain”) run by The Loyal Order of the Moose, in Mooseheart, Illinois. There, for several years, he was bullied and abused. He was sent for a year to a state mental hospital, where he was also bullied and abused. His uncle got him out, and he lived on his farm for a few years before he joined the Army in the late ’50s. He served his full enlistment and was honorably discharged in 1960. A great deal of his service time was spent guarding our nation’s gold reserves at Fort Knox. He liked to say the greens and fairways of the officers’ golf course were always dry and snow-free in winter, the heat from the bullion in the vaults beneath keeping them so.
The last time he saw his younger sister, Joy, was when she “graduated” from the orphanage at nineteen. He had a niece and nephew he never met.
By the early 1960s, Knott was living in Chicago and working as a hospital orderly. He took a poetry workshop taught by John Logan, and a little later worked with Paul Carroll, editor of Big Table Books. Some of the poets in Chicago who knew Knott at the time were Charles Simic, Kathleen Norris, Dennis Schmitz, Naomi Lazard, and William Hunt.
In 1964, James Wright received a letter from Kenneth Rexroth asking if Wright could recommend some younger poets to him. Wright wrote back about “an unmistakably beautiful, deeply fertile, unaffected, marvelous poet…a young man of about 25 years of age who has the wonderfully unpoetick name of Bill Knott.”[i]
Enough has been said about a letter Knott wrote to a magazine, in 1962 or 1963, under a fictitious name, saying that Bill Knott was dead and died “a virgin and a suicide.” It was a youthful affectation. And let literary history acknowledge this obvious fact: Being a young poet, particularly a young male poet, is almost a disease, a cement mixer of joy rip-sawed by a realistic sense of the impossibility of the task! I have it from a reliable source (a neighbor at the time) that it sure didn’t sound like Bill was a virgin. Knott said he used St. Geraud as a pen name because even though he was honorably discharged from the Army, he never reported for reserve duty and thought the Army might track him down and make him return to active duty. When he told me this, I remember thinking: Of course, the Army has a special unit scouring first books of poetry looking for by reprobates like Bill.
When asked, years later, why he used a pen name, he said it was because two poets he admired—Pablo Neruda and Paul Éluard—were pen-named poets, and that made him feel justified. We should look at the pen name in a similar manner as the suicide letter: So what!
St. Geraud, by the way, was the name of a character he lifted from a nineteenth-century pornographic novel, the kind in which it takes forty pages to get the top button of a woman’s blouse unbuttoned.
I thought Knott’s reason for insisting that his name include “(1940-1966)” made some odd sense: He believed all Americans, not just combatants, were casualties of the Vietnam War, because, as Americans, we all shared the responsibility for and were all wounded by that illegal and immoral war. Hyperbole, of course. He knew where the real blame lay: “there are the destroyers—the Johnsons, Kys, Rusks, Hitlers, Francos—then there are / those they want to destroy—lovers, teachers, plows, potatoes.” Therefore, Knott said, all Americans should declare themselves dead and live and write from then on posthumously. Hyperbole, ditto. It’s a metaphor of the absurd, but it’s a readable metaphor. It’s satire, bitter satire you can taste on your tongue. It’s funny and dead serious: “Like a water-lily on crutches.”
Wilmott and I started Barn Dream Press with no money during our last semester of college. Wilmott went into the printing trade, and we published, during a four-year run, several broadsides, chapbooks, and three full-length books, by poets such as William Matthews, Charles Wright, Marvin Bell, Paul Hannigan, William Corbett, Helen Chasin, and Michael Palmer. We started working on Knott’s book, Nights of Naomi, in the fall of 1970.
I was hired as a night watchman at a local college, which provided two meals a day and pilferable light bulbs and toilet paper: I had the keys to everything. It was around this time that Knott lived on a couch in our kitchen for a few months. I’d get home about 2 AM. Knott would invariably be watching old movies on two black and white TVs, a smaller one on top of a larger one. He got up constantly to change the channel on one or the other, while keeping the sound on only one TV.
By late January of 1971, Knott moved to an apartment deeper into blue-collar Somerville.
Nights of Naomi was printed by letterpress on fine watermarked paper, in a edition of 1,000 copies: 874 bound in blue paper, 100 hardbacks bound in dark blue boards numbered and signed, and 26 hardbacks lettered A-Z signed with a personal inscription by the author. Typical: “Larry, thanks for bailing me out of jail that night in Albany.” Neither had Larry bought the book nor had Knott spent a night in jail in Albany. We later published a second edition of 1,000 copies with a completely different design and this time offset printing.
When Wilmott and I got the first hardcover copies from the bindery, we took some to Knott’s apartment. It was still cold, probably March 1971. After much banging on the door, he finally let us in. All the windows were boarded up from the inside. His phone and electricity were cut off. The only room he used was the kitchen. All four burners of the gas stove were on for heat. There was a mattress on the floor. He sat on it. I forget where, or if, we sat. We handed him a copy. He flipped through the pages for a few seconds and then tossed the book over his shoulder into a pile of trash surrounding an overflowing wastebasket! He made an excuse about needing to work, and we were back on the street.
A few days or weeks later, Knott explained to me that he’d been expecting “a crummy mimeographed book.” He said he was overwhelmed by how good it looked. He said he couldn’t believe we cared enough about his poems to make such a well-produced book. (He might have also, legitimately, felt we weren’t capable of producing such a book.) Bill had serious self-esteem problems—and who wouldn’t, given the hand he was dealt, only the very surface of which I’m raking. It became clear to me years later that Knott was then profoundly clinically depressed. It’s my feeling that he lived with various levels of depression (I don’t know if he was ever treated for it) for the rest of his life.
It should be noted that, in an age of massive self-medication, Knott very rarely drank alcohol and he stopped even occasional use of cannabis by the early 1970s—because he felt it was interfering with his automatic writing exercises! The one substance on which he seemed to have a dependency was Lipton’s Instant Ice Tea. He drank it constantly, with tap water, no sugar, no ice.
Nights of Naomi was one of the few books of American hard-core surrealism I’d read. By hard-core, I mean blunt force surrealism, I mean there was nothing neo-surreal about it. It was straight from the Surrealist Manifesto. I remember Knott telling me at the time that he refused to read or write or look at art that wasn’t surreal. He was still only 29 or 30, and surrealism is a young man’s game. Only months later, he left fundamentalist surrealism behind but always maintained high levels of unpredictability and verbal (as well as aural) imagination in his poems. He was frequently playful, often with heart-tearing (“as quickly as the rumor of meat / up and down a soup-line”) insight, and always original.
In the fall of 1973, we were both teaching at Columbia College in Chicago. That Thanksgiving, we were invited by a colleague to share dinner with her family and a few others. Just before the turkey arrived, Bill excused himself from the table. The host waited for him to return before he started carving. Bill didn’t return. A few days later, I went to his place and asked him what happened, why did he leave? He said it was too painful for him to be in a warm family situation.
In early 1974, Barn Dream Press published another book of Knott’s: Love Poems to Myself. The title isn’t narcissistic: The love poems in the book are dedicated to women he loved. Patrick Botacchi, another college friend, also in the printing trade, joined our publishing venture. Love Poems to Myself was printed offset but still very handsome. It had a striking four-color cover, which was very rare in those days for a small press. When Knott first saw this book, he didn’t toss it over his shoulder. Instead, he got a legal aid lawyer and attempted to sue us. I’d said to him in a letter that we’d use a painting by a very good painter, his girlfriend at the time, on the cover. Due to miscommunication, Barn Dream used another design. Nothing came of this lawsuit. Knott told me later the lawyer said: “Sue them for what?” A few times, when I’d run across the book, particularly in the Boston/Cambridge area, the covers were torn off. I don’t remember this incident changing our friendship. I saw him very frequently in these years—in Boston/Cambridge, Ohio, Chicago, Iowa, New York, at the MacDowell Colony. We corresponded regularly.
I’ve spoken of Bill’s eccentricities, even some mistakes he made. I haven’t gone into any analytical reasons why I love his poems. The words “analytical” and “love” seem incompatible to me. I haven’t said much about why I loved him, the man. I want to make it clear that his idiosyncrasies and even his suffering made up only a small part of the man I knew. In my opinion, Knott did not become an exceptional poet because he was an orphan, because of abuse, because of poverty, because of illness, because of any kind of suffering. Everybody suffers. Knott became an exceptional poet despite those things.
Bill Knott is a quintessential, almost primal lyric poet. Primal in the sense that his poems seem to emerge from his bone marrow as well as his heart and mind. He follows an ancient poetic pulse and impulse: The poem, especially the lyric poem, and even more so the sonnet, “is a small vessel that takes a turn a little over halfway down”[ii]. Knott had a wide range of subject matter, a long working life, and a prodigious work ethic.
In the late 70s (we were on a subway in NYC, going uptown) he showed me a notebook that was filled, over and over, with different variations on two lines that later showed up in his great poem, “The Closet.” I wish I could remember which two lines, but I can’t.
He approached poems from many different angles and was (see above) a relentless re-writer. Once in a while, I think, he over-distilled certain poems. His humor is often biting—and bitten, self-deprecating, self-denigrating, self-abnegating; darkly, darkly so, sometimes. But he also can be flat-out funny. I mean laugh-out-loud funny. He was a hard-core, card-carrying Surrealist, a poet of stunning lyric tenderness, and he was a brilliant and innovatively traditional metricist. Sometimes all three at once.
You will find many sonnets of many kinds in this book. There are also dozens of other examples of traditional craftsmanship. Like all good artists, he learned the rules before he began to bend and break them. Knott is a deeply American poet (he came from the heartland and returned there in his last years), but he loved to quote W.B. Yeats’s famous exhortation, “Irish poets, learn your trade / sing whatever is well made.” I heard him say many times: “Poetry is an art form, poetry is a craft.”
He loathed clichés. He disdained preciousness. As dense as some of his poems can be, they rarely defeat comprehensibility. Some are so lucid and straight forward, they are like a punch in the gut, or one’s first great kiss. There are poems in syllabics, in various rhyme schemes; and the longest poem in the book, about six pages, is in seven-syllable lines of full- and half-rhymed couplets. In his so-called free verse poems, Knott pays fierce attention to pacing, diction, tone, syntax, line breaks. And always: noises, sonics, music, sounds. He agreed with Robert Frost: “Words exist first in the mouth, not books.” His intense focus on every syllable, and the sound of every syllable in relation to nearby sounds, is so skilled the poems often seem casual: Art hides art. He writes for the voice and the page, equally.
“Who cares to count syllables when a thought takes your breath away?” asked Emily Dickinson. Poems in this book will take your breath away, providing you have breath when you read them. Something Knott shares with Dickinson is a sense of compression, distillation, of trying, always, to make more happen with fewer words. He loved her poems fiercely and those, too, I think for similar reasons, of Marina Tsvetaeva, the great Russian poet: for their courage and imagination. Knott’s poems think in images, in the “higher algebra”[iii] of metaphor. He loads his poems (see: “Every Rift with Ore”). His imagination is relentlessly poetic. He loved Paul Valéry’s supposed response to the question of why he didn’t write prose: “Because I cannot stand the idea of writing a line like ‘And then Madam put on her hat and walked out the door.’”
Knott often favors highly accented language (“old-woe clothes”) and compound words (“shroudmeal”). Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: “Stress (metrical) is the life of it.” Knott loves play and puns that express mischief and/or satire (“Rilkemilky,” “gangplanking,” “mal-de-mess,” “immallarméan”). He liked neologisms and semi-neologisms (“nursive”). He is not averse to using a noun, such as “precipice,” as a verb. Scientists now tell us this kind of verbal surprise causes little explosions in our brains. He liked, sometimes, to make the reader hear two words in one word, and to make both work in context.
Knott can be outraged (and outrageous), “thorny”[iv], original, accessible, electrical, occasionally impolite, and heartbreaking. His love poems are exquisite.
Hundreds of lines, if lifted from Knott’s poems, can stand, or almost stand, as poems by themselves. In fact, there are several one-line poems in this book and even a huge two-word poem (three, if you count the title).
In all these crossings, these vectors, Knott’s high imagination, great skills, singular music, and his crazy-beautiful heart meet and often result in unforgettable collisions.
As perpetually insolvent as he was in the years described earlier, Bill was also incredibly generous. One year (1979?), he got an NEA grant and gave me $1,000 (I didn’t ask) because he knew I was broke. Although he was never a classroom teacher of mine, I learned more about poetry from him than anyone I’ve ever known. He had read all of English and American poetry. I’m tempted to say, twice. He’d recite from Wordsworth or Shelley and many others as long as you let him. He was more familiar with foreign poets in translation than anyone else I knew. I remember him mock-raving about the above-mentioned Marina Tsvetaeva on a bus in Chicago. He was outraged her poems were so hard to find in English. Other passengers seemed unconcerned.
His deep admiration for the poetry of others is what helped him endure and continue to write so well, despite worsening health problems, to his own exacting standards, into his seventies. See: “Poem in the Cardiac Unit.”
If someone ever does a concordance of Knott’s work, I predict that his two favorite words will be “clone,” as a noun or verb, and “pore” or “pores,” as in those little entrances and exits in our skin. I loved his laugh: a kind of chortle, never too loud, unguarded. He never lost his flat Midwestern accent. His hands were beautiful. At least two different women told me this, and one compared his hands to those of John Donne in the anonymous portrait found on the cover of many of his collections.
Knott published 11 print books between 1968 and 2004—with small presses, university presses, and major houses. Sometime around 2005, he decided to forego traditional print publishing and put all of his poems online, for free. He also published many books through Amazon and sold them for the price of printing and mailing.
Bill Knott could be the embodiment of the Groucho Marx joke about not wanting to be in a club that allowed members like him. With Bill, however, it wasn’t a joke. I saw in him, most often, a kindness, an acute mindfulness of others, even a sweetness, much more than I saw anger, or withdrawal, or rudeness. Was he contradictory? All right then, he was contradictory.
I believe Bill Knott stood out in the rain and was struck by lightning at least the dozen or two dozen times to qualify (using Randall Jarrell’s formula/metaphor) as a great poet. He is one among the American poets. I believe this will become more and more evident, maybe even obvious (if these kinds of things continue to matter in our culture), as the decades, like barges, keep moving towards the sea.
Note on Text, Methods:
I took almost all of the poems in this volume from a book Bill Knott published through Amazon called Collected Poetry 1960-2014. It is dated, on the cover, 02/24/14, less than three weeks before he died. There are 964 poems in that collection; 152 poems are in this volume. I added five poems that were not in the Collected. Since he did not include any poems in the Collected from Nights of Naomi, I did not include any here. I also kept, with a few minor exceptions, the progression of his order, which he said “is meant to be random, neither chronological nor thematic, though I may have failed to achieve that intention in all instances.”
Many people helped this book into print: Knott’s literary executor, Prof. Robert Fanning of the Univ. of Central Michigan; Bill’s assistant and friend in his last years, Leigh Jajuga; Star Black; William Corbett; Stephen Dobyns; Jonathan Galassi; his friends and students at Emerson College, particularly James Randall, John Skoyles, Daniel Tobin, Peter Shippy, Jonathan Aaron, and Dewitt Henry. Shawn Delgado did some important and sharp-eyed transcription work early on in this process. Special thanks to my wife, Jennifer Holley Lux.
* I’ve been unable to find this quote, but I think it’s from this book:
Turse, Nick. Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2013.
Bill Knott was born in Carson City, Michigan, in 1940 and died in Bay City, Michigan, in 2014. His first book, The Naomi Poems, was written under the pen name St. Geraud (1940–1966) and published to great acclaim in 1968. Between 1968 and 2004, he published eleven full-length books of poems. He taught at Emerson College in Boston for twenty-five years.
Thomas Lux has published fourteen books of poetry and one book of nonfiction. He is Bourne Professor of Poetry at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He lives in Atlanta.
BY THE RIVER BAAB
We know that somewhere far north of here
the two rivers Ba and Ab converge to form
this greater stream that sustains us, uniting
the lifeblood length of our lands: and we believe
that the Ba’s source is heaven, the Ab’s hell.
Daily expeditions embark upcountry to find
that fork, to learn where the merge first occurs.
Too far: none of our explorers return. Or
else when they reach that point they themselves
are torn apart by a sudden urge to choose—
to resolutely take either the Ba/ the Ab, and trace
good or evil to its spring. Each flips a coin
perhaps, or favors whichever one the wind’s
blowing from at that moment. Down here
even we who have not the heart to venture
anywhere that would force us to such deep
decisions, even we, when we hold that glass of
water in our hand, drink it slowly, deliberately,
as if we could taste the two strains, could somehow
distinguish their twin flow through our veins.
PAINTING VS. POETRY
Painting is a person placed
between the light and a
canvas so that their shadow
is cast on the canvas and
then the person signs their
name on it whereas poetry
is the shadow writing its
name upon the person.
Four AM, nothing moving, no hurry,
dawn still has time to be choosy
selecting its pinks. But now a breeze
brushes across me—the way my skin
is cooled off by the evaporation
of sweat, this artistry, this system
sombers me: when I am blown from
the body of life will it be refreshed?
I dread the color of the answer Yes.
THE DAY AFTER MY FATHER’S DEATH
It’s too complex to explain,
but I was already in
the orphanage when dad died;
and so that day when I cried,
to keep the other children safe
from my infectious grief
they left me in lockdown
in some office where I found
piles of comicbooks hid
which they had confiscated
from us kids through the years,
and on through wiped tears
I pored quickly knowing
this was a one-time thing—
this quarantine would soon end—
I’d never see them again:
I’d regret each missed issue,
and worse than that I knew
that if a day ever did come
when I could obtain them,
gee, I’d be too old to read
them then, I’d be like him, dad.
After you have sewn it, bite the thread off my grave—
Please leave no loose seam of me to wave above
The bones unknitting, the flesh unweaving love.
They say the universe is expanding,
not staying in one place.
I, though, have a small rental room
somewhere in it.
I don’t understand this ratio
of the whole being free,
while the parts struggle to cough up
on the first of the month.
What do you grow in that vase?
I don’t understand.
And my worth is not enough
to figure out why. Who.
What suffers such distance just to endure?
Out of a dozen I prefer the one
That’s most like thirteen, the one
Autumn drops its cease-colored nets on.
Out of a once I prefer the one
That never was, that eludes its own,
Twins peering at each other through keyholes.
Out of a one I prefer the none
Who has my face, who evens the end
And odds the origin. The belated begun.
Out of a most I prefer the many
Who are not me, who remain free
Of that disciple number, that slave figure.
Twelve nonce, thirteen’s the tense, which fourteen ends.
Despite my choice, I have no preference.
There is nowhere in the United States
Where you cannot arrange a murder
For a couple of thousand dollars or
Less, she said. This was Des Moines, Iowa,
But I can’t remember the occasion—
I can’t even remember her name, or what
Her eyes looked like when I kissed them
Or most anything else, except this.
Forgetting is a kind of murder, I guess.
But if, as my mom said about writing poetry,
You don’t get no money for it why do it?
And why this poem; failed mnemonic
That costs me less than its insipid desire
To seem sincere, seem serious, does.
On this shoveled open edge
On this lip of all our dreads
Earth seems most at balance
With its contending elements
The sun the cloud the wind the soil
All four exert an equal pull
So when the coffin enters
It presents no dissenters
Dressed in empty suitclothes
All mourners are scarecrows
Too far apart each one stands
Thus when they reach out hands
They can barely brush their
Limp glovetips against each other
Age retracts me, filling my hands
with shirtcuffs as I shrink, reduced
to secondchild. My skin is
smoke from a paper house, my hair.
Prepare a needle sea for me to walk on.
(Prepare me. Make sure
my cries are wrapped up in a leaf.)
Excerpted from I AM FLYING INTO MYSELF: SELECTED POEMS, 1960-2014 by Bill Knott, Edited and with an Introduction by Thomas Lux, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by The Estate of Bill Knott. Introduction copyright © 2017 by Thomas Lux. All rights reserved.
[i] A Wild Perfection: The Selected Letters of James Wright. Ed. Anne Wright and Saundra Rose Mailey. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, p. 293.
[ii] A Poet’s Glossary. Ed. Edward Hirsch. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014, p. 593.
[iii] Quote from Ortega y Gasset.
[iv] Robert Pinsky calls Knott a “thorny genius” in The Washington Post (online) on April 17, 2005.