RIP Bill Knott, 1940-2014
Several of Bill Knott’s former colleagues at Emerson College have confirmed that Bill passed away yesterday from complications with surgery. The inventive, subversive, and immensely influential poet was 74.
Knott was the author of more than an a dozen poetry books and had more recently taken to publishing all of his work, for free, online. His first book, The Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans, was published in 1968 under the pseudonym “Saint Geraud” and came on the heels of the poet’s own fake suicide, detailed by Paul Carroll in his introduction to Knott’s slim–and by nearly every critical estimation, classic–volume:
Some poets and critics and readers of contemporary literature will recall the mimeographed letter they received in the autumn of 1966 or a copy of which they may have read in Epoch. The letter, allegedly written by a friend of the poet, stated that Bill Knott 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. I don’t know what desperate impulse led the poet to conceive and send such a letter but I am happy to report that Bill Knott is alive and writing today (although the poet tells me that he would rather have this not known).
Carroll also has insight about Knott’s use of a pseudonym:
In particular, Knott by speaking from behind his mask can ignore one of the most popular standards on the contemporary literary scene: the one that insists that all poems must embody “sincerity” and autobiographical detail. By talking to us through the mouth of Saint Geraud he is able to achieve and maintain, it seems to me, some of that quality of intensity and purity which an actor may commend when his role as Oedipus or Tiresias requires that he wear the mask: he is liberated from the labyrinth of everyday, prosaic details and he is also free from the bondage to be only that person who he thinks he is or wants to be or whom the world tells him he is or should be. In short, he is free to speak only as Saint Geraud.
The Naomi Poems is famously sought in its first edition, a sort of generalized badge of honor that finds its way into most serious poetry book collections, and it contains what are widely regarded as some of the greatest short poems composed in the 20th century. It is essentially a devotional book, and the poet’s “intensity and purity” appear on every page–a distinct dramatic passion that is leveraged by a surreal, distinctly absurd quality of knowingness and attendant futility. His two poems titled “Death” are only three lines long; here is one of them:
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.
Thirteen of the poems in the book are titled “Poem,” one of which reads in its entirety:
What language will be safe
When we lie awake all night
Saying palm words, no fingertip words
This wound searching us for a voice
Will become a fountain with rooms to let
Or a language composed of kisses and leaves
Knott deals with inevitability and desperation with ease, blending both romantic pronouncement and a left of center, barely there logic (“This wound searching us for a voice”) that perhaps can only be compared to, to use Knott’s famous description of poetry, “an electric, / a magic, field–like the space/between a sleepwalker’s outheld arms…” (“Poem to Poetry”). In fact, very much of his obsession has to do with poetry itself; in addition to thirteen poems titled “Poem,” Knott titles two “(Untitled),” three “Prosepoem”–one word–and one “(Untitled Prosepoem).” Any young poet interested in writing a sequence devoted to a real of imagined other ought to read a copy of The Naomi Poems first and decide whether to proceed. The book opens, absurdly, with this three-line poem:
Alright if I have to be famous let it be for this great
starfish-shield I made
And the sands of her face drift over her body
Naomi is invoked continuously throughout, but not so much that it becomes rote or that Knott’s political poems–another distinguished stroke in his repertoire–ever feel out of place. They are part of the same devotion, and this balance would persist throughout the poet’s career.
In some ways, whatever energy possessed him to fake his own death seemed adequate to the internet he would inhabit 35 years later. On his personal Web site, he published posts like “a few hundred of the thousands of rejections slips i’ve gotten over the years”–rows of actual images of rejections he collected over the years. But he also republished all of his old work, along with new work, making all of it available to the public for free. In fact, he also published a series of YouTube videos in which he reads the poems aloud. Follow that rabbit by starting here. Apropos, he shields his face by showing closeups of the text, repeatedly stating that his work is out of print and that it can be downloaded free. Most of these videos have no more than a few dozen views each. But Knott perhaps preferred these to more conventional methods. In 2004, he published a new collection, The Unsubscriber, with the major trade publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He expressed how much he cared about this achievement in an interview with Bookslut:
Many sensitive souls in my line of business hold similar views: we actually prefer to work in low-budget independent films — that’s where the challenging roles are, that’s where one can really grow as an artist, and that’s why we’re always appearing in big-studio blockbusters. But honest I TRIED to get Pitt and Iowa and Rat Vomit Review and Dan Halpern’s National Poetry Series and all those other places to publish my book. I entered all their annual contests, or all the ones I could afford. But after their rejections, there was no recourse. I had to lower my hopes and eat crow. None of them would publish it, so I was forced to go with FSG.
In the same interview, he would chalk his then 37-year old suicide stunt up to “pretentiousness” and “stupidity.” But in the internet era, he was still no stranger to public display–Knott could be relied upon to lambast the contemporary poetry scene whenever he deemed necessary, showing up constantly in comment streams on online articles and in Facebook threads to make provocative comments. He would also gesture to poets he admired, and is known to have sent his own poems, sometimes handwritten, to poets he didn’t know.
It can seem that even new kinds of art exist of a kind of spectrum or certain scale of development or inevitability in a generalized poetic consciousness. But nothing like Knott’s work really could have happened if not for Knott himself. Here is the entirety of another of his poems entitled “Death”:
Perfume opens its eyes of you.
I shall be the shepherd of your hair.
A dawn made of all the air I ever breathed.
Many poets are taking to Facebook and Twitter to share their favorite lines, poems, anecdotes, well wishes and blessings. As word spreads, it becomes increasingly evident just how many poets and writers he has inspired throughout his life and career.
Bill Knott was my model for political poet, critical poet, contrarian poet, anti-establishment poet, anti-poet http://t.co/1HFCEdzGIS
— Elisa Gabbert (@egabbert) March 13, 2014
RIP Bill Knott. A true poet, in a time when those words are worse than meaningless. He gave me money once. And hand-painted books. Fuck.
— Michael Robbins (@alienvsrobbins) March 13, 2014
Bill Knott was a friend of mine. He kicked me when i needed kicking. I will miss his voice in American poetry.
— Aaron Belz (@aaronbelz) March 13, 2014
“The most private part of the clock is the hour, no, I mean the minute, or wait, the forever.” ~Bill Knott
— Kathleen Rooney (@KathleenMRooney) March 13, 2014
Open Letters Monthly has posted a quick write-up:
“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.”
See the full post at the Open Letters Monthly site.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated his work was no longer available on his blog, but it is–the poet had several blogs.
–John Deming & DJ Dolack