Bill Knott wrote matchless and indelible poems in a wider variety of styles and modes than most mature poets try on while shopping. Remarkably, though he was loathe to acknowledge it, single voice can be heard ringing through each: righteous and irascible as a prophet, wised-up but awake to new kinds of beauty, adept at sleight-of-hand, and achingly alone.
From the beginning of his career in the mid-sixties, Bill Knott showed an ability to write the kind of Zen magic that resonated with poets like James Wright and Robert Bly, and they championed him. It’s a short reach from Shinkichi Takahashi’s “Inside of one potato / there are mountains and rivers” (trans. Harold P. Wright) to Knott’s own early work:
The Juggler to His Audience
One in my hand
One in the air
And one in you.
Knott seemed to have an ability to do this sort of thing endlessly; indeed, he might easily have carved out a career as one of the better-known Deep Image poets, had he been content with repeating himself. But as early as his first collection, 1968’s The Naomi Poems, he showed a more anarchic streak, writing provocations, coupling obscenities with great lyricism, and making anti-poems, like this, from his second collection Auto-Necrophilia:
Cry of the Peacocks,
By Naomi Lazard
(Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1967).
A trip to the library reveals page 34 of Cry of the Peacocks to be blank. Another poem consists of nothing but the names of popular actresses. Yet another features straight-faced product placement for the American Tobacco Company.
But only a portion of the poems here are pranks. Knott is serious about politics, and poems like the one below beginning “Early this morning a child was burnt to death in Vietnam” conduct real rage about the war and our violently corrupt government while at the same time remaining interesting as poems. A text that begins angry quickly becomes droll as Knott gradually transforms the poem into a Terry Southern-esque satire about technocracy, all the while communicating a furious anger and frustration. See also “Boston Common, Autumn 2000,” in which nature’s own riches—fall’s spiraling leaves—become, in context, a species of corruption, yet remain as sentimentally lovely as ever.
About this time, as Eileen Myles describes in her autobiographical novel Inferno, Knott was giving readings at St. Marks attended by Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine, who were obsessed with his work. “People claim Bill Knott was the inspiration for punk,” she writes. This is obviously wishful thinking, but speaks to the potentially enormous range of his audience.
A Midwesterner, Knott had long been interested in colloquial and unpoetic speech. Beginning in the early books, but flowering in his 70’s volumes Love Poems to Myself and Rome in Rome, Knott turned the ums and ahs and wrong rhythms of American English into some of his strangest poems. Epics like “The Wreck of the S.S. Priscilla or the Marvels of Engineering,” toss-off song lyrics “Golly Mountain Blues,” or unclassifiables like “My Mother’s List of Names” are brilliantly disingenuous persona poems. And though as the years wore on Knott’s vernacular ear would increasingly confine itself to single lines and stanzas, this is because all of his poems became more crowded, flashed more colors and in quicker succession, as his language and images compressed themselves into taut forms.
By the time he published 1989’s Outremer and 1992’s The Quicken Tree, Knott had adopted the sonnet as his default mode. Gnarled into the Mallarmé-tangles of “To the Emblematic Hourglass of My Father’s Skull,” included here, are multilingual puns, deftly embedded rhymes, droll epigrams, and opulently deep images. We’re so dazzled by the combustion that we don’t notice at first that each line is in perfect pentameter, save the last, which is short one syllable, the poem’s first feminine line-stop, ending with the last beat of the word “wanting.”
To the Emblematic Hourglass of My Father’s Skull
The night that dies in me each day is yours:
Hour whose way I stare, yearning to terra
Firma my eye. There. Where a single hair
Would be a theater curtain I could cling
Behind, dreading my cue, aching to hear
What co-hurrah. More, more of leaves that fall
Consummate capsules, having annaled all
Their veins said! Printout printemps. And yet
(Altars our blood writes a blurb for god on)
Can one ever envy enough his skeleton’s
Celebrity. Can any epitaph
Be adequate repartee for your laugh.
Days lived by me each night say less than it.
While sleep in ounces weighs me wanting.
Of course he didn’t confine himself to sonnets. Syllabic verse, villanelles, homages, rude parodies, and more of the short poems he’d become known for are all included in the Collected Poems he published toward the end of his life. And one of the keenest rewards of this gigantic volume, this “planet on the table” in Wallace Stevens’ phrase, are the bits he’d culled from old notebooks, odds and ends that never found their way into larger poems (like “[Untitled]” below) now poems of their own. “How many poets” I once heard him ask, while praising a sestina by Ashbery, “can write a sestina that’s any good at all, let alone exemplary?” A late sestina, “Hollywood Nightmare” is both.
Knott kept notebooks all his working life and they were voluminous. An apocryphal story maintained that a former student had found one of these notebooks on a bus and that it contained 78 pages of variations on a single line. Those familiar with the way he’d revise poems from book to book wouldn’t be at all surprised. The sonnet “Lourdes” appeared in one version when originally published, another when collected in 1983’s Becos, and yet a third in Knott’s Collected. The story of each new collection was that of a hundred visions and revisions. Untangling and tracing them all would make for a hell of a master’s thesis.
The selection below makes no claim to being fully representative or encyclopedic, but I did try to include at least one poem from every period of his working life and to fairly represent the range of his themes and concerns. I’ve been reading and loving Bill’s work ever since he stopped into the Barnes & Noble in Boston’s Downtown Crossing where I was working as a clerk in 1999 and handed me a couple of his homemade chapbooks. I couldn’t stop reading them, nor could I stop quoting bits aloud to the shoppers who came up to pay. It was eventually suggested by my manager that I head to the break room for a time-out.
In the years since, I’ve never stopped sharing Bill’s work, or loving that moment when a friend (usually more willing than those poor customers) first tilts their head in admiration, finds themselves asking questions, laughing, or absorbed. I hope you’ll like some of the poems below and, if you do, I hope you’ll pass them along.
I wrote under a pen name
One day I shook the pen trying to make the name come out
But no it’s
Like me prefers clinging to the inner calypso
So I tossed the pen to my pet the
Wastebasket to eat
It’ll vomit back the name
Names aren’t fit
For unhuman consumption
But no again
It stayed down
I don’t use a pen-name anymore
I don’t use a pen anymore
I don’t write anymore
I just sit looking at the wastebasket
With this alert intelligent look on my face
(Sergey) (Yesenin) Speaking (Isadora) (Duncan)
I love Russia; and Isadora in her dance.
When I put my arms around her, she’s like
Wheat that sways in the very midst of a bloody battle,
-Un-hearkened to, but piling up peace for the earth
(Though my self-war juggles no nimbus) Earthquakes; shoulders
A-lit with birthdays of doves; piety of the unwashable
Creases in my mother’s gaze and hands. Isadora “becalmed”
Isadora the ray sky one tastes on the skin of justborn babies
When you took me to America
I went, as one visits a grave, to
The place where Bill Knott would be born 20 years in the future
I embraced: the pastures, the abandoned quarry, where he would play
With children of your aura and my sapling eye
Where bees brought honey to dying flowers I sprinkled
Childhood upon the horizons, the cows
Who licked my heart like a block of salt) Isadora I write this poem
On my shroud, when my home-village walks out to harvest.
Bread weeps as you break it gently into years.
Dream Amid Bed-Woods
You must pull down sheets from these linen trees,
Blankets too, a pillowcase in full leaf,
But can’t: to snooze amidst their fruits, beneath
The sheath of that composite canopy’s
Roost, you must raise yourself past hammock heights—
Up where its deepest roots feel doubly sapped,
The dormitory orchard might lie wrapped
And ripe with you, whose foliage still invites
More lure of surface sleep. But must you trust
The ease in these boughs, the sway of whose loft
So often now wakes vows to never rest,
To somehow remain alow, to resist
All berth above: you must push off this soft
Palleted grove, this tall, forest mattress.
Outside, the snow is falling into its past …
I do want this night to end.
In the fireplace,
a section of ash caves in.
The fall day you were buried,
birds went over,
thick enough to carry someone.
They took my gapes of breath.
We are together in some birds, who fail.
I don’t even want to look at your grave,
its heroic little mound
like the peck of dirt we hope to eat in our life.
My Mother’s List of Names
My mother’s list of names today I take it in my hand
And I read the places she underlined William and Ann
The others are my brothers and sisters I know
I’m going to see them when I’m fully grown
Yes they’re waiting for me to join em and I will
Just over the top of that great big hill
Lies a green valley where their shouts of joy are fellowing
Save all but one can be seen there next a kin
And a link is missing from their ringarosey dance
Think of the names she wrote down not just by chance
When she learned that a baby inside her was growing small
She placed that list inside the family Bible
Then I was born and she died soon after
And I grew up sinful of questions I could not ask her
I did’not know that she had left me the answer
Pressed between the holy pages with the happy laughter
Of John, Rudolph, Frank, Arthur, Paul
Pauline, Martha, Ann, Doris, Susan, you all,
I did not even know you were alive
Till I read the Bible today for the first time in my life
And I found this list of names that might have been my own
You other me’s on the bright side of my moon
Mother and Daddy too have joined you in play
And I am coming to complete the circle of your day
I was a lonely child I never understood that you
Were waiting for me to find the truth and know
And I’ll make this one promise you want me to
I’m goin to continue my Bible study
Till I’m back inside the Body
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
Pinky Brown must marry Rose Wilson
to keep her mouth shut about the murder
which the cops don’t know wasn’t no accident—
Pinky has a straight razor for slashing,
a vial of acid for throwing into,
a snitch’s face. He dies at the end. The end
of the book I mean—where, on the last page,
Rose snuffles home from church praying
that her Pinky has left her pregnant …
Now, this kid—if he was ever born—joined
a skiffle group in ’62 called Brighton
Rockers, didn’t make it big, though,
just local dances and do’s. Rose,
pink, brown, all nonelemental colors, shades
of shame, melancholy, the colors, you
get caught loving too much, you get sent up
to do time—time, that crime you didn’t,
couldn’t commit, even if you were or weren’t
unborn—and even if your dad he died with
his sneer—unbroken his punk’s pure soul, unsaved!
Every Sunday now in church Rose slices
her ring-finger off, onto the collection-plate;
once the sextons have gathered enough
bodily parts from the congregation, enough
to add up to an entire being, the priest sub-
stitutes that entire being for the one
on the cross: they bring Him down in the name
of brown and rose and pink, sadness
and shame. His body, remade, is yelled at
and made to get a haircut, go to school,
study, to do each day like the rest
of us crawling through this igloo of hell
and laugh it up, show pain a good time,
and read Brighton Rock by Graham Greene.
There are miracles that nobody survives
No one comes screaming of where what when
And these are the only true miracles
Since we never hear tell about them—
Since we never hear tell about them
It increases their chance of being common
Everyday events without witness without
Us even—how absently close we brush
Teeth sneeze cook supper mail postcards
In contrast ofﬁcial miracles take a far
Off locale some backwater—or Podunk
Which although unveriﬁable is visitable
Not pop the map but part the pilgrim’s
Lips it springs up hospitals hot dog
Stands pour in testosteroniacs pimple
Victims but most of all cripples—their
Limbs misled and skewed and crisscross
Like—roadsigns that point everywhere
On a signpost bent over a weedy crossroads
In the boondocks of a forgotten place
Early this morning a child was burnt to death in Vietnam
Did it register on the seismograph?
Then I can’t form an opinion without more data
At noon I saw a poor woman slicing at her shadow to get meat to eat
Did it show up on the oscilloscope?
I don’t think so.
Well then it was probably a fluke
This evening a man bearing for peace was nightsticked to the ground
Impossible. There wasn’t a murmur on the sonar
You’re imagining all these things. Sit down, young lady
Why you’re trembling all over, you better sit down
You’re shivering, now your eyes
Are rolling, your arms and legs are going into hyper-rictus, what’s the matter? I see:
You’re not a girl any longer, you’re a measuring-instrument
But what do these strange readings upon you mean, I wonder
Stop chattering your teeth, calm down and try to tell me, it’s important
What are you picking up
With your sensors? Try and tell me
Outside,Outside,Outside Tell me
Outside,Outside,Outside,Outside,Outside,Outside, Tell me
the sixth sense is
what the first five use
to delude us into thinking
that all we do here
is hear touch taste smell
The Balloon that Lived on the Moon
The lower gravity was kind to it
It could bounce and soar higher
Than Earth allows
So the balloon was happier
And soon forgot the puncture culture
We perpetuate down here
Where the hate-pins of our eyes skewer
The frailest inflation
The beadiest bubble is not safe
But up there
The bleak unpeopled landscape
Mirrrors more faithfully
A balloon’s own sterility and
What a round object by its perfect nature
How its boundaries segregate the in from the out
And show what is enough
And what is less
So when you think of the balloon
That lived on the moon you might wonder
Why all its brothers and sisters
Because can’t you feel how
When one tugs your hand
Deft with that upward urge how much
It resists your touch
You are not a part of it
Boston Common, Autumn 2000
The statehouse dome
is painted gold
to reflect the greed
that gilds everything
in this Capitol:
superfluous those leaves
turning their richest color.
No-one is fooled,
not even me, unless
it’s by all the green-sickly
bronze statues in this park:
have they been seen by Doctors
from the Museum,
have they been authenticated lately?
These could be forgeries,
the real ones trucked off by night
to some billionaire’s
penthouse of horrors:
eyre I aspire to—my lair, my home!
The trees’ lottery tickets descend
and fill my hands
with more than I can spend.
One of the old guys said
a good test of poetry was
that if you thought of a true
poem while shaving you’d cut yourself
lots of times I’ll be reading a poem
and stop right in the middle
cause I just remembered
the great shaves I get
from my Wilkinson Sword-Edge blades
Soon to be a major mirage, my face—my face
never changes! To look each day in the mirror
is boring as going on location shoots
or signing autographs for my stable
of fans or being typecast in detective
roles. Sigh. Sometimes all I do is sit by my pool
and spazz out until my brain is a black pool
of emptiness, my eyes reruns: until my face
wears the neutral mask of aura a detective
affects. And when I am as blank as a mirror,
as dull, when I sprawl as snoozful as a stable
full of saviors, I dream: I dream someone shoots
me and he becomes a celebrity. He shoots
me and he gets the house, the swimming pool,
the Andy Warhols, the Rolls, the Porche, the stable,
the … the lawn he gets! Christ, it’s like divorce. My face!
He gets my face too? He’s like a fucking mirror
of me …! Jesus, you’d think some goddamn detective
would know it’s not me: when I’m a detective
on screen I know who is who. The badguy shoots
the goodguy sometimes but when they hold a mirror
over the goodguy’s lips you see a pool
of mist appear and then his pal the co-star’s face
looks all relieved. Cut to the hospital: “Stable?”
the doctor smirks, “Yes: his condition is stable,
Of course, with the brainectomy his detective
days are history, uh hunh. His face? His face—
hell, our plastic-surgeon loves a challenge: shoots
those Before and After photos? Great stuff!…” The pool
of reporters from the Daily Sun Rhymes Mirror
yawns at the grinning doctor while in the mirror
above my white white bed I maintain a stable
of noble absence; my non-being is a pool
of pure mystery—a sheer puzzle any detective
would arrest the cursed creator of: I see shoots
of lilac and crocus come bursting from my face
each time the mirror closeups. But no detective
can solve this daily dream, whose stable-cam shoots
me here beside my pool, here, inside my face.
A sudden raisinstorm broke
Raisins falling everywhere pellmell.
The occasion uniqued my head, I thought
If this can happen raisins raining
Upon persons paining why I can leave anytime
Without feeling shame
But all the same,
Before taking off some vestigial guilt or other,
Made me at least get up
Before some public gathering or other
A departing oration:
Druthers, I am going now.
Druthers, I tried to love you
Though you always made me choose
Between you, and you, and you. Oh my Druthers,
Goodbye, I have my reasons.
Did he say RAISINS?
Oh; I just wondered,
What with the weather and all.
(to Melisande Kopp)
The way the world is not
astonished at you
it doesn’t blink a leaf
when we step from the house
leads me to think
that beauty is natural, unremarkable
and not to be spoken of
except in the course of things
the course of singing and worksharing
the course of squeezes and neighbors
the course of you, tying back your raving hair to go out
and the course, of course, of me
astonished at you
the way the world is not.
(POEM) (CHICAGO) (1967)
If you remember this poem after reading it
Please go to Lincoln Park the corner of Dickens Street and sit
On the bench there where M. and I kissed one night for a few minutes
It was wonderful even if you forget
All poems Copyright © 1989 by Bill Knott. Used with permission of the author’s literary executor, Robert Fanning.
John Cotter is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly and author of the novel Under the Small Lights (Miami University Press, 2010). He lives in Denver.