Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Goodnight Bill Knott

Bill Knott, one of my favorite living poets, is no longer living.

Bill Knott was one of my poetry idols, my model of a political poet, critical poet, contrarian poet, anti-establishment poet, anti-poet.

His poems changed my ideas of what poetry is and can be. They really did. I remember sitting in an IKEA chair in my hovel of an overheated Beacon Hill apartment in August of 2002, reading The Quicken Tree and thinking HOLY SHIT! In particular, the potato soup poem blew my mind. It is not a serious poem, and so it is a very serious poem.

He lived his life as performance art. Life as tragicomedy.

Bill Knott led my first workshop in grad school, at Emerson College in Boston, MA. In some ways he was a wonderful teacher. In some ways he was a terrible teacher. Recently I was asked to share the best and worst writing advice I'd ever gotten, and I attributed both to Bill Knott. I remember him making students cry, telling them he didn't understand what they were doing or why or that they weren't real poets. A student told him he was reading Lorca and Bill just shook his head. His sweaters always had holes in them. One day he offered me $5 for one of my poems.

I wish he could have known how much he meant to me. I was afraid to let him know, because he distrusted admiration. His grand act was "I'm unappreciated," but he deflected appreciation.

How does it feel to have The Unsubscriber brought out by Farrar, Straus and Giroux? 
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.

That's from this Bookslut interview from 2005. Please, please read the whole thing. It's wonderful. So is this interview from Memorious. So is John's recent profile of Bill Knott at the Poetry Foundation. (John took a poetry class with Bill at Emerson as an undergrad; he made him want to be a poet.) (We talked about how much we loved him the night we met.)

I think everyone is still hoping it's a hoax. I hope it is. He's done it once before.

I will add more relevant links as they come to me. Love to my Emerson friends who also loved Bill, and love to my poet friends who are still alive.


Read the obit and four poems at Open Letters Monthly.

Read the memorial at Coldfront.

Read the Emerson story, which includes lovely quotes from colleagues/friends including John Skoyles and Tom Lux.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Really good remembrance of Bill, EG. Thanks for writing it. So sad.

  3. Thanks, Elisa. Moving tribute to a great, complicated man. By the way, John Skoyles told me in a private message that Bill left all the details of his life to a poet named John Fanning who teaches at Central Michigan. Also, John wants to have a reading/celebration of Bill's life at AWP in Minneapolis next year. Something to look forward to.

  4. I can't believe it. I posted one of his poems at my blog less than an hour ago, and then I come here and find out he's dead.

  5. It's shocking. He wasn't young, but it somehow hadn't occurred to me that he would die.

  6. I searched for the poet Saint Geraud for 7 years after reading his poems in an anthology I *had* to steal from my local library. I was 12 and up until then it was the most un legal thing I'd ever done. In college a professor told me about corpse and beans. His poems and a few emails we exchanged about my upcoming book meant the world to me.

    1. I loved your thing in The Rumpus! (Which I missed when it first came out.) I have met a number of people who said Bill Knott was the person who made them want to be a poet.

  7. I'm very sad at this news. I've known Bill Knott's poems since high school, I guess I would have been 17 when I first read two or three of his poems. Three or four years later I found his book The Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans.

    (Many years later I found that "corps et biens" in French -- literally, "body and goods" -- is a standard phrase, the equivalent for what in English would probably be "body and personal effects." Corpse and beans.)

    It's late right now and I'm fading a little. I'll come back and follow the links you've included in your post here.

    For now, a couple of Bill Knott's short poems, from The Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans (which, as it happened, was sitting near me in a stack of books within arm's reach when I read your post here).


    Bill Knott


    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.


    Bill Knott


    Let the dead bury the dead:
    it is said. But I say it is we living
    who have been shoved underground, who must now rise up
    to bury the dead, the Johnsons, Francos, Fords and McNamaras.

    1. Thank you for that corpse and beans trivia! I never had any idea what that meant.

    2. Elisa, I came back and followed the links in your post here. I especially like the Memorious interview, also John Cotter's piece in the Poetry Foundation site. I posted a brief item about Bill Knott in my own blog, here, with links to each of those and to the obituary in Open Letters Monthly.

      And, to be sure, I've been reading his poems again during the past day or so.

      As others have commented, there really haven't been any other poets very much like him, though it occurs to me that one poet whose work seems to me to have at least something in common with Knott's poems is Kenneth Patchen. A similar kind of tenderness and innocence, a compassion for the most scorned among us, mingled (sometimes) with a somewhat similar political sharpness, and (sometimes) a kind of shoulder-shrugging throw-it-all-to-the-wind humor and absurdity. I've noticed the similarities several times during the past day or so as I've been rereading Knott -- several times when I thought of Patchen.

    3. "a kind of shoulder-shrugging throw-it-all-to-the-wind humor and absurdity"
      A good example of that in Patchen: the whole book Because It Is. That has Patchen's drawings, too. I enjoy it, but it's not nearly as shocking as Knott writing in that vein (cf. Aurealism and Auto-Necrophilia).
      I feel lucky to have some of Knott's one-of-a-kind hand-made books with his artwork on them. And a couple of the self-published books he sent me have, in addition to unique inscriptions, cross-outs and penciled-in marginalia!

    4. I love Kenneth Patchen!

    5. I sent Knott a few emails and posted some comments at his blogs. He was alternately generous and tetchy--though I may have been abrasive at times. I was just happy to hear from him. Here's one of our email exchanges:

      Mr. Knott,

      Re: the post in which you claim to have no affinity with Armantrout et al., which poets do you think you have an affinity with? That would make an interesting post. James Tate, for example? When I read Lucky Darryl, I had fun trying to figure out which parts were by Tate and which by you. I'd like to try that with Are You Ready, Mary Baker Eddy? too, but I've never seen a copy of it. Amazon has a first edition I can't afford.

      David Grove

      Knott's reply:

      saying i feel no affinity with Armantrout et al is shorthand for
      saying the work of theirs i've read has not been interesting or
      appealing to me—

      my "affinities" are to poems, not poets— to individual specimans, not ouevres—

      Lucky darryl is not worth reading, in my opinion

      Well, I can't agree with him there. Lucky Darryl is a good read.

      By the way, there's some very interesting stuff about Knott in Eileen Myles' Inferno. Which is a must-read if you like Just Kids, Jim Carroll's autobiographical stuff, and other artist's-eye-view accounts of NYC in the 70s.

    6. He was that way generally; you may have seen him in the comments here.

      I've been meaning to get a copy of Inferno, now I'll definitely have to.

    7. Yes, I've seen his comments in many places. Always when he was less than cordial with me I remembered the words of someone who'd received an unfavorable review from Randall Jarrell: "I felt as though I'd been run over by a truck but not hurt."

      I never expected anything from him. I was surprised when he said anything at all to me.

      Yes, read Inferno! Good fucking book. I love Eileen Myles.

    8. @ Elisa -- as it happens, I also wrote about Kenneth Patchen in my blog several years ago, here, if you care to take a look. I went back and reread what I'd written about Patchen, and discovered that I mentioned a similarity I found between his poetry and Bill Knott's. The Patchen blogpost was in 2007; apparently I really do find similarities between Patchen's poetry and Knott's.

      The Patchen blogpost includes links to some other webpages, and I haven't checked them to verify if the links are still good after seven years.

  8. I posted the below on my blog when I found out. Still bumming me out.

    Way back in 2010 I published a longish poem on Octopus Magazine entitled “It Is Especially Dangerous To Be Conscious of Oneself” and, out of nowhere, Bill Knott contacted me saying that he really liked the poem and wanted to make a chapbook out of it. Which he did, in a print run of 120; for the next two years I would give it away for free at readings. As both The Unsubscriber and The Naomi Poems are two of my favorite collections of poetry, I was psyched and humbled. And just last month I’d corresponded with him regarding buying some of his artwork. I’m really bummed about this. Dude was one of a kind. He didn’t care in the best of all ways and permutations. RIP notknott. For real.

    1. Absolutely one of a kind. Must have been thrilling for him to want to work with you!

  9. BILL KNOTT ARCHIVE - nearly 300 PDF books, PDFs of old blogs, scans of notebook pages, and more .. read or download for free ..


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