Literary Hub

Never Meet Your (Anti-)Heroes: My Correspondence with Bill Knott

“ . . . attempts to resurrect poets unread in their lifetimes are futile, no matter how much money university presses waste in the effort, or how many pages the Norton adds onto each edition—and no matter how many of us vainly delude ourselves that it’s possible . . . No one reads me now, ergo no one is going to read me a decade from now when I’m dead—I can’t console myself with the illusion that “posterity” will see merits in my poetry that contemporary readers and critics didn’t—it doesn’t happen that way. (Bill Knott, from his essay “Pornstars Jack Spicer and Lorine Niedecker;” italics mine)

According to Wikipedia or the Poetry Foundation site Bill Knott is just another dead poet. Long ago the winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship, author of poetry collections with strange titles like Becos and Rome in Rome. At this point Knott died three and a half years ago, in March of 2014, but with the recent publication of a Selected Poems volume by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, the poet is gaining some of the (positive) attention he rarely received while alive. To name only a few, reviews and think pieces on Knott have been published in the past six months at The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review and The Los Angeles Times.

I didn’t really know Bill Knott, not at all. We never met—which was for the best. But literarily and otherwise, his life deeply impacted my own. Actually meeting him would have ruined it; old saws like you should never meet your heroes because they’ll only disappoint you are, occasionally, still taut and sharp. Our brief correspondence was enough. It provided the generalized contours of the man without embodying the specific, the actual. I’m sure he had a limp handshake and a vacant, insecure stare. Sweaty palms; bad, baggy clothes. I’m glad we never met.

And even in his death I’ve been avoiding him. Although I knew about it, was in Washington D.C. with nebulous plans to show up, I didn’t attend the 2017 AWP “A Tribute to Bill Knott (1940-2014)” panel. This pains me only a little—the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference is no doubt something he abhorred. And I’m sure a panel devoted specifically to other writers talking about him and his work would have publicly horrified him—he would have said as much online, I’m sure—and privately tickled him. Like all great poets I believe that, above all else, he wanted to be read. But Bill Knott was unlike so many other great poets.

*

Entitled “fuck you poets house,” a post from one of Bill Knott’s blogs, dated April 29, 2011:

fuck you, Poets House snobs— vanity books “will not be accepted”— you won’t “accept” my books? Fine . . .

Per their website, Poet’s House is “a 70,000-volume poetry library in New York City. Free and open to the public, Poets House’s collection is among the most comprehensive, open-stacks collections of poetry in the United States.” Circa February 5th, 2017, searching for Bill Knott on the Poet’s House website yields no results.

*

Knowing absolutely nothing about poetry, contemporary or otherwise, I first came to Knott’s work in 2006, on the recommendation of Michele Glazer, one of my professors (and eventually my thesis advisor) at Portland State University, where I was a first-year M.A. student in Creative Writing with an emphasis in Poetry. Though I was enrolled in a graduate program in poetry writing, I knew little to nothing about the genre. Upon my graduation from the University of Nevada-Reno in December 2005—Literature Major; American History Minor— I had largely applied to Creative Writing programs on a lark. All four of those programs were in the Pacific Northwest, where, because of the rain and the breweries and Powell’s Bookstore and Elliot Smith and Modest Mouse and the rain and the breweries, I wanted to live.

(This is not, I later found out, how other MFA students approached their graduate program applications. Instead they researched and thought about who they wanted to study with, how their own work might fit in with each professor’s teaching style and overall creative schematic; or where they could get the most graduate-assistant fellowship $; or how their personal and creative lives might intertwine with their fledgling professional careers upon their MFA graduation. Not me, though. I wanted to mope, rainily, and drink beer.)

Upon my entrance to Portland State I liked poetry and I wrote poetry but I didn’t understand poetry, not on any fundamental level.  My senior year as an undergrad I’d bought James Tate’s Selected Poems and tried to grasp its contents, with middling success. I liked some of Langston Hughes and William Carlos Williams’ poems, I suppose. I had a $4.95 Barnes & Noble edition of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, which I would sporadically peer into now and again. I liked Gertrude Stein, or more accurately the idea of Gertrude Stein. I understood nothing, but the sheer fact that was putting these words and syllables together and people were actually buying that it meant something, had some type of non-random meaning, signaled to me that the ambiguity aspect of poetry was something that, without knowing why, I was interested in. From her book Siste Viator, I’d read a Sarah Manguso poem (“Asking For More”) on the website Poetry Daily and liked it, if only because it was short and epigrammatic. In terms of my poetic penchants and proclivities, though, that was about it.

More illuminating were my aversions, many of them based on apathy, a fervent laziness. Although I’d read nothing, everything else I reviled. I didn’t care for Allen Ginsberg, not really, and I didn’t care for T.S. Eliot, not really and I didn’t care for Gwendolyn Brooks, not really, and I didn’t care for Robert Frost, not really, and I didn’t care for Sylvia Plath, not really, and I didn’t care for Walt Whitman, not really, and I didn’t care for Adrienne Rich, not really, and I didn’t care for Marianne Moore, not really. I’d encountered all of these poets, although I’d read none of them at length. What kept me at a remove, then, was my subconscious realization that if I actually read the work of the above poets I would be forced to think for myself about their work, be forced to have an opinion that I hadn’t gleaned from someone or somewhere else, second-hand, third-hand. At that point in my life, such individualized thinking was anathema to me. I was simply unwilling to do it. Or unable. 

*

One of my favorite poems of Knott’s isn’t well-known and it isn’t one of his best either, not by a long shot. It’s a
newer one and, like many of his poems, is simply entitled “Poem.” It reads:

I want to commission a portrait of you
but I have no money and don’t know
any painters to do it for free. I don’t
want the portrait for myself, no, it would
go to you. I guess I’d like it if you thought
of me each time you looked at it but
probably after a while you would forget
the circumstances of its installment
and only glance at it from time to time
as if it had been there always, an old
heirloom or less, a thing kept not for
any memories it stirs but simply because
it has no practical use and therefore
would take too much thought to throw away,
too much effort. If it’s successful, that is—
And though I have crammed everything
into this portrait which does not exist,
it remains unsatiated, stays compromise.
A thousand campaigns of insightful rummage
cannot glut it, satisfy its imperial essence,
remote ethereal framing. I crave its emptiness,
never-to- be-filledness. It blinks at me,
idol of smithereens, filled with shadow-hush.
Spacial justice, harmonic weight, pinned dream.

What I like is the absence, lack activating an actuality that (inevitably) fails to fulfill; “unsatiated…idol of
smithereens, filled with shadow-hush.” I like how the speaker endeavors to create something for someone
else, a something impossible to create that will not be created—and thereby a creation made all the more
real, imaginative inspiration turned, by the poem’s end, merely rote, commonplace. A sadness uplifted by
perseverance, will.

*

In his introduction to Knott’s first posthumously published collection I Am Flying into Myself: Selected Poems, 1960-2014 (FSG, 2017), Thomas Lux, the volume’s editor, himself now recently-deceased, states a number of things that even while Knott was alive seemed fully evident, among them that:

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.

and

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.

Discussing Knott’s work within the framework of the contemporary sonnet, Lux quotes from A Poet’s Glossary (2014), a poetic form and terminology textbook edited by Edward Hirsch. I’ve never actually read his poems but according to the wildness that is the World Wide Web, Hirsch is a Guggenheim Fellow, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, a possessor of a National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. Hirsch edited the Best American Poetry 2016 and, per the Poetry Foundation website, “has built a reputation as an attentive and elegant writer and reader of poetry.”

A post from one of Bill Knott’s blogs, dated August 5, 2011:

MacArthur Genius Fellow Edward Hirsch is a PoBizPro and one of the worst poets alive. His poetry is total worthless garbage, which makes it about average for a MacArthur poet, since most of the poets who have received the MacArthur are mediocre at best. With a few exceptions. But each of them of course is a consummate PoBizPro.

* 

Midway through the first half of my first quarter as an (ostensible) Master of Arts graduate student I had my first one-on-one conference with Michele. I was in two of her classes, a workshop and a literature one, and all term had said nothing in either. In the literature course this was unremarkable—there were 20+ students enrolled—but in the workshop it was egregious, as in my recollection just 8 fledgling poets comprised the entirety of the class. Class after class, awkward silence after awkward silence, you knew who didn’t talk.

Michele asked me what I’d been reading and eyes to the floor I mumbled, truthfully, that I hadn’t been reading much of anything, nope, because I didn’t know where to start. She nodded, my response not surprising her, and recommended I read The Dream Songs by John Berryman, The Naomi Poems by Bill Knott and non-specified books by Mary Ruefle, Catherine Wagner and Wanda Coleman. Knowing none of the names she mentioned and feeling, as usual, inadequate, spiritually-shrifted, I said I would check them out.

I meant it but Michele probably didn’t believe me—nor should she have. I was one of the worst poets in the class and had received no graduate assistantship or fellowship money; unlike some of the other students in my cohort, I’d garnered no letters of recommendation from established mid-career poets or turned down more lauded programs to live in Portland’s pseudo-bohemia, attend Portland State. I’d been working a joke of a service industry job downtown, sure, but I mostly lived on my parents’ money. Orphaned at a young age and left to fend for himself, penniless, Knott never had this luxury.

* 

Talking with other poets about him, it’s been said over and over that Knott didn’t play the game and that’s why he received the treatment that he did—no major awards won or life-changing fellowships received, no wide-spread name recognition beyond that of a semi-talented crank. I don’t entirely buy that, though. Knott taught graduate level creative-writing courses at Emerson

College, securely, for years and published books on major presses; when put out into the world his poems were actually read, which is more than can be said for most poets. Over the years praise was heaped on him from, among others, writers as varied as Mary Jo Bang and Kenneth Rexroth, James Wright and Charles Simic, Sandra McPherson and Andrei Codrescu, in publications like The New York Times Book Review, Poetry and The Washington Post. On one of his blogs, under the posting title of “you gotta be kidding,” Knott listed some of these championings, was obviously proud of them.

Additionally, it wasn’t just his contemporaries (or their predecessors) who prized his poems. On the widely read “alt-lit” website HTML Giant, “Bill Knott Week” was held in 2011, wherein younger writers discussed his work and the impact it had had on them. The musician, memoirist and punk icon Richard Hell was also a fan, writing, for the British magazine Dazed and Confused in 2000, a praise-song entitled “Knotty, Knotty Boy.” (I truly hope Dazed and Confused forced that title on Hell and not the other way around.) In it Hell, discussing Knott’s orphandom specifically, writes:

 . . . that’s part of the point and what’s great about the guy . . . That way you owe allegiance to nobody and there’s no one to “reflect badly” on, and you’re free to be a perfect asshole wonderpoet . . . He’s full of shit but completely truthful. “Sincerity” is a politician’s lie: anything done with words is a trick from the get-go. Don’t kid yourself. At the end of the world there’s a laugh.

 It’s true that Knott continually asserted that he owed “allegiance to nobody” but at the same time I believe his commitment to poetry, the poetic act, was steadfast, unwavering; it’s what, in death, will ultimately define his legacy. There’s that too-often quoted poem by W.S. Merwin about John Berryman, the one with the stanza “he said the great presence/ that permitted everything and transmuted it/ in poetry was passion/ passion was genius . . . ” Knott’s passion sometimes held contradictory impulses but its existence is undeniable. He paid attention to everything and wanted the largest possible audience for his work. But something held him back.

* 

Discussing Jill Essbaum’s poem “Easter,” Knott’s thoughts on the magazine Poetry, where his work both appeared and was (largely favorably) reviewed multiple times:

In general the poetry Poetry Magazine publishes is not much better than what shows up in your Rat Vomit Review, but occasionally a miracle like “Easter” appears . . .

* 

Flatteringly, Knott liked some of my own poems until he didn’t. Years after graduating from Portland State, I published a long poem on the now sadly-defunct Octopus Magazine website. Knott read it, writing on his blog that he found the poems “interesting” but I seemed to be “struggling with [my] consistency—i.e. [my] content.” It wasn’t ringing praise, but I emailed Knott anyway, letting him know that I was a fan of his work and appreciated him taking the time to read the Octopus poem. I mentioned that I’d recently begun working on a long poem about the French avant-garde composer Erik Satie and that in life and work Satie reminded me a bit of Knott—did he know his work? I received the below response the next day.

Hi—

sorry, don’t know anything about Satie, but how about I sponsor (pay for) a private printing of a chapbook with the Octopus poem in it, one section per page, it would make a nice little presentation piece for you to inscribe to friends and to mail out to whomever (the editors of Octo, etc)— it’s easy to do with POD, and I’d be happy to arrange it/order it/pay for it, and have the copies shipped directly to you— it’s a simple process, really—

regards and admiration from Bill Knott

This is something I wasn’t expecting. I’d contacted poets whose work I admired before and all had either A) not responded or B) sent a perfunctory “thanks for reading; I don’t know who you are and don’t much care” type response. This was different, obviously.

It took some months but the chapbook he proposed eventually did come out, entirely paid for by Knott. I gave it away free at readings and still have a few copies of it. After the chap our correspondence—which had been regular—slowed down, but when my first book was accepted for publication in 2013 and I had to go on the blurb hunt, Knott was one of the first poets I asked. I thought he’d say yes,but I should have known better. Within two days of my sending of the email I received:

Well, I’m sorry, but— I wouldn’t know what to say in an intro because I don’t understand the poems— I’ve tried several times, but they’re over my head. I’m sure it’s my lack of intelligence and or imagination that is hampering my understanding of this work—the fault lies in me, not in your poems—

I don’t understand their content (or intent) and I don’t understand their formatting, why you have such a huge margin above the poems so that what could fit on one page spills over to a second, and why some of them are double-spaced for what appears to me no reason—

I’m sorry. Surely it’s not the failure of your poems which as shown in the acknowledgments are finding their place in prestigious magazines, and that surely indicates their merit,

it’s my particular shortcoming as a reader—

What can I say—except to apologize for my inadequacies—Bill Knott

So it goes. The book came out, I tried to send him a copy and he demurred—he didn’t want one. I was disappointed but, Bill Knott being Bill Knott, didn’t take it to heart.

My last email exchange with him occurred just weeks before he died. I’d enquired about purchasing some of his artwork; in addition to keeping multiple poetry-related blogs he also maintained one devoted to his various paintings, digital prints and mixed media works. Most of the art he created was abstract in nature and to my unrefined mind quite good. My sister, a graphic designer, had a birthday coming up and I thus emailed Knott to see about possibly buying a print or two. His response:

i did sell a few things, but most of it i gave away because i couldn’t keep it around after painting it . . if i didn’t get it out the door quickly i either destroyed it or “improved” it until it was ruined . . .

I wish I could still do it, but the heart condition that developed last February causes the effect of fatigue—I barely have the strength to devote any time to writing . . . I had to sacrifice the art efforts in order to keep (or try to keep) the poetry going  . . .

That was the last contact I had with him. Three months later, on March 12, 2014, he was dead.

* 

Published in 1971, he wrote his own blurb for the book Nights of Naomi. It reads:

Statement: I consider “Nights” my first and only book. The other books (including “Auto- necrophilia”) with my name on them are, like the patent-office, full of garbage.

—Bill Knott (1940-1966)

This constant self-flagellating was lifelong. In the years when they were active (they tapered off significantly around 2013) I read his blogs regularly and his predilection for destroying all their content one week, only to reproduce it again the next week, as if the destruction had never occurred, struck me as bizarre. I suppose some cry of help was, with every repudiation and subsequent recreation, being enacted, although wiser minds than my own would have to parse out the self-defeating how’s and why’s. In Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s immortal Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, there’s the statement made that Johnny Thunder’s entire existence was one of “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,” that every time he or his band got a break he would ruin it. Knott’s own shooting-oneself-in-the-foot tendencies were significantly minor compared to Thunders’ but they nevertheless did exist. He got in his own way, often. Unbridled honesty, especially in the contemporary poetry world, comes with a price and when it’s coupled with rampant woe-is-me self-deprecation that price soars still higher.

Obstinance, too, was an issue for him. While lamenting the fact that no publishers would deign to put out his work, Knott turned down publishing offers from big presses like Farrar, Straus and Giroux (which, while he was alive, put out his 2004 volume The Unsubscriber and wanted to continue working with him on other volumes) and well-known small presses like Black Ocean.

Instead, he released his own collections online, maintaining that the “vanity” publishing of his work was something he was reduced to when, in fact, he willfully chose that route. The “traditional” publication of Knott’s poetry was, to be sure, desired by multiple outside parties.

Knott also, of course, kept a blog with all of his (form) rejection slips on it, scanned in, digital testament to his failings. At this top of this blog was the statement:

a few hundred of the thousands of rejection slips i’ve got over the years— why I why I spent so much time trying to do something which the 20-30 pages below show I had no talent for, is a mystery to me—just more evidence (if any were needed) to prove what a futile waste my life was—.

He was an odd person, determinedly so. Attentively discombobulated; idiosyncratically calibrated. Most poets are sheep. He wasn’t most.

* 

No one reads me now, ergo no one is going to read me a decade from now when I’m dead—I can’t console myself with the illusion that “posterity” will see merits in my poetry that contemporary readers and critics didn’t—it doesn’t happen that way.

This wasn’t true while he was alive, nor is it true now—and if I were a betting man I’d venture to bet that Bill Knott’s work will be read years and decades into the future. In the latter half of the 20th century and first quarter of the 21st, his best poems are some of America’s best poems, I believe.

They will last.

Dead or alive, what I admire in him is his bald refusal to conform, his willingness to confront the powers that be with their own bullshit. That he had oodles of his own shit to deal with didn’t stop him in this endeavor, nor should it have. Knott made clear to me that, far from insisting that rejection doesn’t matter, you should be honest with yourself, be willing to state how devastating rejection—of all kinds, imagined and unimagined—is to you as a writer, how enduringly its pains persist.

Knott also taught me how valuable it is to fail wider, longer, with a sustained tenacity; it will, in the end, make you a better writer. He put roadblocks in his own way, quite a few of them, but to me Bill Knott epitomized and epitomizes how a poet should be, scabs, cysts and all.

* 

I first discovered this poem in his self-published Surrealist Verse: Selected from the Books of Bill Knott but it was originally published in his 1974 volume Love Poems to Myself. Entitled “Rigor Vitus,” it’s one of Knott’s hits, as it were:

I walk
On human stilts
To my right lower leg a man is locked rigid To the left a woman, lifelessly strapped.

I have to heave them up,
Heft them out and but they’re so heavy heavy as head
Seems all my strength
Just take the begin step

All my past to broach a future.
And on top of that
They’re not even dead,
Those ole hypocrites.
They perk up when they want to, they please and pleasure themselves

It’s terrible. The one consolation:
When they make love,
To someone who’s far or close enough away appears it appears then
Like I’m dancing.

“All my past to broach a future . . . Like I’m dancing.”

Would that Bill Knott did more dancing while alive, but I’m grateful for his swerves anyway.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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