The Man, and the Poet
“Only you can resurrect the present. People
need your voice to come among them like nakedness,
to fuse them into one marching language in which the word
. “peace” will be said for the last time.
Write slogans, write bread that pounds the table for silence,
write what I can’t imagine: words to wake me and all those
who slump over like sapped tombstones when the generals
—”To American Poets,” Saint Geraud (1940-1966),
The Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans (1968)
Bill Knott shook me awake with these words, written via his pseudonym Saint Geraud, published posthumously. A riddle within a riddle, words as razor sharp and crystalline as one could wish for. I didn’t have to think about why they were true or why I liked them, for that matter—they spoke what I wanted to say, somehow. Without justification. They had the means, and the nerve, and when the book Knowing Knott was published in early 2017, I devoured it as one of the many admirers of his words.
The collection of essays, masterfully edited by Steven Huff, reads much like a great mystery caper, jumping forwards and backwards in time, recounting events from multiple angles, offering testimonials and even alibis. There are crimes; there are secrets. Some are revealed; others are left alone, and much is left up to us to mull over and reach our own conclusions. Readers are along for the ride, in this search that seems, at first, to be quite simple: follow the trail of words to find the man; to uncover his messages and meanings. Was the elusive truth we all seemed to be seeking there, all along, hiding in plain sight?
Perhaps Bill knew as well as anyone the meaning of integrity—yes, I will call him “Bill”, not “Mr. Knott” or simply “Knott,” in favor of familiarity, pledging truth, thinking that the source would prefer it this way. In a media culture of paparazzi, voyeurism, and fanatical self-promotion, online and off, what does it mean to let oneself be known? What of trust? What of kinship and community? The richness of discovery in this compendium is that, in this search for Bill, everything’s brought out on the table: philosophy, mortality, humor, poetry, love, redemption, intimacy. What remains is an enduring power that could be his legacy.
It might seem rather tabloid-ish, even vulgar, to focus on the man and personal details of his life instead of the work—that is to say, the words themselves. After all, how often does the reader’s suppositions about the confessional nature of writing leverage itself on the lure of that reveal, and the rare vision into the sanctum sanctorum, sometimes at a reader’s expense? I am not looking to analyze Bill; nor am I looking to pick through scattered pieces of a life to make my own assessment. I initially thought that to do so—to write about the man behind these essays; the man who created such brilliant poetry—would be a true sacrilege. Yet I have changed my mind in regard to Bill…
In the introduction to Knowing Knott, Steven Huff says, “I have often told students that if we’re sincere, if we are truly working hard on our poems, then we are engaged in a serious effort to explore what it means to be human… Being Bill Knott is not something you should try at home. It could be argued that ruminating on his idiosyncrasies, his furies, as well as his kindnesses, so well detailed in this book, casts a distorting shadow on his work. But no, the anecdotes are illuminating, the difficulties and crossed swords are somehow lessons in the school of the human soul.”
Agreed. One could say, as readers, as writers, as teachers—however we arrive—we are each more human—or, rather, more attuned and aware of our own human-ity—when confronting Bill through this book’s anecdotes and stories, alongside his poetry. Perhaps we, too, fly into ourselves.
Those are Bill’s words, flying into ourselves. And, just who was the “self” of Bill, often contained and reserved? Through the book, we see multiple angles of the same scenes, viewed through different eyes, with varied emotional tones and relationships the authors have to Bill himself. Complex themes exist about Bill and his life, producing quite a knotty sketch, true to his surname. Bill was contradictory: passionate on-stage performer; withdrawn off-stage introvert. Wearing thrift-store cast-offs; extravagant in supporting friends in need. He was the enlightened Zen-like monk, and the voice of the bawdy imp, ready to shock and awe with words cutting straight to the truth of a moment. Dedicated, driven, and often dissatisfied, an advocate for wabi-sabi and kintsukuroi. Bill knew that there was something beautiful in the broken. Still, quick to scorn and denigrate his own work; indulgent in doling out deserved praise of others. Elusive, Bill was ghost-like, known to haunt bookshops carrying his work, planting stacks of his books on prominent tables. He gave chapbooks and art away to friends and admirers, yet could barely make eye contact when introduced, seemingly feeling an urge to disappear. In his words, “Nothingness has its own niche.” What emerges is a medleyed assemblage that we might think pastiche if we didn’t have such authentic voices giving testament to Bill’s true nature.
The essays document encounters with one of the most iconic, elusive, electric, and original poets of the past century, whose astounding words are, as Thomas Lux says, “among the most beautiful poems that I have read in any language.” As Timothy Liu says, “I let them work their magic on me.” His poetry is lasting. Stuart Dischell says, “I still believe that Bill’s poems remain among the most memorable in the English language. His lines come to me often and in random moments. His work has indelibly transformed the world for me, the first principle of the Surrealist.”
This is a treasure trove of collected histories; accounts that are as beautiful to read for their structure and sound as for content. Fifteen essays, plus an introduction by Steven Huff, play off one another to create something nuanced, balanced, even synchronous in their collective dynamic. As a whole, the book reads with the musicality of an album, from the wry wisdom of Stephen Dobyns’s opening “Bill Knott,” to complexity with Star Black’s expansive, exquisite “Loving Bill,” and measured frustrated affection and effective frustration in Jonathan Galassi’s “(Not) Publishing Bill Knott.” Striking emotional chords, Thomas Lux speaks about Bill’s contradictions and self-sabotage; John Skoyles gives us an intimate glimpse into uncompromising integrity and compassion. There are elements of surrealism in DeWitt Henry’s “Visiting Bill Knott,” friendship and philosophy in Stuart Dischell’s “On Human Stilts,” and elegiac beneficence in Robert Fanning’s closing “May Eagles Guard Your Grave.”
This is, of course, emphatically not a Knott summary—neither the essays nor this article can provide some sort of summation. These are snapshots; I offer some visions from the pages. Every contributor, including Michael Waters, Peter Jay Shippy, Timothy Liu, William Corbett, Chad Reynolds, Leigh Jajuga, casts a rare light on Bill, giving him a special luminescence; creating a certain significance. They each tell us what it means to know someone, or to attempt to know them, which is a rare dedication and an art in itself. Perhaps poets know this best, as the listeners who bear witness, and who echo back a form of truth and beauty that has the power to move the world.
At AWP in Washington, DC, this year, there was a tribute to Bill Knott. The room was crowded; filled with his former students, friends, colleagues, admirers, fans…filled with those, like myself, who came to hear his poetry; to share a story about him. Connection. Ironic that we looked to connect and honor someone who seemed to dodge the spotlight. Bill has touched many lives; he might have been pleased to see the number there, yet perhaps he would also be unnerved by the attention. Who knows? After all, Knowing Knott is an acknowledgement of contradictions. Yet, maybe he would like it that way, and say, To hell with it. He lived how he lived, unapologetically, caringly, with verve and passion for his work, his students, and the power of words. Every essay corroborates the story of a legend; the evidence of daily dedications and immense genius that often belied its own brilliance…it’s all in the text.
Marvel that he gave his poetry, so freely, often at odds with publishers themselves, in order to make the language even more accessible, even more open. That openness, trusting us to know what to do with the words, is the great gift that lets us know exactly where Bill stood: he was on our side.
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