Knott, Bill

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Nationality: American. Born: William Kilborn Knott, Gratiot County, Michigan, 17 February 1940. Education: Carson City High School, Michigan. Military Service: U.S. Army. Career: Poet-in-residence, Emerson College, Boston, 1976. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1968. Address: c/o WLP, Emerson College, 100 Beacon Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02116, U.S.A.



The Naomi Poems, Book One: Corpse and Beans. Chicago, Follett, 1968.

Aurealism: A Study. Syracuse, New York, Salt Mound Press, 1970.

Are You Ready Mary Baker Eddy?, with James Tate. San Francisco, Cloud Marauder Press, 1970.

Auto-Necrophilia: The Bill Knott Poems, Book 2. Chicago, Follett, 1971.

Nights of Naomi. Somerville, Massachusetts, Barn Dream Press, 1971.

Love Poems to Myself. Boston, Barn Dream Press, 1974.

Rome in Rome. New York, Release Press, 1974.

Selected and Collected Poems. New York, Sun, 1977.

For Anne and Other Poems. Waban, Massachusetts, Munich Editions from Shell, 1977.

Destinations. Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, Outposts, 1978.

Becos. New York, Random House, 1983.

Poems 1963–1988. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989.

Outremer. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1989.

The Quicken Tree: Poems. Brockport, New York, BOA Editions, 1995.


Lucky Daryll, with James Tate. New York, Release Press, 1977.


Critical Studies: Interview with James Randall, and "For Bill Knott: In Celebration and Anticipation of His Selected/Collected Poems" by Thomas Lux, both in Ploughshares (Cambridge, Massachusetts), 4(1), 1977.

Bill Knott comments:

I consider my work to fall within the minimalist or imagist tradition. My poems are rarely longer than ten-twenty lines. The hermeticist poets—Mallarmé, Ungaretti, Bonnefoy, etc.—have been lasting influences. The Greek anthology and Japanese haikuists, like Issa and Bashō are sources for me. In English I revere Milton, Matthew Arnold, and Hardy. Larkin is better than any of his American contemporaries, and I admire poets like Carol Ann Duffy and Robert Wells. I would rather be British. I loathe what Harold Bloom calls the American religion, that is, the Emersonian quest.

*  *  *

Among the passionate love lyrics and equally passionate rants against the war in Vietnam in Bill Knott's first book were a number of short neoimagist poems like this one, entitled "Goodbye":

   If you are still alive when you read this,
   close your eyes. I am
   under the lids, growing black.

It was for these pieces, which caught the eye of the anthologizers, that Knott first became known. Such poems, while set apart by an admirable compression, still conformed to the contemporary poetic ideal of a unified surface and nearly transparent language. It is to his credit that Knott, with his instinct for doing the unexpected, subsequently took a less traveled path.

Many of the poems in Auto-Necrophilia and Nights of Naomi seem to have been written according to the throw of the dice, as in the one-line "Poem" from the first of the two volumes: "The spinalfusion taps at the window of blank pennies." Yet by fracturing the poem's surface, such experiments allowed Knott to develop a faceted verbal mirror that, while not giving the reader a complete picture of anything, portrayed the realities of consciousness from infinitely more angles than did the smooth lenses of his fellow poets. In his work of the 1970s, culminating in the Selected and Collected Poems and especially in Becos, Knott developed an idiom more expressive of human complexities and contradictions:

   Like a burglar who arrives before the apartment house
   is even half built
   Look at him cat walking the skeletal girders at one a m
   like him
   Misjudging every erection I am
   Pockmark not interested in masks

In his pursuit of emotional honesty Knott has borrowed from the speech habits of children and adolescents. His language is typically jagged, cramped, and unwashed. He flings four-letter words about with a schoolboy's gusto. At other times, especially in Becos, the reader seems to be eavesdropping on the mumbled fantasy life of a gifted child:

   at last comes total blindness:
   touch-awkward I feel like an ogre, a clumsy giant
   tripping over some ruins,
   rubble of the town he's just smashed.
   Tower-cursing as I bang my knee. Or no:
   I'm tiny. I can see again! I see the giant walk off
   favoring his one leg…

The voice in these poems is intimate and poignant as it deals with issues of identity, such as sexual ambiguity, that the adult mind normally sweeps under the rugs of convention and style:

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

Language in this transitional world is still a somewhat mysterious and plastic thing of unknown powers and uncertain properties. If part of Knott's enterprise has been to map out the contours and boundaries of the self, it has also been to uncover potentials in language that go beyond the conventions of accepted discourse, thus the solecisms, Joycean coinages, and resonant dyslexias that give his work its nervously energetic surface.

At the same time, because of the crucial role language plays in his tentative definitions of self, Knott is constantly aware—and makes his reader aware—of the slipperiness of his medium, the self-deception it all too often countenances. In a poem from Becos he talks about

   the faith I live with, that
   custodying lip server [that] sticks
   me near any old name-niche,
   teeters me on
   every pedestal of mislabeled

To counter the trickery of thought and language, Knott engages in an ongoing act of poetic revision, of "correcting misprints in the word 'I.'" This may occur in the body of the poem, as in "October," also from Becos:

                …hell, money is not a good
   example, it's not mechanic, I'm sorry. Damn.
   Back on the track:…

It also occurs more literally, from book to book, as he retitles, excerpts, and reconceives his poems.

For Knott the best insurance against the falsity of a set style is a poetry that is off balance, unbuttoned, with frequent sprung rhythms to keep readers on their toes: "I groan up, and walk, ouch, / soft-putty self-pity patched." Its very unpredictability—the sense of not knowing where one is going, where one will end up—is one of the immediate attractions of Knott's work. Other pleasures include his ever present if dark humor, that determination to "laugh it up, show pain a good time"; his fine ear for the vernacular—"Mrs. Knott was leanin over me / With this kind of eek-like look she / Was peeking at a freak or something …"; and his surprising, up-to-the-moment metaphors. Such effects tend to function in isolation rather than cumulatively, and even in his longer poems Knott is something of a miniaturist. Yet in Becos in particular there are poems conceived along more extended lines, including "The Closet," a poem about his mother's death, and "Mitts and Gloves," a meditation on baseball paraphernalia.

At a time of what seems increasing polarization in American poetry between those writing with an unqualified regard for the illusionist surface of language and those bent on the labored, ultimately retrogressive dismantling of language, Knott, by holding to his own path, may well have come upon a much needed middle ground.

—Martin McKinsey