Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Salut, Bill Knott 1940-2014

 Bill Knott - Untitled

One has different reasons for one's initial response to a poem.  It might excite, confuse, entertain, disturb, appall or bore you.  Some of Bill Knott's poems made me laugh out loud.  Others made me cringe.  Many I simply couldn't understand what the heck he was talking about.  A significant number of them, however,  resonated. . .  astonished . . . stunned.  Certain ones just blew me away, and I found myself going back to them, again and again.

Knott frequently posted rough drafts on his blog, working and reworking a poem over and over - repeating, deleting, soundscoping,  wordchipping, rearranging whole lines.  Many he simply titled "Poem" or "Untitled".   I wondered how he kept track of them.   A word here, a line there, an arresting image, a compelling metaphor--I marveled at Knott's sheer bouts of creativity.

I  first contacted Knott in 2011 to ask permission to share one of his poems on Salamander Cove.   "Surely you could find a poet who isn't a now-forgotten oddity to feature on your site," was his reply.  Nevertheless, then--and several times in the years since, he graciously said yes to my using "any of" his verse or paintings.  I was just to spell his name correctly, "Knott, with two T's".

I had a brief email exchange with Knott back in 2012 when I approached him with the idea of doing a single-poet issue on Salamander Cove to showcase 52 of his poems and 37 of his paintings as a first Special Feature  (later desktop-pubbed as a 74-page booklet A Pocketful of Poems and Art by Bill Knott, sent to him as a thank-you).  Knott encouraged me in a separate early project, and half a year later, one day he emails me out of the blue, asking "Well, so whatever happened to your project?"  and to my procrastinatey excuse at the time, his blunt response was: "What are you waiting for? Just DO it!"  A much-needed verbal jumpstart that got me back working on it again.

Bill Knott - Horses of Time
I learned a lot from some of Knott's blog posts over the years. For example, he once provided 25 different translations he'd collected of Verlaine's Chanson d'Automne.   I found it invaluable comparing these translations, noting  how some felt plodding and pedestrian, while others better grasped the nuance.  I wondered how much time it'd taken Knott to find  these dozens of examples, then type them all out, one by one.  On the blog he'd sometimes critique a poem he admired (or hated), the examination of which got me to look more carefully at word choice, sound,  and form in a poem; how the slightest substitution could utterly ruin, or bring it to life.  Thanks to works mentioned I began reading poems I might normally have bypassed because of their "type".

Knott's syllabic verse inspired me to experiment, rework prose poems into sonnets, reduce a flash fiction to haiku.   I  began pushing myself to go beyond my comfort zone to try new ways, for example,  to resurrect a failed poem I'd long ago given up on.   "I fly with my wings stuck up my ass [a line in a Knott poem declares] but at least I try."  He would no doubt be amused, if not downright appalled, at my taking this one line out of context (not to mention that  I can't even remember which of his poems it actually came from!).   How a single word or line of something can inspire.   Knott was constantly trying - Let's see where this goes; wonder what happens if I put this word here instead of there,  let's purposely make it only so many syllables in so many lines.   Let's completely rewrite.

Bill Knott - Knotthead with ball
Knott wrote poems and songs and verse and plays, did translations, taught poetry, mentored students and new poets, selfpubbed his own books, and made paintings, later multiventuring into the blogsphere, always with the same recognizable voice.  What really fascinated me was Knott's originality and prolific imagination.  His poems continually surprised me, the phrases that would emerge!, the intuition they hinted at, the insights they sometimes  led me toI found myself using the word "Brilliant!" or a quiet little "wow" escape my lips after reading certain poems, where with certain others (especially the very long and  confusing ones) my eyes would simply glaze over.  The poems Knott wrote that 'stayed in mind'--those that get revisited, remembered--fall in the dozens.

I liked the way Knott experimented with language, giving objects emotions (or motives), verbing nouns or nouning verbs; combining, stretching, tweaking, rewiring, constantly re-inventing.  A  word would jump off the page from one of his poems as THE perfect word as used (even if made up) --  'Yawnwaving', 'twinmatism', 'stigmontage'  . . 'inbetweenities!!' 

Cartoon-like scenes would rush to mind's eye, of a stick figure "escaping blackly down its boundaries" or "a mustache that'd lost its urge to duel."  These playful splurts of Knottivity continually surprised, delighted, engaged.  It showed me you don't have to understand another's language to hear the message/discern the meaning in a poem; or be afraid to resculpt your tongue to express the way you see a thing.

Bill Knott - Knotthead Squared
Knott was remarkably generous, as has been mentioned by others.   (Last fall I ordered and bought from him two small books of poems.  Imagine my surprise when what arrived in the mailbox were not two, but nine (NINE!!!) of his books all packed together into one box.)   He placed images of all his art work up on line, as a visitable archive, adding that because of illness he had given up painting. But he kept on poeming, to the very end, even though he'd also grumpily proclaimed, from time to time, that he was no longer going to write any more poems.  His unpredictability became almost predictable.  It's as if, however, he couldn't not keep doing so, and so he resumed, still "broken-winged", as he once deemed himself, still believing nobody cared and that his poetry didn't matter.  (On that account he would be wrong.)

More than several bloggers, in their mention of his passing have quoted this poem: 

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- Drowning
I don't know where we 'fly to' when we die but I can imagine Knott aloft, tossing little homemade copies of his poems out to any willing takers as he soars on past.  He wrote a poem about a balloon once, titled "Aloft", starting with a question a little kid might ask, "When a balloon bursts, where's all the air go to?", jumping quickly into what it's like to try to secure one's "whoosh-hold":

why strive and huff just
to stave off death
to survive
to be a substance a stuff

A poem about balloon air suddenly becomes a poem about  . . . Death. 

to live life as a pocket
a cluster
a cloud
to maintain your interior

I can understand
that having once been
contained in bouyance
you'd want to retain
that rare coherence

you'd pray to stay a one
to remain a unity an
entity a whole in
this unencased heaven

[The balloon as us-- "whistlewhiffed", "kisspuffed", "flimsy-flacked" us, desperately chasing oneness.]

up into the sky goes
two lungs worth
of earth
the exhaled
soul of a boy a girl


This is one of those poems I come back to, again and again.  I pray Knott won't go lost (in Knott-speak:) in the unencased heavens whoosh-buoyed into some incoherent cluster-cloud. What irony that the books he put up on Amazon for less than four dollars (" the lowest price allowable"), of which so few sold,  are suddenly going for $99.99 (only one copy available, gobbled up for reselling) now that Knott's not here.  How kind of him to have posted the pdf's to his poems on  his blog, generous to the last.

I am grateful to Bill Knott for his kindness in allowing me to share so many of his poems and artwork, for introducing me to the work of other poets and translators; for giving me, by example,  the inspiration--and courage--to experiment, to get inside words and the spaces around them, see where it leads.  It's true,  that "most of us remain unfinished".   [Another remembered line from a Knott poem].  Maybe in the end it's not so important what didn't get finished, but what did.

Soar on, Knott.  Salut.

Bill Knott (1940-2014)

A few Blog posts from friends, colleagues, former students, readers, and other poets,

Rose Kelleher at Lost in the Forest [many links to anything by, about, and in honor of Knott]
Robert P. Baird in  The New Yorker
Elisa Gabbert at The French Exit
Mixhael Lally at Lally's Alley
Kathryn L. Burton at Kathryn Burton.com
Jessica Goodfellow at Axis of Abraxas
J. Hope Stein at Poetry Crush

Joe Hutchison, at Perpetual Bird
R. M. O'Brien, at Illuminated Hypertext

A poet at A Retail Life After the MFA
Conrad Didiodata at Word Dreamer Poetics 

Lyle Daggatt at A Burning Patience"
David Bonta at Via Negativa
 Bob Arnold at Longhouse Birdhouse>/a>
Open Letters Monthly
Robert Pinsky in The Washington Post

Jan Vafidis at Vol. 1 Brooklin
John Cotter at The Poetry Foundation
Louis Mayeux at Southern Bookman
Folks at Cold Front Mag
Grant Clauser at Ulabic

Jack Kimball at Pantaloons
'tribach' at An Unambitious Blog

Ken Tucker at Muck Rack
Thurston Moore at Bongorama.com
Michael Robbins at Michael Robbins Poet Blog
Rob McClennan at his RobMcClennan.com
Stephen Kuusisto at Planet of the Blind
Vitro Nasu at Iconoclastic Incubator

Paul Belbusti at Dead Language Blog
Alex Gildzen at Arroyo Chamisa

 Richard Hell on YouTube
Staff at Emerson College
Staff of Harriet
Sydney Hermanson at Ploughshares Magazine
Folks at Book Forum

Obituary in The Boston Globe and here.

"My River"

~ ~ Bill Knott