May 5th, 2011 / 2:02 am

Bill Knott Week: An Essay by Peter Jurmu

Some notes on Knott from Peter Jurmu:

When What You Really Really Want Is To Cover Territory

Sex on Quicksand: Collected Short Poems 1960-2009, like Breccia (or An Incomplete Inventory of Dorian Gray’s Closet—cover pictured above—that phone number is the request line for a Boston-area oldies station, WODS—the 60s, 70s, and now the 80s!), is as done as Bill Knott means it to be. The poems occur randomly, are often untitled, and appear in other collections, “vanities” or not. That random arrangement and recurrence bears out what Knott believes is a uniform characteristic of his work that makes it interchangeable and so any “order” meaningless: all of it is a failure. And not failure as limits-of-human-ability humility-posturing, but by every measurement Knott seems interested in taking: sales, prizes, publisher loyalty, critical response. (He said Rob Arnold was being “either…obtuse or cruel” for suggesting that his Guggenheim ameliorates “factual data [that] measure failure.”) These days Knott gives away PDFs of his work on Lulu—if you buy a print copy ($5.02-12.50), you’ll receive a plain, white, “unimpressive” book, which makes sense: if you’re turning your back on publishing as you’ve published (say, through FSG), ditching design considerations beyond the very simple is as good a place to start as any.

To read Knott at all is to experience the persona goading you into reading his poems the way he would want you to read them, if you have to read them, which is to read as if presentation doesn’t matter—matters, in fact, almost as little as poems, or at least his poems, do. The final three lines of an untitled one: “I still live perhaps/but I hope/I hope I do it for sloppiness sake” (80). And the constant suggestion—again, see above image—that what you’re reading is nothing but fuckups by a fuckup forces you to agree with him or find less “obtuse/cruel” reasons than a Guggenheim why that isn’t so, like it matters, like you’re not just convincing yourself of something about yourself you suspect Knott would despise.

But randomness-by-design balloons the suspicion that something else is afoot—and, if you’ve read several of BK’s self-published collections, the mashing together of “periods” of Knott (pre-, during, and post-failure—pre- & post-Gugg?—he’d hate either) plus the random order forces you back onto the formal or descriptive principle of the book, in this case “shortness.” A poem he is still revising in B/OAIIODGC (untitled in there) becomes “Two Epigrams from a Notebook Dated 1984” in SoQ. It’s as if earlier (self-)publications never happened—no previously-published info is to be found in these books: complete absorption and erasure of failure.


The shorter the poem the
longer the words.
The shorter the poem the
more endless it must be.

Repetition throughout the collections (both repeated lines and the recurrence of poems) reach back to something Knott says in that Memorious interview with Arnold: “I once dreamed of writing a line that I could put into every poem. A line that would fit into every poem that I wrote, that would not be out of place no matter what the poem was.” Only instead of the one line, he has poems that can fit into any collection he wishes, provided they satisfy the conditions he’s set, or that a mess of poems, looked at cross-eyed, seems to self-organize by. And, unlike the body of work that’s mummified before the poet’s dead and reanimated after death, organs in marked jars, BK’s poems rebirth again and again—his publishing strategy can seem reckless the way only someone whose ego exceeds his vanity conceives—and, whatever their quality, are a body changing shapes as it moves.

(Truth of his inconsistency/unevenness is complicated by his own admissions to that effect, largely due to his policy of self-editing/publishing—but that’s another thing. An advantage of so many untitled poems is the duds can hide out among better ones of the same untitle.)


now that I die
my past becomes as endless
as my future used to be

In a way, these poems I’m pulling tell what’s been approaching since the death of BK as St. Geraud in 1966—what could be called a constant killing off of old selves, old Knotts, always writing as a provisional being, affecting an anti-contingent aesthetic. What I mean is he never had to top himself, because, according to him, and anyway he’s acted as if this happened, so for the reader it’s a “good-as” situation, no one let him. The old criticism that he never “grew” is meaningless: upward was never his direction nor the university canon his destination (no matter how often he uses those anti-blurbs in his books to remind everyone up front of his deficiencies). Maybe he’s accidentally wandered into it at a few points—“Relics with Old Blue Medicine-Type Bottle: To X,” from The Unsubscriber, gets passed around, at least around here—but his “greatness,” if you want to call it that, much more resembles this, from “The Getaway”:

Throw a measuringtape out, run its length,
Throw again, run,
Throw, run

Sex on Quicksand can’t be found on Lulu, but here you go (all links PDFs from here on). Breccia/An Incomplete Inventory of Dorian Gray’s Closet is, from what I can tell, a handmade edition of one from 1990 that Knott gave John Skoyles, but several other poems turn up elsewhere—“To the Emblematic Hourglass of My Father’s Skull” is in quatorzains three, an untitled one becomes “Poemclone #4: His Life, His Fate (Lament)” in quatorzains one, etc.

Relics with Old Blue Medicine-Type Bottle: To X

This old blue medicine-type bottle, unburied
From your garden last year’s the perfect centerpiece
To suit our supper–the totem-trope we need
Across this kitchen table, to show how dangerous

It is where we sit (knees near touching at times)
Dawdling and playing with our silverware,
Tapping teacups, tired and satisfied and prime
From an afternoon out weeding. In mere hours

We’ll find ourselves in bed, but we don’t know that now,
Do we–we’re still exchanging histories,
(It’s only my something visit to your house)
Just sorting out the portions of who, when, how–

Numbering the decades and the romances
That went bad, the faces that faded on us,
Though nothing too personal at first, just pain:
Divorces, liaisons, estrangements, fixations–

Of course our brows hurry away from hurt:
Anecdotes begun in wince end in wrinkly;
Our woeful tales go told through a mode that’s mostly
A kind of moue, comic attitude, which flirts

With grimace-smiles, jokes, the mocking of those choices,
Those great mismatings: funny but it seems of late
Both of us have been alone, celibate . . .
Collating, getting our dates right, our voices

Shed their list of affairs, entanglements, crises:
So we accord the past its poisons, and theorize
That even this old blue bottle here, stored poisons
Before we were born:–followed by suggestions

That the toxin of those heartbreaks is gone
After this long, their vitriol has fizzed out,
And we could, given an occasion, again
Consume the spirit that killed us once, if not

The letter: confessions used as cue-cards to prompt
Mutual responses of empathy or hope:
No former hemlock can harm us now–we’re immune
By now–don’t you agree–because what happens

Ripens in retrospect; each sour memory
Blossoming like the flowers you sometimes spruce
This bottle’s corroded throat with. We certainly
Are not eating much, are we, but we don’t notice–

Can’t we see how our fingers will likewise bloom
From off these knives and forks and force their field,
Interlocking like tugged-at roots . . . Untombed
Of its venom, this blue vial vigils our held

Glances. Sieved in its acid, its distilled mirror,
Would we (almost as soiled as it by time) appear
A beauty, a scarred heirloom any collector
Might stuff high on a shelf amid simulacra–

Somber still, it approbates that emptiness
We must be preparing to fill with each other–
It foretells the coiled taste, the bite unearthed
In the antiquity of a sudden, wild kiss

Whose disclosure will surprise us, as if
We have not been wholly inured by the years,
The stories we bare here across the rice, the life
Stories bittersweet, neutered, too well-rehearsed.

Will deadlier words then surface–their potency
Dis-elixired, drawn; decanted so often
That by our courteous age they’ve turned as grimy
And bunged with dust as this blue glass was when

Your shovel showed it that summer morning, and
My phrases here are (surely) just as corrupt–
What matter its sharpness: no metaphor can
Pare the ground from us as hard as we try to dig up,

To excavate feelings a bottomless need for
Soars as we toss the salad greens and pour
Dressing dripping down their fineleaved freshness
Starting to wilt already around the edges,

To rot back to that mulch they burst from. Such decay
Preserves some artifacts, if not us: they lie in
Graves contrived to obviate the skeleton
They survive beside, they strive to deny

The obvious, the crepitude fate-of-flesh bleak
Facts of our demise, obdurate bricabrac knickknacks
Laid by ancients in the coffin to propitiate
Ancestors, to aid, via these vain trinkets,

(Are we the `subjective correlatives’ of these
Objects, this chthonic junk the tomb-robbers missed,
Tools and talismans, amulets, a corpse-cache
Gear for ghosts, props to assist the posthumous)

Some afterworld sojourn of the soul entering
Itself, self dying to carpe diem one more day.
Refocus us on this figure, this table-centering
Blue bottle. Whose future dye indigos our day.

Dulled, we ignore these darker, gnawing warnings–
Our own skull-and-crossbone labels long since skinned–
We poke at our plates, we pat our napkins.
What antidote waits, withering, within

Against that great granulate upheaval of
Fields whose depths have grown archeological–
Filled by fucked relics and by that above-all
Most subterranean of discoveries, love?


  1. Anonymous
  2. Jeff

      I assume no one knows Knott’s work, cuz if meandering MFA yea-or-nay posts get 200 comments and this gets nothing something is inherently wrong. That poem is amazing.

  3. Mike Young

      it’s a great poem, agreed. worth remembering that comments aren’t always the best indicators of what’s getting views. our internal wizard, ryan call, has given us some pretty illuminating breakdowns of posts that get 200 comments but the same number of views, and posts that get 2 comments and thousands of views.

  4. Jeff


  5. Nathan Huffstutter

      Earlier in the week, I blundered across the “my fucking you is a war crime” business and wrote the poem off as highly-charged but not all that insightful. Relics with Old Blue Medicine-Type Bottle: To X is so masterful that by the time I hit the lines “We certainly are not eating much, are we,” I knew I’d need to go all the way back and reread and rethink everything. Turns out, tied in to the phrase, “low yield blast,” that line from Nuremberg, U.S.A. is fucking magic. Great posts – Thanks.

  6. Matt Cozart

      Bill Knott, perpetual victim.

  7. Kim Liao

      Wow. Great post, great poem, great comments. I look forward to reading the Dobyns book and more… of everything. Rebuttal, Peter?

  8. Anonymous

  9. Anonymous

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