May 6th, 2011 / 12:26 am

Bill Knott Week: Last Postings

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If you send your mailing address to, Bill Knott will send you a one-of-a-kind staplebound edition of his poems, with handmade cover art.

James Wright on Bill Knott, from Wright’s collected letters:

New York City
September 6, 1975

D. Groth,

You kind letter made me happy. Poetry is a strange adventure: at crucial times it is––it has to be a search undertaken in absolute solitude, so we often find ourselves lost in loneliness––which is quite a different thing from solitude. America is so vast a country, and people who value the life of the spirit, and try their best to live such a life, certainly need times and places of uncluttered solitude all right. But after the journey into solitude––where so many funny and weird and sometimes startlingly beautiful things can happen, whether in language or––even more strangely––in the silences between words and even within words––we come into crowds of people, and chances are they are desperately lonely. Sometimes it takes us years––years, years!–to convey to another lonely person just what it was we might have been blessed and lucky enough to discover in our solitude.

In the meantime, though, the loneliness of the spirit can be real despair. A few years ago, when I lived in St. Paul, Minn., I received unexpectedly a short note from a young poet* who was bitterly poverty striken in Chicago. He had never published anything; but it so happened that he had sent a few poems to a close friend of mine, Robert Bly, who in turn showed them to me. I thought then, and I still think, that the Chicago poet was an absolutely, unmistakable genius. I am not using the word loosely. But when he wrote to me in St. Paul, I did not know him personally. As I say, it was some years ago. I have long since mislaid or lost the short note to me, but I can still quote it, and I believe I will remember its words, its absolutely naked truth, until I die. He didn’t even address me by name. Luckily, he did sign the note, and the envelope included his home address. Here is exactly what he said: “I am so lonely I can’t stand it. Solitude is a richness of spirit. But loneliness rots the soul.” I have made so many mistakes in my life, from the superfically silly to the downright stupid and destructive and self-destructive, but when I die and report to get my just deserts, I figure I ought to deserve at least six months or so in purgatory for my response to that young poet’s short note. In the first place, I wrote him a reply without even rising from my desk. It so happened that his note had arrived on about a Sunday; the first day of Thanksgiving week. It also happened that I was living alone myself, and lived too far away from my home in Ohio to get home for Thanksgiving with my parents who were still alive at that time; and the kindly parents of one of my students had invited me to spend Thanksgiving day with them in the little town of Ogden, Iowa, which is within reasonable distance of Chicago. And so, without asking anyone’s permission or making any plans whatsoever, I promptly wrote a reply to the young poet in Chicago, and within an hour I had posted my letter to him by air-mail special delivery. I had no more idea what he looked like than Howard Hughes. Nevertheless, this is what I told him I was going to do: without making the slightest reference to his remarks about his loneliness, I bluntly informed him that at approximately 2 p.m. on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, I was going to arrive at his furnished room in Chicago (a very poor section of the city, by the way), and I informed him he could be absolutely certain that I would be accompanied by (1) two vivacious and pretty girls and (2) a large bag of fresh bananas.

And by God, I did it!

The poet was waiting for us. He was very poor as I said above, and he worked a night-shift at a charity hospital in a skid row. Nevertheless, he had received my letter. His faith never faltered. There he sat on a broken three-legged chair at a rickety table in the center of his single room, and in the dead center of the table sat a gleaming unopened bottle of Jack Daniel’s whiskey.

I suspect that anybody who ever really tries to write poetry secretly hopes that at least once he will be strucken by the Muse of inspiration in a way so unpredictably nutty that not even Shakespeare or Dafydd ap Gwyllam would have imagined such an inspiration even in his weirdest dreams. As for me, the thought of cheering up the lonely Chicago poet by visiting him with two pretty girls was merely conventional, though of course pleasant. But the bananas still fill me with such total delight that I sometimes mention them in my prayers. God knows how much second-rate bilge I have written in my many books. But a bag of bananas! Think of it on a tombstone: “He cheered up a lonely, unhappy poet with two charming girls and a bag of bananas.”

Yes, we need one another in deep, strange ways. Thank you for writing me your kind words. Now: will you do me a special favor? Will you send me a couple of your poems? And by the way, will you please indicate whether or not you’re a girl or a young man? “D. Groth” could be either, and left me off balance.


James Wright


*The poet was Bill Knott

A Note from Mark DeCartaret:

In an Advanced Poetry class of Bill’s I’d ill-advisedly sandwiched a “This Space for Rent” where I’d whited-out (this was pre-anything P.C.) a word or two in a poem. More a failed attempt to get a laugh than a Dadaist add-on, I passed over this cheapest of jokes when presenting it, only to have Mr. Knott stop me again and again, have me start over—one of his hands manipulating the air, poking it full of holes, his body pulled-inward as if in full-ache, and the other, thrusting his copy towards me (“Mark, I must have,” he whined with a pinched throat, “a different version than the rest of you”) as if it defective. After a dozen or so tries I finally relented. Covering everything I had on the page. Without the slightest of gaps. And yes, the students did laugh. Uncomfortably. Whether it was a matter of Zen re-mastering, ego-taming, or simply a pa-cat’s slap to the head, the lesson for me was an easy enough sell. Poetry was serious business. And space didn’t come cheap. (We shouldn’t expect anything less, Bill would say, for all the money we or somebody else was paying for us to be there). So every word had to be not only convinced-of-itself but indispensable, packing. If you weren’t willing to give it witness (one class I spent over an hour defending the use of the phrase “rolling a drunk”—Bill first insisting I take it out because it was unclear and then, admitting his mistake, because it was a cliché) then he’d rather the silence, the ten seconds worth of dead-aria. While his own work seemed given entirely to innovation, fed on fire and high doses of irony (I was too much the novice to even half-notice the stylistic nods to all-things lyric and these formal calling-outs to the past) our own was held-in-check, capped, until we were (hopefully) able to wean ourselves off the whimsical and clever-for-clever sake (a predisposition of mine that I pointed out as Zippyesque much to the delight of Bill) and gain insight into the revision process, never settling for the untested or too-easy word (ever the re-worker he once refused to sign a copy of Becos because the poems weren’t recognizable, his anymore), forcing ourselves to re-consider the poem’s reason, motivation, for being. And to not only angle-in on the poem, but core it. So while he was extraordinarily generous with his time (religiously offering six straight office hours on his day off) he obviously had his limits. Yes, the space was rentable. But Bill wasn’t having any of it. Not even for a minute.

Three anecdotes from Dan Boehl:

1) I was in Bill Knott’s office. He had two poems of mine on separate sheets of paper. He said, “These both look different. Which one is the real Dan Boehl? Huh? Will the real Dan Boehl please stand up? Will the real Dan Boehl please stand up?” Then he put the papers on his desk and walked out of the office.

2) I followed Bill out of the Davis Square T station one day after class. He went into the convenience store, bought a copy of the Boston Globe with a 20. Then he said, “I’ll take the rest in lottery tickets.” After he left, I bought a lottery ticket. I did not win. I don’t think Bill did either.

3) I was helping Bill move from his apartement in Davis Square and he said, “Do you like Sonic Youth?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well here is a bunch of stuff Thurston Moore sent me.” He handed me a hand-addressed box filled with Sonic Youth CD’s and zines autographed by Thurston Moore. I still have this box. Bill’s books are in there.

One note from me:

Dear Bill Knott,

Your poems have made my life better, and your poems have made me feel less alone. Some people say you are a cranky man who rejects praise, so you might reject these words, but I don’t care, because I don’t know you or owe you anything. No matter what you say, the world is a better place because instead of giving up on writing poems, you kept writing poems. I hope you will spend the next twenty years writing more poems.


Kyle Minor

One last poem from Bill Knott:

Poem: Octopus floating . . .

Octopus floating
in earth’s ink-ore core
whose arms extend
up here as trees
may your branches squirt
their black across
my pages please

Okay, one more:


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.

And, goddammit, the guy is still working. Here is a draft of a poem-in-progress he posted on his blog this week. I like it plenty:


Keep the droolroom greased, Letitia;
to put the lisp on it, I lay there like
cheese on toasted princesses, but
it rips its heart out the mumbling
cherrypit. As it says in the epitaphs
grimly carved on whitecaps, each
wave offers another death: the dateless
notations of our global sauna delete
instantaneously your shouldered-aside
arrival. Pore-poised before leaping
gestureless, stripped, livid, into
that seething swank eyelid triggered
by a mass of rubiks playing catch
laughter, I am stirred by the impetus
ankhs yank-off with. Despite them
the flesh of night-fleeing comets
and gash genital rotations combine
to fool me still. A dictionary posing
as a free calendar leads me off while
my OK Corral rushes a piano’s exits
with such relish an angel wets
his finger to see it. Barbers smearing
pep-pills on their toes know to hide
these last nubilities in rags of pied
piper and snorts (cyclotron in chains)
or else I rub the small of her back
with the small of my dick. How
can I bear it when the headless
jostle the armless to rise in one
plaited symptom like tongues cupping
dark lemons. Dazed by the slits
in pingpong’s forehead I weigh
venison in lamps while stars, stars
publish their bitter day tribes on
my window. Bees shed their mes-
merism so quickly when tattooed
at advent that I fear I must flash
the sign of the knish in response,
cautious as a sphinx measuring
volcano-rims to see which one is
roundest. Mystics always seek this
perfect circularity, though I suspect
they simply desire to feel the warm
bigamies and stat tomtoms lining
them like jewels on a sorcerer’s
nostrils. My humanity has gone
to the gills. You know why. Candles
rearranged you in profile, yours at
the dawn of anoint, exuding that
fur of unreachable cages you were
known for. Six white scissors lashed
the wisps a while, hushed in spiels.


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  3. Why Knott? Part 2 | Lost in the Forest

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