Friday, March 14, 2014


Poet Bill Knott

Poet Bill Knott died this past Wednesday March 12 at age 74, following complications from surgery. I first read a few of Bill Knott's poems in a paper handout in a poetry writing class I was in during my last year of high school (1971-72); the poems in the handout were given without the poets' names, so it was a few years later when I found his first book, The Naomi Poems, Book One: Corpse and Beans, that I found his poems again and attached his name to them

I've always loved many of the poems in The Naomi Poems, the deep blue sensuality and delicacy of his love poems, the sharp acrimony of his politically explicit poems. In Knott's later books, he experimented in other directions with his poems, and I didn't always feel drawn to his later work.

I didn't know much about Knott's life, and more or less lost touch with his work for a number of years. Over time he apparently came to feel cynicism and rancor about the inward-looking office politics of the literary publishing world in the United States, and in recent years he stopped searching for publishers for his books of poems, in some cases refused offers to bring earlier books of his back into print, and at one point he started publishing his poem old and new on an online blog and making his work available for free.

In one interview, Knott discussed in detail his reasons for considering himself to have failed as a poet, or at any rate to have failed at a career in the the world of literary awards and contests and other sorts of literary competition. He did in fact receive several major literary awards and grants over the years, and he taught for more than 25 years at Emerson College. There were many other poets and professors his age and younger, of weaker ability as poets, who received greater literary and career acclaim much earlier in their lives.

A good interview with Bill Knott, from sometime around 2004, is in the online literary magazine Memorious, here.

An insightful article by John Cotter on Bill Knott's poetry is in the website of the Poetry Foundation (affiliated with Poetry magazine in Chicago), here.

A obituary for Bill Knott, along with four of his poems, is in the online magazine Open Letters Monthly, here.

Thanks to poet blogger Elisa Gabbert, in whose blog The French Exit I found each of the above weblinks.

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Here are four short poems by Bill Knott that I've always liked, from The Naomi Poems, Book One: Corpse and Beans.



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



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.


Retort to Pasternak

The centuries like barges have floated
out of the darkness, to communism: not to be judged,
but to be unloaded.



Let the dead bury the dead:
it is said. But I say it is we living
who have been shoved underground, who must now rise up
to bury the dead, the Johnsons, Francos, Fords and McNamaras.

Here's one of my favorites—a poem about Robert S. McNamara, whom Knott refers to in a note to the poem as "a competent monster":


The technocrat gloats
at his remote desk
but just to show
he's still human

he still does a few
chores by hand
and adds a human
touch for example

rather than having
his computers do it
he himself stamps

all by himself
stamps PAID on
the casualty-lists.

Wow, I love these short poems. I am going to have to find that book.
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