graphic from DAZED & CONFUSED Knott article

Hell on Bill Knott

["Knotty, Knotty Boy" by Richard Hell (May, 2000)
publ. in Dazed & Confused (Britain) #67, July 2000]

In 1968, when I was 18 and alone in New York where I'd Trailway-bused myself from the South a year and a half before with the idea of being a poet, I came across a newly-published book called The Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans, attributed on its cover to "Saint Geraud (1940-1966)." On the book's back cover was printed "Of himself the author says: 'Bill Knott (1940-1966) is a virgin and a suicide.'" It was mostly love poems and anti-Vietnam War poems:

In this time and place, where "Bread and Circuses" has
become "Bread and Atrocities," to say "I love you" is
like saying the latest propaganda phrase... 'defoliation'... 'low yield blast'.
If bombing children is preserving peace, then
my fucking you is a war-crime.

It was Knott's first book. Some more stray lines from it to give you an idea:

The night is a torch of comas


To read the future gaze into your crystal asshole


the snow is falling into its past.

Inside the book there was an introduction from its editor/publisher, Paul Carroll, that explained that "Saint Geraud" was a pseudonym taken from the name of the director of a sex-riddled orphanage, lecherous title-character of an obscure 18th century French pornographic novel called Le Tartuffe Libertin (The Lascivious Hypocrite). (This turns out to be typical of Knott. He's always shamefacedly, self-critically, proud-embarrassedly calling himself the opposite of himself: an egotist, a mass-murderer, a fake. The same way that, while his writing's so laminous and see-thru and strigose with perception beyond perception behind perception, usually expressed in meek and worshipful adoration of some woman, nevertheless two of his books are called Auto-Necrophilia and Love Poems to Myself.) The introduction also revealed that Knott claimed to be an orphan himself, which appears to be the truth, and that in 1966 he'd distributed a mimeographed letter, signed with a friend's name, to various literary personages that announced that he (Knott) had committed suicide, basically because nobody loved him.

Whoa. You'd almost have to be an orphan to pull off all that. And that's part of the point and what's great about the guy. Be a god damned orphan in the orphan family. A dead orphan. That way you owe allegiance to nobody and there's no one to "reflect badly" on, and you're free to be a perfect asshole wonderpoet. Orpheus, the orphanist. Another idea to be got right off from Knott's lead is that the truth has nothing to do with "sincerity." He's full of shit but completely truthful. "Sincerity" is a politician's lie: anything done with words is a trick from the get-go. Don't kid yourself. At the end of the world there's a laugh. But enough theory.

Knott rocked for book after book the next few years. Next off (1970) came a small press pamphlet of a single longish poem in three parts called Aurealism: A Study Bill Knott [1940-66]. All books after the first would be attributed to "Bill Knott," though he dropped the dates around 1973. In an interview from then--the only interview of his I've found--he called the era of those life-limit-parens his "Posthumous Poetry Period." He said, "I had lots of theories as to why people should be posthumous; I figured they were posthumous anyway. Society is becoming so ordered that everything is known about you before you're born. See, you're born and at the age of 5.8 you're going to matriculate kindergarten, age 13.5 you're going to do this, age 40.2 you're going to do that--it has already been so planned out that when you're born your life is over. Everyone is posthumous in that way. Also, I felt like a casualty of the war..." Aurealism (Knott's one-poem movement of poetry, named for Au, the chemical symbol for gold, and described in the same interview as "one's view through gold-colored glasses. It's looking back in a nostalgic way at the Golden Age when the great Goddess ruled..." And, in this "Goddess" regard...I gotta quote too where he said, "I hate 'He-man' sports--the players should compete only in obedience to the cheerleaders' whims..." Yes!) went like this... The last few lines of the second part of the poem and the entire third (final) part:

        With the toys of your nape
        With your skin of mother-of-throe pearls
        And your fire-sodden glances
        From the sidelong world
We break rivulets off the river and wave them in the air
Remember the world has no experience at being you
We also are loving you for the foreverth time
The light, torn from leaf and cry
even your shoulders are petty crimes

Auto-Necrophilia came out in 1971 as the followup to Naomi Poems and was subtitled "The _____ Poems, Book 2." I loved that (I swear I had done the same thing--use a blank in a poem--the year before). The table of contents is a list of cheap monster movies: Gorgo, Attack of the Puppet People, The Blob, Godzilla, the Manster, etc., etc. Auto-Necrophilia is a really handsome book that largely chewed up a lot of Aurealism and spat it out in little pieces for re-publication. In fact the above excerpt from Aurealism is printed as a separate poem in A-N. That's not as annoying as it sounds (and there were new poems too) because Aurealism was a small edition not easy to find. But it turns out to be customary with the guy anyway. His books tend to contain writing from earlier books of his, usually changed a little but often not much. I don't mind. To me it's just another sign of his devotion (ha ha). It's not as if he writes little. In fact he's prolific, seemingly more and more so recently.

I have to quickly describe one more from the '70s. His next book (also 1971) is probably my favorite poetry book published in my lifetime (only rival: Ted Berrigan's Many Happy Returns). By "book" I mean not only content, but book, the physical sewn/glued-paper-ink-and-cover object and its relationship to its content, as well as the poems themselves. It's called Nights of Naomi and was done in an edition of 1000, 200 of which are clothbound. I've only ever seen the clothbound. They're inscribed. Mine is #23 and reads "To Sophia Loren--with thanks, Bill Knott (1940-1966)" at the colophon. I used to have one that was inscribed to Jimi Hendrix. The cover and endpapers are twilight-blue, the print on the title page midnight. The printing technique is letterpress (classic moveable type rolled with ink and stamped into the paper--which was unusual even then--rather than photographic/electronic reproduction) on rag paper, that heavy cotton-content paper with a laddered texture. The font is Times Roman fairly small so there's a lot of space, and there's no information on the pages but the poems themselves: no page numbers, author's name, or anything. It looks like the dream of a poetry book, and it certainly sounds like it. With this book came the culmination of his ultra dense surrealist love period:

Cueballs have invented insomnia in an attempt to forget eyelids

How could you Knott love Bill?

And still I can't leave these earliest books behind without pointing out something else about the first, with its subtitle "Corpse and Beans." That phrase is phonetically stolen from the name of a book by Robert Desnos, great French Surrealist poet (b. 1900, d. in a concentration camp 1945), Corps et Biens, which translates as Bodies and Goods, or Crew and Cargo. "Corpse and Beans" on the other hand, ultimately leads to this poem (published in Auto-Necrophilia):


I sit at my table and sometimes the question of poetry crosses my mind
For example
                     The man who one night ate a big plate of beans
Then got tired
                        Of everything and killed himself
Next day at the burial
Everyone said, What's that noise?

Was it poetry?

Well, what became of Knott? He teaches at Emerson, a small college in Boston, and he's just as disgusted, angry, horrified and love-crazed as ever. His poetry's gotten more and more conceptual, concise, and bizarrely percussive/musical. Across the years he's dreamed up whole alternate universes of poetry-schools; made great art of dozens of women's names; seen, stolen, and beautifully defiled entire oeuvres and cultures of poetry from the German to the Spanish to the Japanese; and even supplied the plot for a big novel by one of the best American writers of fiction. The novelist is Denis Johnson, author of the tremendous story collection (now movie) Jesus' Son, as well as five or six excellent novels (check Angels). Johnson's 1996 novel Already Dead has a page that thanks "the poet Bill Knott, from whose genius springs the plot of this tale." And it's true, the story line of the 400+ page book derives from the 52 lines of Knott's "Poem Noir," a plot that swirls around the rescue of an attempted suicide who's persuaded by his rescuer--with the promise of money for a designated heir--to commit a murder because what's the worst that can happen to him but a nice electric chair...

Over the years Knott has published books frequently, in fact more often and in prettier format and wider distribution than the great majority of poets. Many respected poets are on record praising him extravagantly. Still he appears to be angry and bitter at the rejection he's received. Poets, the rare real uncompromising seer/buffoons, do have it hard. Since the early '90s Knott's taken to publishing cheap little stapled xeroxed editions of collections of his poems, often classified by genre (with overlap of content between books), such as Collected Political Poems 1965-1995, The Season on Our Sleeve: Short Poems 1960-1999, even a two volume Selected Poems 1968-1999... I know of nine of these collections. They're often decorated with letters and lists of turn-downs he's gotten from publishers and foundations and writing grants outfits, and they always include this note: "It should be obvious that if I could have found a real publisher for this book, I wouldn't be doing it myself; no one wants the humiliation of being a vanity author." This is kind of strange, even to me. I would take issue with that statement for sure (how about, say, "vanity" authors William Blake or Walt Whitman for instance), plus I know there are publishers who'd give his work a nicer presentation and make him as much money as those generic stapled xeroxes. But, who knows how he's thinking, and he certainly has every right to resent having to scrape and beg for every cent in this world.

Anyway, just this spring one of the self-published pamphlets has been taken up by a professional publisher, Boa Editions, who're bringing it out in a slick trade edition available through normal channels. It's called Laugh at the End of the World: Collected Comic Poems 1969-1999, and the epigraph is this, from Villon's Wife by Osamu Dazai (a Japanese novelist and suicide): " all seemed so strangely funny that I laughed until the tears came. I suddenly wondered if the phrase, 'the great laugh at the end of the world,' that occurs in one of my husband's poems, didn't mean something..."

Find and buy a book of Knott's. If you don't and he commits suicide I will hunt you down and laugh your brains out.

[from Hot and Cold]

We have links to over 20 Knott poems that are online at our Poets & Poems Links page.


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