If one ever needed confirmation that the poetry business is a parade of naked emperors, look no further than the fact that Bill Knott, one of the true emperors, if not the ONLY emperor, sits on a true throne barely recognized in his time. “Recognized” is a tricky term, of course. This poet is utterly revered by many in the wings, and will get his time center stage, though he may not be alive to see it. I have faith that genius is bedrock, and he will be known as the major poet he is once all today’s annual grasses and fancy feathers have blown away. For now, he lives alone, writing and painting–working his fingers to the bone. He is a prolific painter and has been for many years and you can buy his paintings from his blog. Disgusted by presses and publishers, he ultimately uploaded all of his books to the web–including recent work–on a blog. You can even read early drafts of his work; he posts while in process. His Collected Poems was available briefly in print but sold out with blazing speed.
Knott is one of the most purely talented poets going. His voice, his eye, his musicality, his incredible range. His diction is wildly inventive as he coins new terms or plays off of every imaginable facet of a word. Every one of his lines is tested hundreds of times. He can be caustic, witty, tender, fierce, deeply moving. Personal, political, universal. He is a metrical virtuoso, a formal master, in formal and free verse. His poems invert our understanding of the world, they are in places pure surrealism, and often he has us in dreamtime: here but elsewhere, questioning our perception of the world and the world of our perception. He often plays with place and scale, inverting small and large, high and low, interior and exterior. His poems unfold like origami birds. His use of metaphor is unparalleled. Some poems are longer narratives, others are short but pack a punch that falls harder than any short poems I’ve ever read–excepting at times Emily Dickinson, whose voice I hear in Knott’s. His poems are often linguistically and/or metaphorically challenging, but are written for the reader, and always yield, usually with a great aha! moment for the reader, and usually a laugh. His work invites re-reading, and gives great pleasure. Sometimes reading Knott’s poems I’m dazzled the way I am listening to the genius of Steven Wright–how light, filtered through Knott’s dark glass shifts and the world blazes up clear and bright in a new dark way. His art is a tragicomic blade lifted to slit the neck of the sky. And what stars and ash spill out. Over and over again.
I treasure his books, being the lucky recipient of dozens of signed copies that he copied by himself at home, made covers for, and signed–each individually. If you’re just getting to know his work, you are lucky. Keep your eye on his poems-in-progress blog. Watch his work as it happens. If there is justice, and I know there is, Knott will be revered and studied for years, unlike most of the so-called major poets wiggling their paltry peacock spreads across the AWP stage each year.
Here are a few of my favorite Knott poems, re-posted from his blog. But you need to read all his poems, because a small selection doesn’t do his work justice. After you read these, go read the whole book, and download it.
Listening’s confined to animals,
What we call ear uncalls all we hear—
Eyesight applies to hawks and owls
But never to our narrow peer:
Each natural sense we experience
Here as humans pales, halved or less
To a modest of its male-ness—
Smell; touch; taste: can you even guess
Which among them if any might still prey on
My higher-evolved clone . . .
Which of that five’s alive and hovering—
How dead to its lunge we’ve grown.
are my parents
meeting for the first time
when I die
The only response
to a child’s grave is
to lie down before it and play dead