My first class with Bill Knott consisted of him harranging the students about how difficult writing poetry in form is and how we would all want to drop out and how people just sign up for the class but can’t see it through. I had taken the class specifically because it would be acceptable to write in meter and alliteration and so there was pretty much nothing he could say that was going to make me change my mind. I was so intent on the course material—and proving him wrong—that I can’t tell you how many people dropped the class and didn’t show for the second meeting.
The ironic thing about Bill was that he was an excellent teacher—you just had to weather out the storm. (And sometimes I got very angry about that storm.) Whether you reached the eye or some other calm, I was never sure. But I will never forget the classes where he composed in rhyming iambic pentameter on the spot, writing stuff up on the blackboard and not erasing as he went. He spent hours going over student work in class talking about where stresses fall in English words and how those places are affected by the context and meaning of the sentence.
Another strong memory of Bill is how he acted at readings. Poems were infinitely valuable—you could tell by the way he read them—and he would interrupt himself when a new audience member came in late so that he could hand them printouts of his work. I’m sure in the greater context of the po-biz that might have meant something else but, not being in that whirlwind, all I saw was someone who cared so much about poetry he wanted everyone to have it.
Thomas Lux’s introduction to I Am Flying Into Myself: Selected Poems, 1960-2014 both upholds and expands my viewpoint on Knott. Lux writes (page xxvi) “In my opinion, Knott did not become an exceptional poet because he was an orphan, because of abuse, because of poverty, because of illness, because of any kind of suffering. Everybody suffers. Knott became an exceptional poet despite these things.” He continues (page xxvi) “Knott possessed a wide range of subject matter, a long working life, and a prodigious work ethic.” To show that, Lux tells us (page xxix) “Knott published twelve print books between 1968 and 2004—with small presses, university presses, and major houses.” The Unsubscriber was published by Farrar, Straus, and Giraux, and it still strikes me as amazing how Bill scribbled all over the title page of my copy with his dedication, as if the pen marks were trying to cover over the famous publishing house. Lux closes his introduction by mentioning how Bill met Randall Jarrell’s criteria requirement regarding lightning for being a poet many times over but I appreciate this statement as an attempt to summarize Bill more: (page xxx) “He is one, in a school of one, among the American poets.”
And then, of course, there is re-reading his poems now that he’s gone. Bill’s book The Unsubscriber is one of the few books I have been able to use successfully to interest non-poet non-poetry-reading readers in poetry.
I admire the wordplay, which really ought to be word play so that you see both the “word” and the “play”. Bill wrote in “Step on It”:
Passing the threshold one
does not reach
which contain words
that contain us
who contain no words
prior to birthsill—
I admire the pithy in all of Bill’s work. His poem “Flash” is, in its entirety:
their shadows having caught up with them,
There are too many here, and too many in Lux’s selections—and unlike most contemporary poetry books, with Bill’s work it is A-OK to just open to a page and read the poem—that just lift my head-hairs and beg for a second reading. I’m going to close with another short one, because it seems to say a lot to me, both about people in general and Bill in specific.
I wish to be misunderstood;
to be understood from your perspective.