Published under the pseudonym Saint Geraud, a name he found in a French pornographic novel, Bill Knott’s first book contained some of his most powerful and most quoted work, including two poems that could do double duty as epitaphs.
Virtuosic with compact verse, Mr. Knott needed but three lines for his poem “Death”:
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.
With eight fewer words, “Goodbye” is shorter still:
If you are still alive when you read this,
Close your eyes. I am
Under their lids, growing black.
Widely admired on the page and in the classroom, Mr. Knott taught at Emerson College for more than 25 years, published many books of poetry, self-published uncounted others, and was awarded the Iowa Poetry Prize and a Guggenheim fellowship. He also maintained a sideline of sorts excoriating the poetry establishment, the “PoBiz” whose upper echelons seemed forever closed to an orphan from the Midwest who as a teenager was briefly confined in an insane asylum.
Mr. Knott, who wrote his first book of poetry while working as a hospital orderly, died of complications from heart surgery March 12 in a Bay City, Mich., hospital, not far from his Mount Pleasant, Mich., home. He was 74 and had moved a few years ago back to the state of his youth.
A prolific writer, Mr. Knott published with major houses and minor presses, and he enthusiastically used blogs and Twitter to offer his work free to a new, wider audience. A restless and relentless reviser, he visited stores to revisit his work, pulling his books off shelves, annotating page after page in purple ink, and jotting down for some unknown future reader: “Please note this is a corrected copy.”
“You buy a book of his and you find he’s been in there crossing out things,” said the poet Gail Mazur, an Emerson colleague. “I saw him in a bookstore doing it. I loved him for that.”
Although he told one interviewer he thought his work fell “within the minimalist or imagist tradition,” Mr. Knott ranged easily through poetry’s many forms, writing longer works in rhyming couplets, villanelles, sestinas, sonnets, haiku, and one-line bursts that attracted fans such as punk rock musician Richard Hell, who quoted this poem in its entirety on his blog:
Cueballs have invented insomnia as a way to forget eyelids
“How could you Knott love Bill?” Hell asked.
In an introduction to 2007’s “Stigmata Errata Etcetera,” poet Mark Doty wrote that Mr. Knott’s “work has never lost its power to startle.”
Poets Mary Karr and Robert Pinsky, a former US poet laureate, each praised Mr. Knott in The Washington Post’s “Poet’s Corner” feature. In 2008, Karr noted how Mr. Knott exercised the power of brief verse after US bombs accidentally killed children during the Vietnam War:
The only response
to a child’s grave is
to lie down before it and play dead.
“Knott is not the type to win prizes, become the pet of academic critics, or cultivate acolytes,” Pinsky wrote in 2005. “But this thorny genius has added to the art of poetry.”
Thorny, perhaps, but Mr. Knott was also “very funny,” said John Skoyles, a longtime friend who formerly chaired Emerson’s writing, literature, and publishing department. “I think people were a little scared of him, because if you got in an elevator with him, he would stand in the back with his head down. But if you talked with him, he could have you laughing in two minutes, and he was very free with a laugh.”
He is not the type to ‘become the pet of academic critics, or cultivate acolytes. But this thorny genius has added to the art of poetry.’
Mr. Knott attributed his emotional reserve to his childhood. One of two children, William Kilborn Knott was born in Carson City, Mich. He never married or had children, and his sister, Marjory Joy Foley of Mount Holly, N.C., is his only immediate family.
His mother died when he was 6, his father when he was 11, and he was sent to Illinois for the next several years. Mr. Knott lingered in an orphanage until he suffered a breakdown and was sent to an asylum.
“To be a 15-year-old, warehoused in an enormous dorm, surrounded by older men in disparate and often dangerous stages of mental distress, is not a fate I would wish on anyone,” he said in an interview with Robert Arnold, published in the journal Memorious.
“How I survived that hell I’ll never know, and in fact most of my time there I have blanked out of my mind,” Mr. Knott said, adding, “Yes, I can recall being beaten and pushed around and abused in the usual manner of such places.”
Released after a year, he moved “from one hell to another.” He lived with an uncle who was “a sharecropper in the middle of Michigan,” so poor that the farmhouse lacked indoor plumbing. After high school Mr. Knott spent two years in the Army and then worked as a hospital orderly while he began writing poetry.
“I’m not a ‘loner’ if being that means it’s my choice to be alone,” he told James Randall in a 1977 interview for the journal Ploughshares. “I’m alone because no one wants me around — they reject me — so ‘rejectee’ is more apt than ‘loner.’ ”
“The Naomi Poems,” Mr. Knott’s first book, appeared in 1968, two years after a mimeographed letter circulated among poets and literati claiming that he had killed himself in a Chicago apartment, unloved and a virgin. That book announced he was very much alive, and “The Naomi Poems” launched a vital career, even if Mr. Knott never reached the heights he wanted.
He received a master’s of fine arts from Norwich University, and while teaching at Emerson, “his students flourished,” DeWitt Henry, an Emerson colleague, wrote in a tribute he read at a faculty assembly last week. Student evaluations “characterized him as one of the outstanding teachers in the field, at Emerson and elsewhere,” Henry said, and 10 feet of wall outside Mr. Knott’s office “was papered with publication acceptances for past and present students.”
By contrast, Mr. Knott devoted one of his blog pages to collages he created from the many rejection slips he received. He also posted his art online, and illustrated with drawings some of small books he made by hand, creating beautiful keepsakes his friends and colleagues treasured.
After publishing his collection “The Unsubscriber” with Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2004, Mr. Knott largely used the Internet to distribute his work for free through his blogs, but he also sold his work via Amazon, where most of his self-published books are listed as out of print.
“Every time I’d see a book by him on Amazon, I’d buy it,” Skoyles said. “They were unforgettable.”
Mr. Knott saw tweeting, blogging, and reading poems on YouTube as “his bridge to his readership and his future readership,” said Robert Fanning, a poet and associate professor at Central Michigan University who is Mr. Knott’s estate executor. “He was very aware of what he was doing online, and thank goodness we have that.”Bryan Marquard
can be reached at email@example.com.