Poet's Choice

By Mary Karr
Sunday, October 12, 2008

Back in high school, I fell in love with Bill Knott's visionary poems, some only a few lines long. As American bombs in Vietnam were accidentally killing children, he penned this tiny gem: "The only response/to a child's grave is/to lie down before it and play dead."

His poem "Death" almost celebrates dying as parcel of the poet's dreamy hermeticism, that need to turn inward: "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."

Knott, who still produces some of the finest American experimental verse, became a cult figure partly through a suicide hoax in 1966. After collecting rejection slips for years, he sent a mimeographed note to several poetry editors saying something like "Bill Knott died an orphan and a virgin." His subsequent work was published under the pen-name Saint Geraud, a character in a 19th-century porn novel who runs an orphanage and sodomizes his charges. The fact that Knott landed in an orphanage after his father's suicide makes both the hoax and the nom de plume mirror-images of what we deduce might have been his private tortures.

Knott came out from behind his mask with his second book, Auto-Necrophilia. He's an iconoclast who pokes fun at the whole culture, as in "Some of My Problems": "I recently killed my father/And will soon marry my mother/My question is:/Should his side of the family be invited to the wedding?"

Knott embodies what poet and critic Octavio Paz describes as modern poetry's "heroic-burlesque remedy," for in trying to marry the sublime to the ridiculous, he's attempting, perhaps futilely, to unite humor and love, life and art. In "A Lesson From the Orphanage," he uses the brutal social structure of foundlings to refute war:

If you beat up someone smaller than you

they won't (and histories prove this) tell:

look at those people on the opposite side

of the planet: they want to beat us up but

they're smaller so that's okay. Not okay is

that most of us will die in the war between

us and them, because small equals (and mice

prove this) sneaky: their spies could spirit all

our nuke aids away and we'd never know --

nick the rocket-satellite knockout Star Peace

Comcodes right out of our shrinking pockets,

even our doomsday (the FBI can prove this)

doodads, the ones we mean to use on them,

the rats: and so when they kill us will we

have killed enough of them to win, whose

fist figures bigger in the end? And what's it prove? --

In the Orphanage, hell, even if they do tell

on you there's no one for them to tell it to.

Through pathological paranoia, Knott says, we create our own hell -- that final, capital-O Orphanage -- in which no celestial parent remains to hear our pious tattling.

"The only response," "Death" and "Some of My Problems" appear in Bill Knott's "Selected and Collected Poems." Copyright 1977 by Bill Knott. Reprinted with permission from Sun Press. "A Lesson From the Orphanage" is from "The Unsubscriber: Poems." Copyright 2004 by Bill Knott. Reprinted with permission of Farrar Straus Giroux.

Mary Karr has published four books of poems, most recently "Sinners Welcome."

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