Bill Knott has always taken the position of a non-joiner, an outsider, a comedian and a crank, a deflator, a sufferer. "I wish to be misunderstood," he says wryly in his tiny poem "Wrong" -- "that is,/ to be understood from your perspective." Knott is a sort of Bartleby the Scrivener of lyric poetry, a prolific writer who puns often on his name (knot, not) and has gone his own idiosyncratic way for 35 years and 11 volumes, which include Laugh at the End of the World: Collected Comic Poems 1969-1999. He is, to borrow the title of his new book, the quintessential "Unsubscriber."
Like all children, you were a de facto
Member of the Flat Earth Society,
Believing nothing but what you could see
Or touch or whatever sense led act to
Fruition: mudpies made summer beneath
A tree whose measured shade endowed decrees
Between light and dark: such hierarchies
Gave you implicit a sophistic faith --
(Fallacious fellowship!) --
Ignore the fact that most factions reject
Their lyric league (which only fools have stayed
Striplings of) and none condone its nonsense:
No one loves that vain solipsistic sect
You'd never join, whose dues you've always paid.
Knott has cultivated a surreal wit and an offbeat vernacular style that has moments of high lyricism and deep despair. I was 18 when I read his first book, The Naomi Poems: Book One: Corpse and Beans (Big Table, 1968) published under the pseudonym St. Geraud (1940-1966). The author's note stunned me ("Bill Knott (1940-1966) is a virgin and a suicide"), and so did some of the radically short poems, such as this brief elegy --
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.
and this dark farewell --
If you are still alive when you read this,
close your eyes. I am
under their lids, growing black.
Knott has always had a weird, self-deprecating sense of humor and a tortured sensibility. At times he seems like a lesser Robert Desnos, the French surrealist who combined a gift for associative thinking with a deep humanity. Like Desnos, Knott has a flair for strange images and a sneaky formal sense. He likes to play with the sonnet form (see his responses to Borges, Trakl and Basho in his new book) and thinks of a poem as "a room that contains/ the house it's in." He likes to play with sound and count syllables -- a typical title is "Romance (Hendecasyllabics)"; to coin words ("Neckcognition," "Transhendeculous") and compound them ("Forthfable," "Heilstyles").
Above all, Knott is willing to take in -- to take on -- the subject of suffering, which he approaches from his own offbeat and genuine angle ("in the Orphanage, hell, even if they do tell/ on you there's no one for them to tell it to"). Here is a four-line poem, for example, that seems to me to hover somewhere near Flannery O'Connor's zone:
Do they let you still keep your crutches when
they crucify you, as if you could even manage
the goshdarn things with your hands out like that.
Heck, they'd have to nail them up to your armpits.
(The poems "Death" and "Goodbye" appear in Bill Knott, "Laugh at the End of the World: Collected Comic Poems 1969-1999." BOA Editions, Ltd. Copyright © 2000 Bill Knott. All other quotations are from Bill Knott, "The Unsubscriber." Farrar Straus Giroux. Copyright © 2004 by Bill Knott.)