Posted on Paul Hoover’s Facebook page, March 25, 2014.
Sad news that the poet Bill Knott died on March 12 during heart surgery.
Maxine Chernoff and I were his friends in the early 70s Chicago poetry scene, and it was on his recommendation that I was hired to replace him as the Poet in Residence at Columbia College Chicago, where I remained for a long time. The description of Bill fleeing social settings, which appeared in Robert Baird’s on-line New Yorker tribute, was true to my own experience. At the Boston Associated Writing Program meeting many years ago, we spent a couple of days together, sharing meals, attending sessions and readings. Suddenly, at a cocktail reception honoring Elizabeth Hardwicke, Bill walked out the door without a word of goodbye. It was the last personal exchange we ever had. He was in an audience in Boston a few years later when Maxine and I were reading, but he disappeared before I could get down from the platform to greet him. His shyness was part of a complex of approach - avoidance. He could make an aggressive public display, such as dropping his pages to the floor after reading them. One day in a bar, he dangerously crushed a glass by squeezing it in one hand; pieces flew and his hand was cut. One of my students, now a well-known poet, told me that he was a magnificent lover. Yet his apartment was always filthy, and the only clean thing one evening was the bottle of pricey vodka he’d bought for our visit. When smoking at his apartment, he would drop his ashes into the palm of his left hand, only to drop them to the floor when the cigarette was stubbed out. At Ted Berrigan’s house, I saw Bill dump the ashes into the pocket of his short-sleeved shirt.
As a teacher, he could be a desk-stander. His former students said that one day he made a paper airplane of a poem under discussion and flew it out of an open window: “That’s what I think of the poem.” The Henry Darger of his generation (abandoned by their fathers, both were raised in Chicago orphanages), he was deeply shy and somewhat suspicious, but he desperately wanted love and admiration. His eyes were always peering at the world through the smoky window glass of Mooseheart, the suburban orphanage where he was identified as William Kilbourne Knott. He would play on the irony of his middle name: kill + born, as well as the other meaning of his last name: Not.
When Paul Carroll received a letter from Bill’s landlady that he had died (later he learned that Bill had sent the letter himself), he raced to the Clark Street rooming house and knocked on Bill’s door. No one answered. A minute later, Bill opened the door of the shared bathroom down the hall. Shaving kit in one hand, a white towel draped over his other arm, William Kilbourne Knott approached without speaking. Facing Paul Carroll, who would later publish his first book, The Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans, he said, “What do you want? I’m dead.”
Jackson Meazle is correct in his posting on the City Lights blog that Bill’s early work was among his most influential. Written in the Deep Image manner, it was praised by Robert Bly and James Wright, and Bill’s name became very well known, as well as his nom de plume, St. Geraud. Maxine and I were shocked when, on visiting Bill’s apartment, he gave us books from his library that included signed first editions of books that Bly and Wright had given him. But that was Bill, always dramatic. I wouldn’t go so far as to compare him with Andy Kaufman, but there was always something in him of the trickster and performance artist. Like Kaufman, his jokes communicated both comedy and fatality. It was in that vein that a couple of years ago he printed books of his poetry with plain black and white covers and mailed them out to friends. He seemed to be announcing the futility of the usual publishing venues. His shape-shifting included, in mid-career, writing graceful formalist poems that seemed a renunciation of his trickster persona.
Rest in peace, restless poet. You made it all the way to the top, your last books published by the most distinguished literary publisher, Farrar Straus. I hope the company will contribute a copy of each to reside at the Mooseheart library.