Friday, January 3, 2020

I Feel This Way With Bill Knott

A beloved poet is Bill Knott, whose lifelong commitment to dissembling a poetic career and obfuscating any static reader/writer relationship was probably an early harbinger of my own confusion in that regard. I don't think Knott was confused; I mean that his ethic helps me understand the way in which my own ethic is confused.

I read Knott for the first time in high school in I believe 1983. It wasn't on any curriculum but in a poetry anthology that I stole from the school library (yet more evidence of confusion). To this point in my readerly life, "poetry" was whatever teachers assigned (eminently forgettable as it's altogether forgot) and then my mother's college textbooks, which leaned heavily on the Romantics (Browning, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley) and a volume of Robert Frost that to this day nobody can explain how it ended up on the family shelves.

My ear and intellect were still developing in those days. I understood the Romantics in terms of rhythm and a vague spiritual yearning. Frost was a little more familiar in terms of subject matter. I regarded him - errantly but understandably, given what was available at the time both in terms of library and teachers - as an updated Wordsworth.

But basically, at that stage of my life, I tended to correlate poetry to song lyrics, music being the art form that most appealed to me. It was an odd juxtaposition given that I was listening mainly to AC/DC. But Paul Simon and John Denver were dimly in my ken, so there was a sense - however nascent - that lyrics could be more complex than "Goin' down/party time/my friends are gonna be there too/I'm on the Highway to Hell."

Knott's little poem "Goodbye" blew my mind because it attained a high degree of emotional intensity and clarity without music. I felt it. And, critically, I could imagine creating it.

If you are still alive when you read this,
close your eyes. I am
under their lids, growing black.

It is still a fine poem, characteristic of lots of his work: dark, condensed, relational, not unfunny . . .

Over the years I have come to understand that poem as a sort of awakening moment - because it stood to me as an example of what was possible in a very explicit and personal sense. It was generative, in ways that nothing else had been (and little would be again). This is what can be done with language. This is what I will do with language.

Even now when I read it I can feel the rush of creativity and openness. A life opened up for me and without knowing it, I stepped in and was carried away.

To that point, most of my writing had been song lyrics alongside clumsy attempts at music. I was then - and remain - a relatively inept musician, despite how much I love it and still play and practice. But after Knott's poem, I began to write poetry - typing it up, adding images, sharing it with friends (usually girls I wanted to impress but not only).

Earlier this year I destroyed all my journals from the years 1980 to about 1999. Lugging them around was exhausting, and it had been a long time since I'd bothered reading them. I culled the poems and songs worth keeping, and let the more diaryesque entries burn. It was a fine and liberating exercise.

In the process, I came across the poetry "books" I made in high school - typed texts with a lot of drawings and photographs - and opted not to destroy them. I don't think they're of interest to anyone besides me, and maybe the kids some day, depending on how their sense of paternal influence in their own art plays out, but it did feel like a matter of honor. I felt tremendous respect for the kid who'd worked so hard, frequently in secret, discerning ways forward without any real adult support or encouragement. We don't owe the world our creations, but we do owe our creations our gratitude. What I learned in those early years saved me in the hard and violent years of my early twenties. If nothing else - and it may well be nothing else - poetry is a lifeline, a nontrivial one.

Rereading those old poems reminded me again of Bill Knott. I do think about him from time to time, always with a sense of deep love and respect. I never met him and on this side of the bourn never will. But my debt is large. He was deeply committed to art, at the expense of career, comfort and attention (as I understand it), and I have no idea what price he paid for that. Lord knows it isn't easy. He is not a brother exactly, nor a father, but more in the nature of a beloved but mysterious uncle - a black sheep nobody in the family will talk about and only after he's gone do you realize how much you're like him.

When my Dad died, for a year or so I was plagued by questions that only he could have answered. This is natural and not a crisis. But it is a hard space to navigate; in a sense, we have to grow up and accept that there are things we are not going to know. There are gaps in the narrative that are going to remain gaps.

I feel this way with Bill Knott - a sense of sadness, a sense of loss, all of it leavened with the awkward grace and thankfulness that seems to ever attend my being a poet. So gassho to my long-gone uncle, and gassho to the anonymous dead everywhere, whose work sustains my work, and gassho to the ones coming after, whose absence reminds me of my duty, allow me to write writing, day after day after day.

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