Op Ed


Bill Knott in the classroom at EmersonBill Knott, poet and professor at Emerson for over 25 years, passed away on March 12, 2014. 

I foolishly thought Bill would always be around—I think many of us did—because he’d always been there to remind us of some folly taking place in the world of literary prizes and blatant careerism. Always there to heckle the poetry establishment with high wit and devastating humor.

Bill was a great teacher, and not only in the classroom. His blog was full of perceptive and startling observations about poets and poetry. His postings on Facebook pointed followers to arcane treasures. Just two weeks ago, Bill cited the translation of a poem by Martin Opitz (1597-1639):

                             EPITAPH FOR A DOG

Thieves I attacked; for lovers I kept still;
And so performed my lord’s, and lady’s, will.

He gave the citation as coming from To Be Plain: Translations from the Greek, Latin, French, and German, by Raymond Oliver. I never heard of the book, and ordered it, as I have done with so many of Bill’s suggestions. It arrived just days before his death last week, a small, terrific book from an obscure publisher. Like so many of us, I continue to learn from him.

He loved poetry in all of its forms and taught “Forms of Poetry” for years. His own poems included sonnets, haiku, and fantastic one-line poems, such as:

                              Cueballs have invented insomnia as a way to forget eyelids

He was also the master of the short poem:

                                    MINOR POEM
The only response
to a child’s grave is
to lie down before it and play dead.

A generous and gentle man, Bill hated to see students go broke buying books, especially books for his class. Having been poor for much of his life, he did not want to impose financial burdens on others. His solution was to buy copies of every text for every student in his classes, lending them out for use during the term.

One day on the tenth floor of the Ansin building, I heard the elevator door crashing and crashing. I finally went to see what was causing the ruckus. It was Bill, with two students, unloading carton after carton of books, books from his own library. He had moved to a smaller apartment, and had to downsize his collection. He recruited two students to help him, promising them first dibs on the selections. The rest he donated to the library we had in the lounge at that time. I looked over the books—they were all classics, each one a keeper. It would never have occurred to him to sell these books. It was his nature to be generous.

That said, Bill could be a tough on undergraduates. A senior once wrote me: “Please allow me to take your poetry workshop. I don’t want Bill Knott to throw another thesaurus at my head.”

One of the first times I met Bill was in 1976 at the Grolier Bookshop in Cambridge. I had written my MFA essay at the University of Iowa on his work two years before (he had three books at that time) which Granite magazine published. Bill insisted on taking me to Mr. Bartley’s for lunch, insisted on paying, and insisted I take the copy of his new pamphlet of poems, For Anne, which he had heavily annotated with that green ink he loved. From glancing at the edits, I knew it was the copy he used at readings, and tried to hand it back, but he wouldn’t think of it. I can still see him leaning across the table, pushing his palms at me, happy, very happy to be giving something away, and happier still because the gift was irreplaceable.

I never thought then I’d have the good fortune to be his colleague for over a decade.

Bill Knott paintingMany of us were recipients of Bill’s generosity over the years, receiving his one-of-a-kind books with original artwork, on paper he made, with bindings he stitched himself.

A few years ago, after Bill retired, Jonathan Aaron and I found huge USPS Priority cartons for us at the reception desk. They contained original oil paintings and numerous hand-printed books of all sizes and shapes, each inscribed with a touching dedication.

Bill was very proud of his art, and so I attach a painting to this remembrance. I never saw him so pleased as when I told him that I had shown his work to Paul Resika, an artist whose work Bill admired, and he beamed when I reported that Resika complimented his paintings.

Bill’s sense of the absurd was unsurpassed. The copy I have of his collected poems, which he sold last year on Amazon for less than nine dollars shipped, weighs in at over five-hundred pages. Its title: Dropping Sylvia Plath on Hiroshima and Other Poems. He called his collected blog postings, “Mary Karr’s Ass and Other Prose Conjectures.”

In May 2013, Bill published New Poems from the Past Six Years. I was happy to read that he was fond of this work, he who was relentlessly self-deprecating. He wrote in the introduction: “I may be deluding myself, but I think some of the poems here or hopefully a few of them are as good as the best ones I wrote in any 6-year period prior in my career…” But then he continued, in a vein familiar to his friends, “back when my books were published by real publishers like Farrar, Straus & Giroux and BOA and Pittsburgh University Press and others, before I was blacklisted by AmeriPoBiz Inc.” Bill wouldn’t be Bill if he eliminated the kicker.

Last week there were hundreds of comments on social media sites recalling his influence, as a poet, a teacher and person. I’ll end with two of his short works. I always thought Bill would be around, and in many ways, he is.

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

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.


Six columns from THE BOSTON GLOBE

Time flurries on, and sixty years accumulate
Boston Globe, January 25, 2010
 full article here

A life story, told in keepsakes
Boston Globe, Jan 18, 2010

On a Trail in Truro
Boston Globe, January 11, 2010
full article here

The Raymond Carver I knew
Boston Globe, Jan 4, 2010

Joining the fountain pen network
Boston Globe, Dec 28, 2009

Pawing her way into my heart
Boston Globe, Dec 21, 2009


  1. discovered you for the first time in NYT today (6/21/14) reading from abroad (Mexico), keep up the good work, I like it very much, real, true, honest and heartfelt.

  2. And those EPITAPH FOR A DOG “flings”(!) . . .

    (copied from his blog… and I placed brackets around the line he altered for that facebook post)

    November 7, 2010




    Thieves I attacked; for lovers I kept still;
    And so performed my lord’s, and lady’s, will.

    —Martin Opitz (1597-1639)

    translation by Raymond Oliver, in his book “To Be Plain: Translations from
    Greek, Latin, French, and German”, 1981—

    my flings at it:


    I keep the thieves at bay
    With growls and grunts and grrs—
    But I look the other way
    For gigolos and lovers:
    Thus doubly I obey
    Both my Lord’s and Lady’s orders.


    I barked off thieves afraid
    of my lunges jumps and gyres,
    while lovers came or stayed—
    see how straitly I obeyed
    both my Lord’s and Lady’s desires.

    (‘gyres’ doesn’t work . . . maybe ‘flyers’ (as leaps), or fleeing thieves—

    My barks kept thieves afraid
    and turned them into flyers

    and sent them helter-skyers

    and fled/sped them fast-off flyers

    and set their heels to fires

    outliers / liars / briars

    (my barks were sharp as briars)

    My snarls kept thieves afraid,
    my barks bit them like briars


    My barks kept thieves afraid
    and set their heels to fires, / heels at fires

    My barks made burglars turn afraid
    and spanked their cars to backfires,
    while panting lovers parked and played—
    a special traffic-ward-dog, I obeyed [terrific traffic-dog, I obeyed]
    both my Master and Mistress’s desires.

    My barks made burglars terrified
    and spanked their cars to backfires,
    while lovers parked and slinked inside—
    doubly-good guarddog, I satisfied
    both my Master and Mistress’s desires.

    Thieves and burglars ran terrified,
    my yips and yaps were vicious—
    but lovers I let slip inside:
    thus janus-face I satisfied
    my Master’s and Mistress’s wishes.


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