Saturday, August 05, 2006

Bill Knott On:

Vanity Books
  • Vanity books can’t be classified as publications.

  • And one of the chief dangers. Vanity publishing is costly not just in terms of money. Its profligate habits can lead to the loss of judgment and value. It can mislead: it can cause me to be satisfied with work which is less than my best. I become self-indulgent, lazy; my standards are lowered. An outside editor would not accept what I’ve let pass.

  • I intend to vanity-publish all my work on my blog, eventually, and to offer there my self-pub books in PDF files free to anyone who wants them. The “print” alternative has become impossible for me. In short, it’s my failure as a print poet that has led me to the Web. I wouldn’t be blog-publishing (vanity-publishing, PDF-publishing) if I had been successful as a print poet.

Writing Poetry

  • I once dreamed of writing a line that I could put into every poem. A line that would fit into every poem I wrote, that would not be out of place no matter what the poem was.

  • The occasion of a poem? It makes me think of that quote from Henry James: “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” Doubt seems to be my normal state which the poem or its origin suddenly and briefly overcomes. I know I can’t write a poem. I have no right to write a poem. Mark Strand has the right to write a poem, not me. He went to Yale; he lives on the yacht of his youth. Me, I grew up in an orphanage, no family, no money, no “educational opportunities.” No background, no breeding. Scum like me can’t write poems. After his Ivy League education, C. K. Williams lived in Paris on a trust fund for ten years while he wrote his first book; me, after high school and two years in the army I worked as a hospital orderly while I wrote my first book. Lower-class scum, menials like me have no right to write poetry. The occasion of a poem? You wanna know the fucking occasion? There is none for me. Strand and Williams and Pinsky et al. have “occasion.” I have no occasion.

American Poetry

  • Poetry is so disesteemed and undervalued in this country that lots of poets compensate by assuming self-defensive repressive stances that internalize the hatred and scorn directed towards them. Poetry is disdained as trivial and sordid by society at large, by Puritanical political traditions. And poets respond often by considering these criticisms as valid, and try desperately to answer them and refute them by the high seriousness of their work. Their answer to being scoffed at by those above is to create a similar hierarchy in the sub-realm of poetry, in which its lower elements (the proletarian comic modes) are rejected and despised.

  • (“American” poetry is an illusion. It doesn’t exist. It never existed. “American” poets who write in English are Colonials, Diasporics, Offshoots, Sub-branches.)

Role as Poet

  • But don’t you understand that that inability to commit to an esthetic is the root of my failure as a poet? It’s my lack of courage, really. I’ve been such a coward. Look at [Charles] Simic and Tate and compare them to me. Their courage and persistence, as opposed to my fear and wavering. Their lifelong devotion to a style. My cowardly abandonment, my desertion of every possibility. Jack of all modes, master of none, that’s me.

  • “The same kind of poem from a particular poet” is what defines a strong poet, the opposite of a dilettante like me. Philip Levine is a great poet because he has had the courage and the strength to maintain his voice and his stylistic convictions through a lifetime of effort. Ditto Simic, Tate, [Sharon] Olds and others.

  • One must create an established coherent poetic personality to be successful. And one must stick to that chosen persona or edifice. I don’t see Larkin ever deviating from his. As you read his Collected [Poems] you never suddenly find him trying to write something like [Ted] Hughes’ “Crow.” But turn my pages and you’ll find me trying to be [Karl] Krolow on one and Parra on the next. That’s why I’m a failure, and why I have come to the elephants’ graveyard of failure, the Web, to publish my poems. I’m posting all my poetry to my blog because ipso facto I have failed as a print poet. Facts are facts. I can’t console myself with spurious theories that will “demonstrate” anything I want them to.

Socialization, Self-Identification & Poetry

  • Robert Arnold: "You use class as a metaphor a lot, it seems, and much has been made of your background—from the orphanage to your time in the army and then afterward as a poor hospital orderly. That time in your life seems almost mythological at this point, with Charles Simic and James Wright both writing anecdotes about it. How much does class, and your background specifically, figure into your identity as a poet?"

  • My identity as a poet doesn’t exist, due to the class background you speak of. Every child at the orphanage knew they were on an assembly line that would shoot them out into the bondage of lower-class robot-slots; army, factory, the meniality of a desperate dead-end life….

  • Extra added attraction: When I was 15 years old [1955], the orphanage sent me to the state insane asylum at Elgin, Illinois, where I was incarcerated for a year. ...How I survived that hell I’ll never know, and in fact most of my time there I have blanked out of my mind. (Need I mention there was no schooling facility, no educational activities provided to me and the other teenagers there. Nor were we segregated or separated or safeguarded in any way from the general adult population, some of whom were psychotically harmful both to themselves and others. Yes, I can recall being beaten and pushed around and abused in the usual manner of such places.)

  • So what fucking “identity as a poet”? I don’t have an identity as a human being, much less a poet.

  • But what the hell, on the other hand, maybe the state insane asylum ...maybe that shit-hole wasn’t any worse really than Exeter or whatever prep-school in which Pinsky and Strand and Bidart and Charles Wright and C.K. Williams and William fucking Matthews were also suffering the traumas of their teen-angst years at the same time as me, back there in 1955….

  • When I met Philip Levine in 1969, after my first book had been published, he was a tenured professor at Fresno State; I had spent the previous ten years earning a living as a menial hospital orderly/ bedpan jockey. Levine’s written 9,000 poems about the what, the one or two summers he worked as a manual laborer or factory hand, but I’ve never written a single line about my orderly decade. Nothing, no poem, no fragment of a poem about when I was fifteen years old incarcerated in the Elgin, Illinois, state insane asylum... Out of my “experiences,” barely nothing has emerged. Why? The answer is very simple: Levine is a great poet, and I’m not. He’s had the strength and the courage to remain open to and to retain his humanity, which I was not able to do. I’ve failed in every way to live up to that task.

  • I wonder if my internment as a poet has been much different from those earlier incarcerations,... I don’t think so—it seems to me that the authorities of poetry, the overseers, the supervisors of poetry, have treated me with the same disdain and contempt and indifference as did the authorities of those other institutions. Maybe that’s why I became a poet, to ensure that I would continue to receive the brutality and neglect I had become accustomed to in my youth.

The Effect of Poetry

  • I regret everything I had to do with poetry in my life. My involvement with it has brought nothing but unhappiness and bitterness.

  • Maybe I could be thankful to have survived the unhappiness of the past if the unhappiness of the present wasn’t overwhelming me.

  • I’d be happy to pay the price of the experience if the resulting poems were worth it, but they aren’t.


From: Robert Arnold - An Interview with Bill Knott - Memorious 6 - June 2006


MG said...

Amazing interview. Knott seems to be locked into an all or nothing mentality, where if you're not winning Pulitzers, you're worthless. (If he isn't putting the interviewer on, that is.)

Suzanne said...

I read this the other day and it made me sad.

Nick said...


At this point I'm leaning towards the latter explanation. But in reality it might be a bit of both.


Yes, even allowing for a tortured youth; it is still very sad to see such a bitter man.

Agnes said...

Sad? I dunno. Is that a better emotion than bitterness, or just a different emotion? I'm sittin' here asking myself what is a poet without bitterness. The answer I keep getting is Tiny Tim. Hmmm...


Nick said...

Depends on if you want to sulk or you want to whine!

Sam of the ten thousand things said...

I'm hearing a lot of woe is me in his comments.

"Ditto Simic, Tate, [Sharon] Olds and others.One must create an established coherent poetic personality to be successful. And one must stick to that chosen persona or edifice."

The concern here seems to be more on success as becoming known and used in the literary world. If he means success in writing -- he's wrong. A writer -- as in an Emily Dickinson (and I'm sure they're out there) -- can certainly be vastly successful in writing and in leaving behind a literary legacy without being known.

Billy Collins is a monster of a poetic figure today. Will he be read in a hundred years -- as Dickinson will be read.? No way. But then ... to be fair ... Who would or could be read then as Dickinson will be? ...

It's all in perspective.

I write because of who I am and I can't help but do it -- not becuase of who I could be -- not becuase I want somebody to read me -- not so I'll be noticed.

Interesting post.

Nick said...


The Knott's interview has been fodder for many on-line discussions recently. & Yes, "I write because of who I am and I can't help but do it..."

Suzanne said...

I just got the feeling that he was depressed rather than bitter, maybe suicidal, in the way that people planning on exiting this life start giving things away. I dunno.

Sam, I like your definition of success. I'm taking it. ;-)

Nick said...

Hard to tell since he has mockingly staged his own demise before in 1966 when he distributed a letter, that announced that he (Knott) had committed suicide....Dunno, maybe this time around it is the real deal.

Go-Go 221 said...

Bill Knott isn't putting anybody on, and while you may not understand his POV, I can assure you he's sincere. And Sam-of-tao-cliches, Bill Knott is, if not the greatest living poet, certainly the one with the greatest knowledge of poetry, poets past and present, etc. Do you think your commonplaces about Dikinson add anything to this discussion? Bill Knott may be miserable, but he's at least entitled to be so without your dimwitted criticism.