Selected and Collected Poems
Spontaneous is a good way to describe much of Bill Knott’s poetry. However, rather than the “spontaneous” that Wordsworth describes in Lyrical Ballads in connection with an “overflow of powerful feelings,” Knott’s poetic mind reveals itself through a series of spontaneous catastrophes, at the center of which is the image of the poet himself who attempts—but often feels he fails—to rearrange the chaos of life in some aesthetic form. However, Knott’s intention is far from attempting to create a “neat” poetic philosophy. The failure, the chaos, the catastrophe of life is celebrated in many, if not all of the poems in Selected and Collected Poems.
Nevertheless, at the heart of Knott’s idea of poetry is a particular principle, a philosophy, a way of seeing the world. In “Poem Written to a Poet,” for example, a bumpy taxi ride during which “everything gets flung up hard” becomes a metaphor for the creation of poetry:
. . . a word jounces upwe write it down sometimesfast as taxis doorstep usthen past our first date orlast it lingers though we trywe really try to let it bejust the split second it’s meant to
Like a thing flung up or out in mid-air which must eventually come to rest, a word—more importantly, the image a word creates—also has its limitations, which, of course, are in its meanings. A word’s denotative value is its limitations; even its connotative power can restrict or confine a word. As Knott shows us throughout various poems, words do not need to have definite limitations or restrictions. Let us celebrate the chaos of words, he implies, and forget for a moment their strictly cognitive values. The most important event is that “split second” when a word’s powers are undefinable, when spontaneity is a celebration of itself; for instance:
Prefrontal lightningbolt too lazy to chew the sphinx’s loudest eyelashNot even if it slushes you with a mast of tearsDown which grateful bankvault-doors scamperBecause of a doublejointedness that glows in the darkLike a soliloquy of walnuts . . . .
There are poems, however, like “(In August-Sept Held),” where the language becomes too tangled and the snytax nearly unreadable in places, so much so that spontaneity and fun are victims of obscurity.
However, in “Priscilla, or the Marvels of Engineering,” the language reflects the anxious moments of a “’Swingles Only’ cruise” where “neo couples were gangplanking each other.” Bill, the persona of this longer narrative poem, is an old hand at the dubious art of swinging. The woman he meets on board the S.S. Priscilla is desirable, and after losing her for most of the night, he discovers her in his cabin. Ironically, her name is Priscilla. After loving her—“Gentle, coaxing, mocking—/Musky, chromosome zoney, internal as sea”—and then violently taking her physically, the ship sinks. The S.S. Priscilla and Priscilla have met their destruction. Love and destruction are simultaneous metaphors of recurring catastrophe. The narrator-persona-poet, however, escapes to tell of the disaster. Like Ishmael who with his subtly humorous and poetic point of view survives to narrate the fantastic and tragic events of his adventures, the lover and sinker of ships and females, the poet, emerges with whimsy for us:
But no oneNobody could figure out howThe S.S. Whatshername hadGot all those great big gaping holesRipped, slashed, torn in her hull orWhat caused this deadfall rupture, the grievous eely capsizing.Couldn’t a been a icebergThat far south
Interwoven with the spontaneity of Knott’s words and images is a magical quality in the impressions he creates. One of Knott’s previous volumes is entitled Aurealism, and several pieces in Selected and Collected Poems reveal the idea of poetry as pure radiance. Ultimately, poetry is not so much concerned with literal meaning as with literal light, brilliance, the color of gold. The magical qualities of poetry are pure energy, golden rays. There is a sacred radiance in the aureole just as there is a certain sacredness in the act of creating poetry. In “We Can Live Here Cristina” the hands of the woman are “lit by aurealism.” The aurealistic experience is expressed at the end of “To American Poets.” There is in this poem an apocalyptic vision of the total devastation of our planet by fire. However, fire is light, the energy which re-creates substance; so, like the phoenix, the poem (substance) which has been destroyed is supernaturally re-created and regenerated in the poet (spirit):
—The lightof poems streaking through space, growing younger,
(The entire section is 2271 words.)