Bill Knott, Fifty (Rhyming) Sonnets: A Selection from 1969-2009
I recently received two gorgeous hand-made books from Bill Knott featuring his original art on the covers, front and back, including the above Fifty Sonnets. I’ve been wanting to feature some of his works on Rogue Embryo, and given my predilection for sonnets, I’ve chosen four from this collection, reproduced below.
Normally skeptical about contemporary poetry that rhymes, I have no such reservations about Knott’s formal excursions. The rhymes are woven into the poems in such a way that they might be perceived only subliminally at first.
That effect of seamlessness has something to do, I think, with the lineage of these sonnets from Metaphysical poetry’s “strong lines”: the complex, elliptical syntax with its hierarchy of nested dependent clauses; the use of sustained metaphor or conceit; and the intellectual stance, delighting in irony and paradox. The diction is often densely musical, turning alliterative Hopkinesque phrases with compound adjectives (as in “gallant-grieved angels’-armor” and “brief bloomed steam-sheaf”). The serpentine syntax and compressed music of some of these sonnets recall the complexity of poets like Donne: difficult nuts to crack, but rewarding.
Bill Knott is famously as open about his work (most of which is self-published or posted online) as he is reluctant to allow publishers to assemble selections. I hope the latter changes, but meanwhile it’s wonderful to have these tangible and lovingly assembled books with his original art on the covers.
SPD carries two titles by Knott: Stigmata Errata Etcetera and The Quicken Tree. His 2006 collection The Unsubscriber is also available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Check out more of Bill Knott at his poetry blog, his prose blog, and his art blog.
THE HUNGER (enneasysyllabics)
If a path to the Gingerbread House
could be established by breaking crumbs
off its edifice and sprinkling them
so as to find what lies behind us
across the featureless fairytale
void of childhood: yet how very quick
that trick wears out when the story’s track
takes hold, takes toll, a far-older trail
prevails, we’re forced to give up this lost
cause; and the fact is that every last
morsel was gone long before the you
or I might totter our way back here
to try to dissuade all these other
Hansel-Gretels hollering in queue.
AFTER BORGES’ “TO A MINOR POET OF 1899”
Who sought that sad height and that constant change
Laboring on an extraneous verse
Which through the dispersion of universe
Might elect one second whose spectrum’s range
Was so capricious it broke the scholar
Caught in daily efforts to confine the eye
Pursuant of ceruleanesques that lie
Against each longong to fling a color
As brief as my life if I am alive
And am the one destined to undergo
Any authorship of the words that show
Whether such vexacious tints can survive—
You must judge, ancient friend! what I’ve seen
Or accept as real the illusion I mean.
Ray that overturns every pane,
force that first invades but then
is pervaded: sunstripe penetrant!—
what made your phalanx fail: why can’t
its gallant-grieved angels’ armour
avert our dirt: must the conqueror
convert his ways, the savour adope
savage customs? The slaves currupt
all bright kings—each mote of us
holds abject thought that blots with dust
your gold-shed greatness: shadow
breaks your arc and essence. How
transient the transparency
your brandished here so recently.
OCT-NOV (MICHIGAN MEMORY #4)
The bacon of the ankles crackles, and the sky
Perks up birds this coldsnap morning—very
breath sheds a breath-effect, brief-bloomed steam-sheaf . . .
Puddles huddle in frost. Past the barn the path
Shoots hill-pastures which rose to winter early
And sun-shucked clouds blast-off from: migrants that fly
South—mouths that wet-nurse icicles—hatch forth
A form, a furious precision I sloughed
At birth, preferring life. And like the wind
Can reduce anything to description—
Running to finish my chores, beneath my scarf
I’ll feel my chinbone seek my collarbone,
As if the flesh has ceded and the skeleton
Now must precipice itself against all warmth.