Tag Archives: Bill Knott

Bill Knott’s strong-lined sonnets

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.


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.


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.

Camille Martin

The Fledgling Book Flies the Nest

          This post is more meditative and personal than most of my literary musings, but I’ve been thinking about various reactions to some of the poems in Sonnets.
          As I was putting together the final manuscript of Sonnets, naturally I made certain decisions about which to include and which to put on the back burner, perhaps for future revisions. As well, in the final, published, version, there are some sonnets that I feel closer to than others.
          But once my book goes out into the world, I have no control over which poems, to quote Dickinson, make readers feel physically as if the top of their head is coming off, and which, not so much.
          For example, one friend named a sonnet that he particularly enjoyed. It was one that in the editing stage I had seriously considered tossing. This has happened often enough to bring home the point that after a work is released into the world, the author becomes largely irrelevant, unless biographical information contributes to the meaning of a poem (my Katrina poems, for example)—and even then. Unmoored from the intentions and contextual significance in the mind of the poet, readers become, to use Barthes’ term, writerly. I might not share a certain predilection for or interpretation of a poem, but who am I to say? And it’s a pleasure for me to know how others are reading my work.
          At a reading, I sometimes find myself about to start talking about what the poem means to me and then catch myself, so as not to impose a set of significations to the poem.
          And in the editing stage, when I had trusted friends help me to edit the manuscript, one editor felt that a certain sonnet should be dropped, while another felt it absolutely must be included. I hated to be the one to break the tie, but more often than not, iI decided to include it, since at least one seasoned poet felt strongly about it, and I didn’t want to deny the little sonnet its chance to shine, even if only for a minority of readers.
          It can be illuminating and broadening to read other’s interpretations of particular poems. Not long ago, Bill Knott wrote a sensitive and insightful analysis of one of the sonnets, “comatose in paradise,” in which he gave it a depth of meaning and pointed out interconnected ideas that I hadn’t noticed before. As much pleasure and satisfaction as I derive from writing, it’s at least as gratifying to hear others’ take on the poetry. Perhaps it’s true that poets are the worst interpreters of their own poetry.
          I’m wondering what others think when they hear such unexpected feedback from others.

Camille Martin

a sonnet by Bill Knott (for the fallen)

For the fallen of late . . .

Leslie Scalapino
Louise Bourgeois
Shusaku Arakawa
Andrei Voznesensky
and now David Markson

. . . a sonnet by Bill Knott that I happened upon this morning:


Who drains his breath from the sky,
who empties his grasp into the ground,
who moves on trespass, lingers on word,
pasturing his impostures, his games—
each one lasting as long as the steam
that emanates at first from the dirt
wrenched up harshly from its warm
depths when graves are readied during
winter in the cemetery, that field which
has to be ploughed and burrowed up
always, even in winter, how unfair,
how unjust when all the other fields
get to rest beneath their hypnotic snows,
get to forget (how briefly!) Spring.

from Collected Sonnets 1970-2010

Camille Martin