Issue 1 – Winter 2001 – James Morrison on Bill Knott (Review)

No Ideas But In Moods

Bill Knott, Laugh at the End of the WorldCollected Comic Poems, 1960-1999. BOA Editions, 2000. 143 pp., $15.00.

If the comic principle resides in the clash of the mechanistic and the organic, as Henri Bergson argued, then the comedy of free verse could be counted among the fullest realizations of Bergson’s claim. Theories of the comic are rare enough – Bergson’s game try, admittedly limited in scope, remains perhaps the most widely accepted – and theories of free verse as such, perhaps, even rarer. Surely this dual lack, though, suggests affinity. Like comedy itself in the topoi of genre, free verse may be what tries, in the domain of poetry, to elude the realms of category. Tragedy has its Aristotle, poetry tout court its Horace. Comedy has little more to show than a slumming philosopher who had far bigger fish to fry – Matter and Memory, for instance – and, if we include Freud’s modestly magisterial Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, the sidelong attentions of a part-time psychiatrist; and free verse has only its comedians.

In practice, after all, the prevalence of comic attitudes in modernist and postmodern free verse can hardly escape one’s notice. Despite the ardent riffs of Whitman, the somber lyricism of H. D., the sullen austerity of George Oppen, the middlebrow earnestness of Archibald MacLeish, the melancholy abjectness of Frank Bidart – to name a few – gravity as such can be a difficult mood to sustain in free verse qua free verse; and when the genre (if genre it be) is most self-conscious in its liberatory aspiration, its self-defined drive to escape constraint, it’s typically comic, even in hands not noted for their lightness of touch – think of Eliot’s stern burlesques, Pound’s flights of nonsense, Olsen’s diffident garrulity; or more recently, and perhaps even more characteristically, the witty rancor of Berrryman, the antic absurdism of Russell Edson, the sportively childlike surrealism of James Tate, the polemical play of Katha Pollitt, or the spritely humanism of Billy Collins. To the extent that free verse, at its most generically representative, relocates the organic from the mechanism of determining forms to the specific structure of a given poem’s situation, it formally answers Bergson’s comic imperative.

The subtitle of Bill Knott’s great book Laugh at the End of the World — “Collected Comic Poems” – may be, in the context of Knott’s work, a term of exclusion: For all we know (though it seems doubtful), Knott has in the works a companion volume of “serious” or “tragic” poems. To differentiate these poems as comic, though, has the paradoxical effect of reminding us of how congruent is the sensibility they express – irascible, crusty, peevish, waspish, or amiably perverse by turns – with dominant attitudes in contemporary poetry. A blurb from Stephen Dobyns on the book’s dust jacket describes Knott as “the greatest outsider” among contemporary poets, and Knott himself, in a parody of “Acknowledgements” pages at the end of the book, jokes about his own marginalization:  “And of the poems that did make it into some crummy little mag, not one was ever selected by annual “best of the year” anthols like Borestone Mountain, Yearbook of Magazine Verse, Pushcart, or Lehman’s Best American…If they didn’t think the poems in this book were any good, why are you reading it? “(136)

Yet in their scorn for status quos and their derision of official commerce, as well as in the seemingly slapdash energies of their quicksilver formal dynamics, the poems are not at all far apart from the general run: They’re just a lot funnier, and, often, better. Knott’s brittle self-effacement tempers, from time to time, the ferocity of some of his satire, as in “To Myself”:

                 can be 
                 that magic carpet
                 which you say
                 you want,
                 but only
                 if you

                 stand willing
                 to pull 
                 the rug out

                 from under
                 your own 
                 feet, daily.

This anti-ars poetica, though relatively straightforward, sounds a note that lingers as an overtone of the comedy, and despite its reserve, links tone and form. A mistrust of systems – social, cultural or aesthetic – spurs much of the comedy, and governs the conduct of the verse, as much as it can if even what patterns begin to manifest themselves in individual poems must be renounced as too systematic from the moment they emerge. More sardonically, Knott criticizes the modernist ars poetica in “To Outremerican Poets,” as insular aestheticism, insufficient to a world wracked by catastrophe:

                 There’s no time left to write poems.
                 If you will write rallyingcries, yes, do so,
                 otherwise write poems then throw yourselves on the river to drift away.
                 Li Po’s peach-blossom, even if it departs this world, can’t help us.
                 Pound’s or Williams’ theories on prosody don’t meet the cries of dying children
                 (whose death I think is no caesura).
                 soon there will be no ideas but in things, 
                 in rubble…(111)

To this point one could read the poem as little more than strident protest, blatantly unfair to Williams or cummings (if not to Pound), but then the poem takes an audacious turn:

                 Only you can resurrect the present…
                         Don’t forget: you are important…
                 What I mean is: maybe you are the earth’s last poets… (111-112)

After an imagist apotheosis, the poem trails off into a bombastic stammer, the subtle whimper of ellipsis: “The light/ of poems streaking through space, growing younger, younger,/ becoming the poet again somewhere? No!/ What I mean is…”(112). Why does the hectoring gambit lunge suddenly into unexpected tribute? Because there are no ideas, according to Knott, but in moods, fast-shifting, fickle moods, which are to be trusted no more than ideas, once they begin to solidify. The poem’s beautiful epigraph, from Li Po, balances the ephemeral and the eternal – “The peach-blossom follows the moving water…there is another heaven and earth beyond the world of men”(111) – and Knott’s manic energy is used up in the shuttle between the two extremes. With his skeptical comic impulse abutting a deep interest in the serious, Knott could be the world’s first stand-up dialectician.

Because of this dialectic, because the comic edge of the poems is so bound up with their political, philosophical, cultural ideas, the comedy is difficult to characterize. Consider the following sequence, two poems that appear in succession in the book, starting with “The Getaway”:

                              It’s 1969 – and I’m
                 All lam: down
                 These libertysplit streets
                 U.S.A. I
                 Throw a measuringtape out, run its length,
                 Throw again, run,
                 Throw, run.

It’s nightmare comedy, stoked by a Sisyphean sense of futility made weirdly cheerful by the breezy puns (“libertysplit,” lickety-split) and a quick run at entropy, with a stanza form that seems to run down at the end, line by line (with each line of the third stanza squishing down the one before it). Then comes “FBI Kills Martin Luther King,” quoted in part:

                 and my 2-scoops-please blouse – 
                 a passerby’s
                 meander-fall hair—
                 though the sky’s blue is through-outed
                 with spots of balm, do

                 they all
                 praise null but you,
                 null but them?

Despite the seeming jibe at cummings earlier, it’s hard not to see cummings as the patron saint of these poems – especially here, with the distant but distinct echo of the end of cummings’ great anti-war poem “i sing of Olaf glad and big” (“more brave than me/ more blonde than you”). 

Knott treats contemporary versions of the same kinds of themes to which cummings was drawn (though rarely with the romantic lyricism to which cummings was susceptible): war (Vietnam looms behind many of the poems, and one of the best is called “After the Persian Gulf War”), bureaucracy (officialese is parodied in “Grant Proposal” and “Advice Columnist,” among others), the rise of corporate culture (in “Monopoly,” among others), and the subsequent, myriad fates of pop culture (in “Wise Sayings,” “Pholk Poem,” or the priceless “Movie Q” sequence). As in cummings, the playfulness in Knott often has a bitter undertone, because of its conceit to pose a surface comic snideness against the roiling anger it conceals. It’s been said that comedy resists theory because it arises only in the particular, and mocks the general. Like cummings, with his wispy lines and mercurial stanzas, his often bitter whimsy, his refusal of capitals (in more ways than one), his crimped wordplay, Knott is a committed particularist – pledging allegiance to the minute, and the comic, only because the cosmic has always failed him.


James Morrison teaches literature and film at Claremont McKenna College.
He is the author most recently of Broken Fever, a memoir