Atrocity Kitsch: Bill Knott and Daniel Borzutzky

by on May.16, 2011

This will be a short post but I wanted to say something about Bill Knott, not so much because he’s left grumpy comments on this blog but because I think he’s a fantastic poet and I wanted to join Kyle Minor’s Bill Knott Week at Htmlgiant, but I couldn’t because I was bogged down in work.

First I’m going to make some generalizations about Bill Knott. I think Bill Knott is a great poet, one of my favorite American poets of the second half of the 20th century. I also think he’s incredibly important: important in the sense of very influential. I see his influences on heaps of poets. Yet, Bill Knott is also a poet who’s almost never mentioned as an “important poet.” When people mention their “influences,” he’s very seldom on the list, even when he’s an apparent influence. I don’t think that’s an unimportant point to make about Knott: it’s part of his authorship.

At the Htmlgiant special, there was a lot of comments made about the fact that Knott self-publishes his books and booklets. In fact, I first came across his work when one of my grad school classmates handed me a booklet. Perhaps this method of distribution could be said to be beside the point, but I think it does suggest something like an approach to writing/publishing that has something to do with his work.

Sure, a lot of poets have and continue to self-publish, including the best ones ever (Whitman, Rimbaud etc), but something that interest me about Knott’s self-publishing is the way it is done in such a make-shift way. Though the poems are great, the booklets look pretty un-fancy. Further, by self-publishing he kind of takes himself out of the “respectability game” – as a very influential and – to a lot of people – awesome poet, Knott should probably instead of going self-publishing (and in such a large quantity) try to edit himself and get people to write about him etc. This is especially true in this age of “too much”. But instead Knott aligned himself with the “plague ground.” (This can be seen as the opposite to say Kenny Goldsmith who’s made his anti-kitsch opposition to the shit, the “creative writing” and “expressionist” poetry of this plague ground a central argument for his own special-ness, his admirability.)

I wanted to pick up on a few things Kathleen Rooney says in her interview about Knott. To begin with, she notes that Knott “kills” himself in his poetry; at first by inventing a persona (who not only dies but is also a virgin); and he names one of his books “Corpse and Bean,” further suggesting the deathiness of writing. For Knott Art and Death are fundamentally intertwined. It seems to me this deathiness, this self-killing is part of an engagement with kitsch, a disposability, an anti-immortality.

Rooney also points out that Knott’s writing is fundamentally in bad taste in many regards. I agree: it’s maximalist, it mixes atrocity and kitsch (art is not only tied to death but violence). At the same time as it’s incredibly fun and interesting to read, it’s not the kind of poetry that people refer to as “the Greatest” or “Most Influential” (though personally I would pick it over just about any living poet’s work any day). It simply is “too much.”

Rooney points to the following piece of poesy:

Nuremberg, U.S.A.

In this time and place, where “Bread and Circuses” has
become “Bread and Atrocities,” to say ‘I love you’ is
like saying the latest propaganda phrase…’defoliation’…
‘low yield blast’.
If bombing children is preserving peace, then
my fucking you is a war-crime.

I love this poem too. Rooney thinks comparing killing children to fucking is in questionable taste, and I obviously agree. But I’m not interested in taste, in fact most great writing is pretty tasteless (Genet’s maximalist baroquery about smelly transvestite criminals with religious names is obviously the best example of this!). Part of what makes this of questionable taste (though this isn’t necessarily the same as “tasteless” which is usually easier to deal with, easier to discard or embrace, more stable) is that it makes this extreme comparison between sex and war crime – but, perhaps more so, because there is an implicit pedophilia in the statement. If Killing children equals fucking, then perhaps it also equal fucking children. And in the insistence on metaphors and comparison, the baroque literariness of it, there seems to be a connection too between art and pedophilia; art is crime, artifice – as JonBenet Ramsey with her adult make-up and Michael Jackson with his fake face showed us – is equal to a kind of molestation.

Here’s another of my favorites:

(Poem) (Chicago) (The Were-Age)
‘My age, my beast!’ – Osip Mandelstam

On the lips a taste of tolling we are blind
The light drifts like dust over faces
We wear masks on our genitals
You’ve heard of lighting cigarettes with banknotes we used to light ours with Jews
History is made of bricks you can’t go through it
And bricks are made of bones and blood and
Bones and blood are made of little tiny circles that nothing can go through
Except a piano with rabies
Blood gushes into, not from, our wounds
Vietnamese Cuban African bloods
Constellations of sperm upon our bodies
Drunk as dogs before our sons
The bearded foetus lines up at the evolution-trough
Swarmy bloods in the rabid piano
The air over Chicago is death’s monogram
This is the Were-Age rushing past
Speed: 10,000 men per minute
This is the species bred of death
The manshriek of flesh
The lifeless sparks of flesh

Covering the deep drums of vision
O new era race-wars jugular-lightning
Dark glance bursting from the over-ripe future
Know we are not the smilelines of dreams
Nor the pores of the Invisible
Piano with rabies we are victorious over
The drum and the wind-chime
We bite back a voice that might have emerged
To tame these dead bodies aid wet ashes

American poetry obviously has a long and troubled relationship to politics, to atrocities etc. The New Critics had no problem with commemorating the confederate dead, but they didn’t care for “the excesses of the 1920s” (see Cary Nelson’s famous Repression and Recovery). By the time Knott wrote these in the late 60s it was definitely OK to write political poetry. But one things that separates this from a lot of the poetry is that it doesn’t provide a clear place to stand, in fact it implicates art in violence (Another post: why Bly can write some awesome poems about atrocities but then turn around and write some awful nature poems.).

Art is atrocious in Knott’s poems, and in part (like Genet’s Our Lady of Flowers) this comes from its incredibly commitment to literariness, to artistry, to the baroque.

But now I’m making it seem like I like Bill Knott for his transgressiveness or something like that. That’s not exactly true. It’s more like I love the way – as in Genet – the shitty, kitschy stuff intermingles with just stunning sentences and images. As I’ve said before, both the shittiness and the baroque or maximal have long been the most troublesome aesthetics to American poetry – literary devices used out of control is a kind of kitsch. His poetry goes all the way, it’s too much, too beautiful, too literary, at the same time as it gives us shit and corpses.

For example in the “Were-Age,” he asks the reader to become intimitely involved inside Art that reproduces the kind of grotesque baroque of American atrocities: The constellation of sperm on our bodies is both vast/outer space and physical and sticky on our bellies; both historical and metaphorical and physical.

And in all of this: an utter awareness of media and its speed – “death’s monogram,” 10,000 men.” Or as Velvet Underground put it around the same time: “The dead bodies pile up in mounds.” In that song (“Heroin”) media enters the body through a heroin needle (or at least a “spike”); in Knott’s poem media enters like blood going into “wounds.”

And with media we’re back to self-published booklets. Bill Knott as the poet who entered the plague ground with every baroque gesture, and has come out – not as a famous poet of standing and taste – but one of the greatest jesters of the corpse heaps this shitty world has produced.

Knott’s body is a very post-freudian body. These are bodies that are part of history, intertwined with history, but there is no “interiority,” no soul or essence there. Unlike Billy Collins – whom Knott supposedly loves – poetry is not an escape into a truer sphere (compared to swimming often or some other natural space). The bodies pile up like porn or horror movies. And it’s perhaps this that makes his poetry most tasteless of all: not only is there no place to stand, but we are not granted our own beloved interiority, our agency; instead we are piled up and intertwined with the unsavory violence of our world (and the crassly literary).

Also wanted to mention a recent book that I find very much in line with this – Daniel Borzutzky’s “The Book of Interfering Bodies.”

In her (favorable) review of the book on Htmlgiant, Lily Hoang wrote about Borzutzky’s questionable taste: “For instance, I think pulling skin from flesh is something pretty cliché. The first poem in this collection, “Resuscitation,” closes with skin being pulled from the body. I started to read. I rolled my eye.”

There is something unquestionably tasteless about involving torture and art. And yet the two seem inextricably intertwined (see Abu Ghraib):

The soldier had taken my pants and all I had left was skin

I wanted to peel off my skin and dissolve into the tiniest voice

I started to peel the skin off my arms and worked my way up to my shoulder across my neck to the other shoulder along the arms down to the hand


Its impossible to read the Book of Glass without spilling blood. The reader pulls it out of the tower with special tongs.

Like Knott, history becomes involved with art and kitsch (in Borzutzky’s case a steadily accumulating heap of “books”). And the thing I hadn’t thought about until I compared Borzutzky and Knott was how they speak in a kind of bureaucratic grotesque. Bureaucracy is generally considered indeed kitsch and “banal evil” etc, but in both Knott and Borzutzky bureaucracy becomes very evil, grotesque and beautiful, seductive and repulsive at the same time.

About this bureaucracy, Borzutzky has the greatest epigraph I’ve seen in some time:

“It is therefore crucial to find a way of routinizing, even bureaucratizing, the exercise of the imagination.” (The 9/11 Commission)

11 comments for this entry:
  1. Hello! | HTMLGIANT

    […] 2. Johannes Goransson posted thoughtfully about Knott today at Montevidayo. […]

  2. Lara Glenum

    Love this, Johannes. I haven’t read him. Where do I dive in?

  3. Johannes

    The booklets! I think these poems are from Naomi… I also like this book that came out in the 80s called Outremer.


  4. Bill Knott

    Ms. Glenum doesn’t have to spend a penny or visit a library to see my books—

    all of them (17 at current count) can be downloaded FREE via this page:

    Thanks for your kind words, Johannes, they mean a great deal coming from one of your demonstrated intelligence
    and breadth of erudition——

    I’m very grateful you took the time to consider me—

    But please! bring to your readers the fact that all my books can be gotten FREE, that I offer free downloads of all my books, and I continue to collate and publish these free books, and I’m augmenting them all the time,
    and the two you quote will added to the next edition of my SELECTED POLITICAL POEMS (the current one is about 100 pages and I need to update it)—

    Hey all these other capitalist page poets make you BUY
    their poems, make you PAY CASH to read their work, but I give my books away FREE——

  5. Lara Glenum


  6. Maya Jade

    Thanks for praising one of the best poets of the (entire) 20th century. Some comments-

    ‎”and he names one of his books “Corpse and Bean,” further suggesting the deathiness of writing. For Knott Art and Death are fundamentally intertwined.”
    ….you forgot about flatulence. Art, Death, Farts. Equally important in this context.

    Bill Knott breaking wind-

    ‎” makes this extreme comparison between sex and war crime”..
    Hm, my Cambodian husband might hesitate to call this comparison extreme. And, once upon a time during the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979, 1/3 of all Cambodians murdered), fucking WAS criminal. Literally. You were bashed in the head and thrown half-alive into a hole if caught. This made it quite frightening but immensely more erotic (as recalled by my in-laws, at least). Talk about turning lemons into lemonade. In my uneducated layperson’s opinion, I think his poem is completely hot. Contemporary poets forgot about getting off, how to turn something gross (an atrocity) into beauty. They could take a lesson from the Romanticists.. you know, guys like Delacroix who were considered in their time to be of “questionable taste”.. Bill Knott doesn’t need any lessons, or criticism- but some publicity is always appreciated. The poems will fall or stand as they are, eventually.

    Here’s some piled up bodies where a chick with great tits and a big ass gun found a great place to stand- in the Louvre.ène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple.jpg

  7. Johannes

    I largely agree with you, except for a couple of things – Whenever someone says some general thing about “contemporary poets” I mostly get the impression that that person hasn’t read all the good contemporary poetry around, which brings me to the second point, we need discussions about poetry.

  8. Nick Demske

    Bill Knott was a pretty early influence on me, too, Johannes, and I feel like you captured my favorite aspects of his writing very well in this. the juxtaposition you write about–the high, tightly crafted art of the poems, often producing tons of beautiful content, inevitably runs into some staggering nastiness. but the superb craft makes the nastiness way more concentrated. and vice versa. One of my favorite images in Knott’s writing is two decapitated heads in a cannibals oven rolling over on each other and kissing for the first time. goddamn that is beautiful to me.

    And I think you’re right especially in how Knott implicates art. “Art is atrocious in Knott’s poems.” One of my favorite BK lines: “I cut the thumb off and throw it at stuff.”

    So hooray Bill knott for writing sick poems that have given me many things I think I’ve needed. And hooray Johannes (and Kathleen Rooney, too) for being two of my more recent influences, apparently perpetuating knott’s influence on my writing. hell, borzutzky too, for sure, if his similarities are because of influence and not just coincidental. i love some borzutzky. when he came to racine to read, we had a last minute location conflict, got put in some vast dance club space and, while he was reading from the then unpublished book of interfering bodies, dance lights came on. he just kept bulldozing through. it was a majorly intense reading…maybe my favorite reading I’ve ever seen. there’s a video of some of it here:

  9. Maya Jade

    You are right about that, I generalize what I deem contemporary out of ignorance. I’m even naming my first-born son due next month after Mallarmé (and Étienne Decroux). But look at the current mainstream avenues for discussion.. they’re no better than the comments on CNN news blurbs (and far less amusing). I am sure there are great groups out there, but for those such as myself who are not apart of any academic circle (and living in a slum in SE Asia) what can we do?? Also, my lack of knowledge about contemporary poets is reinforced by constant disgust of those I come across (Billy Collins, for example.. or Lehman’s Erotic Poems compilation.. just filthy).

  10. Johannes

    Maya, I agree that a lot of the well-financed projects that get poetry through to a lot of people tends to be mediocre, so it’s no wonder many people think contemporary poetry sucks. Well, I hope you’ll stick around and become part of the conversation here. I happen to think there’s a lot of wonderful contemporary poetry, only it’s generally published by very small presses and don’t get much coverage anywhere.


  11. David Grove

    Knott’s self-published books–I have a bunch of them–may be unfancy, but some of them are embellished with his fascinating visual art. (Which is for sale. Details at his blogs.) I particularly like the covers of Instructions to a Map (Syllabics), (Acting)Poems, and Downrhymes. I discovered his poems at the University of Michigan-Flint library when I was a teenager, and I loved them immediately. They had an LSD-like liberating effect on my thought processes. “This last world/ Has been overgrown by the bones of your handkerchief”: I’d never read anything like that. (Though I think read something very similar a little later, in Riven Doggeries. Did Tate rip off Knott?) I wanted to imitate Knott, but I had no idea how to go about it at the time. I have some attempted imitations at my blogs now. They may be bad, but they were a lot of fun to write. Knott’s work has been a joy and a help to me. I wish he’d pick up his poetry blog again.