Bill Knott, esteemed poet and longtime WLP faculty, dies

March 13, 2014

Bill Knott, an influential American poet who spent more than 25 years teaching at Emerson College, died March 12 of complications from surgery. He was 74.

Bill Knott, in the classroom.

The author of more than a dozen books of poetry, Knott had recently taken to publishing his work online so readers could partake at no cost.

Born in Carson City, Michigan, Knott received an MFA from Norwich University. He taught generations of students at Emerson from 1975 to 1977 and from 1984 to 2008. Before coming to Emerson, he taught at numerous other schools, including the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Columbia College, and the University of Alabama.

Knott received several grants and awards, including a MacDowell Colony Fellowship (1969–1972), Yaddo Colony Fellowship (1971), P.E.N. Grant (1972), and NEA grants (1980, 1985).

Knott’s poetry collections include The Naomi Poems, Book One: Corpse and Beans (1968); Becos (1983); Outremer, winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize (1988); and Stigmata Errata Etcetera (2007).

The poet was fondly remembered by colleagues, friends, and former students.

John Skoyles, Emerson professor and former chair of the Writing, Literature and Publishing Department, said: “I was very close with Bill. He was a brilliant teacher, a very idiosyncratic man, and uncompromising in his integrity. He was a very, very generous man, too. He used many textbooks in his classes, but he didn’t want the students to bear the burden of the expense. So he would buy [enough] books for a class and distribute them at the beginning of the semester. At the end, he would collect them to give to his next group of students.”

Emerson Distinguished-Writer-in-Residence Gail Mazur said, “I have known Bill since the ’70s. In the poetry community here, we all knew him to be a genius. Shy and often recessive with people, Knott, as a teacher and a reader of his own poetry, was ebullient, brilliant, and charismatic. He was as unpredictable as his poems. Complicated and constrained as he was, he was the most wildly, zanily free of poets.”

Thomas Lux '70, chair in Poetry at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said: "Bill Knott was a genius and will be remembered as one of the great poets of his generation. He loved teaching at Emerson and his colleagues there.... I knew Bill for 45 years. He could be a little cranky sometimes but I witnessed, more often, astonishing acts of generosity and kindness. He was my friend and I loved him."

Liz Ahl ’92, a professor of English at Plymouth State University, said: “Bill Knott, my eccentric, loving, prickly, devoted, insightful, brutal, brilliant poetry teacher when I was an undergrad at Emerson College. He taught me so very much, especially about poetic forms. I still use stuff I stole from his classrooms. He was so encouraging, had really high standards, asked really tough questions, and was so generous in the breadth and depth of his critique.”

Poet Christopher Hennessy (Love-In-Idleness), MFA ’00, said: “This morning as soon as the news was posted [on Facebook] by John and a few others, my entire news wall was filled with people (not just Emerson folks) commenting about Bill. There was no one like him; he was one of the most complicated people. I studied under Bill at Emerson (took his modern and contemporary poetry class) and greatly benefited from his unique insight. He really pushed me to be a more critical reader.”

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