I met Bill Knott on my first day of graduate school at Emerson College. I remember settling into a corner of a small, newly remodeled classroom whose tables were arranged in a square so all the students could face one another. There were five or six others already there, but the room was quiet and still. Outside, downtown Boston bustled and hummed, a symphony of background noise.

Soon a few more poet-wannabes walked in, some old, some young. There were ten of us waiting when the door opened and a gray-haired man entered, his eyes downcast, his back hunched. He wore a pair of wrinkled khakis pulled up high and cinched with a ratty belt, a rumpled white button-down shirt and a pair of thick, black glasses held together with some clear tape and a tiny paper clip for a hinge. When he reached the front of the room, he tilted his head back to look us over for a few moments, and then he sat down. He placed two fatigued Stop-n-Shop plastic bags on the table in front of him. From one, he pulled out the books required for class: The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms and The Practice of Poetry.

"I guess we should get started," he said, winding a small travel alarm clock he'd pulled out of the second bag. His voice was thin and gentle. His hand delved into the bag again and pulled out a chocolate Slimfast shake. He rocked it back and forth in his hand, squinting at the roster before taking roll. When he called our names, we were very obedient. Each person said Here and raised a hand, like second-graders.

I've been thinking a lot about Bill lately, for many reasons. I recently attended a celebration of his posthumous poetry collection, I am Flying Into Myself, at the AWP conference in Washington. Also, I just finished teaching a memoir writing class using Mary Karr’s book The Art of Memoir, and I’ve been rereading much of her work. In Cherry, there’s a short aside in which Karr recalls one of Bill's poems. She writes that her father folded his hands upon his chest like a corpse: "I'd later picture him again in this posture when I read a poem by Bill Knott: 'They will place my hands like this. / It will look as though I'm flying into myself.'"

Bill was not the easiest teacher to get along with. Still, I took four workshops and several hair-raising literature classes with him, from 1993 to 1995. He may not have known it then (or ever), but I considered him my mentor. I trusted everything he said about poetry, and because of that I learned a great deal. He had a way of confronting poems in a very literal way, pointing out weak or awkward lines that said things I didn't mean them to say. I learned to obsess about antecedents and proper verb use, clear images and specific verbs. He embraced the new and fresh in a poem; he loved to be surprised by a good line or image. "Interesting," he'd say, pondering the words on the page—usually printed in dot-matrix. If he really liked the line or phrase, he'd offer to buy it. "I'll give you five dollars for that line," he'd say, pulling out his wallet and searching out a few singles. "You should sell it to me, because I'll know what to do with it. I'll do it justice. You, well…." His voice would trail off through a coy smile.

I don’t think anyone ever took the money.

Bill could be charmingly self-assured in that way, but then I'd see him walking across the Boston Commons in a dingy down parka, an overflowing plastic bag in each hand, his body leaning into the brutal winter wind. My heart would sink because he looked so lonely and frail.

His poems often display this side, and the dichotomy still surprises me to this day—the surly, brilliant teacher vs. the beatific, child-like persona of his poems. For example, this two-line Knott poem found in Steve Kowit's book on the craft of poetry, In the Palm of Your Hand:

Hair is heaven’s water flowing eerily over us
Often a woman drifts down her long hair and is lost

Kowit goes on to say that the poem’s “image as a whole seems more discovered than invented: a strange, disconcerting bit of ‘fantastic’ imagery that is not soon forgotten.” Very true. I also hear a deep longing for connection—which you could see in Bill’s eyes sometimes, in those rare moments when he’d actually meet your gaze. But then sometimes all you’d see is complete, utter frustration. At times, he seemed to truly lament the stupidity of us, the lazy next generation of poets.

Some days Bill walked into class and you could just tell something was off. Bad vibes lit up the air around him like a corona. (You’d pray that you weren't up for workshop on those days.) You never knew what had set him off, but those hours were torturous, especially for the men. He’d often accost a male poet in an aggressively Socratic way, asking question after question, never content with the answers.

One time there was a new student in the class. He was from the South and had submitted a poem in an antiquated drawl, complete with a bunch of thees and thous, a horse-drawn plow, and tobacco being tended in the fields. Bill did not like the poem. (If you knew Bill, you’ve already surmised this.) He detested false voices—affected tones—in any form, and he let this poor young man have it, pelting him with questions: “Why would you write something like this? Who do you think is going to read it? Why should I care about this farmer?” And the dreaded question no poet ever wants to hear: “I read this poem and I think, so what?” he said, holding the sheet of paper high by the corner between his index finger and thumb, as you would a bag of dung.

The only thing the guy probably learned that day was that he should drop the class, which he did. I never saw him again.

Bill was much gentler with the women poets. Sotto voce, he’d encourage them to explore the poem on a deeper level, pushing them to see something surprising in the lines. He’d say things like, “Please be careful when writing about the moon and stars. It’s been done so many times and you have to be aware of all that, otherwise you’ll be poorly copying somebody else.” He'd lean forward, his hands open and reaching out to the writer, and then he’d quote from memory the lines of several different poems that mention the moon. Such moments were very touching, even mildly flirtatious.

When up for workshop myself, I understood that Bill was the alpha dog and I would submissively roll over whenever he wanted to exhibit his top-dogness. When he threw his litany of unanswerable questions at me, I’d try to address them openly and honestly. I would never answer his question with a question. A sarcastic “I dunno, Bill, why do you think it's important?” was a death knell, and poets who tried that route met with disastrous results. If you didn’t fight him, he'd often follow his questions with a trancelike, out-loud meditation on certain lines. It was fascinating to listen to, his mind flowing through all the associations that your words had forged. This was an education in itself—seeing how your poem had the power to affect a reader’s mind. Bill’s mind in particular.

I took his interrogation and creative meandering as part of my learning process, helping me to see more clearly the field of the poem. I often wrote lines that sounded good or interesting to me, but I wasn't really sure what they meant. For example, here are a few lines from one of my first (not very good) poems: “I always find myself / making underneath a decision, / a spinning copper penny / pinging against a curb.” Bill kept asking me what “making underneath a decision” meant, and why it should be followed up with the penny image.

“I'm not sure," I said, but he kept on, quietly ranting through the ideas and images that popped into his head. Then he said, “There's something whimsical about it,” and an idea fell into place. When I'd originally written the poem, I'd been rather used to making decisions in a whimsical fashion. (As many young people do—what else is there, before there is wisdom?) Sometimes, I let chance determine my life’s course: If the light turns green in the next three seconds, I will quit my job and road-trip across the U.S. for the entire summer—that sort of thing. I didn't always weigh the possible outcomes of such decisions. I never got “on top” of the decision. Hence “underneath.” And the copper penny, suggesting the randomness with which I made my choices—as if I were merely calling heads or tails.

I had no idea the poem was going there, but suddenly I knew, and I explained all this to Bill in a sudden rush. I’d finally apprehended the poem’s meaning and had an idea of what I needed to do in order to make the poem better. I sat back in my chair, feeling smart and excited about remaking the poem. Bill leaned back, too, seemingly pleased with himself.

Sometimes, you write an image and you don’t know why. Sometimes it gets cut in revision. Sometimes it’s a little gift you’ve given yourself. Bill taught me that lesson with his intense questioning. I was there to learn. He was the teacher. Enough said.

About Bill Knott the person and poet, I’m learning more and more all the time. I recently rediscovered a Gettysburg Review piece by Charles Simic, who recollects a trip to Chicago where he meets a fine young poet whose name is—you guessed it—Bill Knott. With a friend, Simic walked up a few flights to Bill’s apartment and knocked on the door:

"[Inside, they heard] the sound of hundreds of bottles clinking together, and the door opened slowly. Soon we saw what it was: we had to wade together through an ankle-deep layer of empty Pepsi bottles to advance into the room. Bill was a large man in a dirty, white T-shirt; one of the lenses of his glasses was wrapped in masking tape, presumably broken…. Bob sat on the bed, and I was given a chair after Bill swept some books onto the floor. Bill, who hadn't sat down, asked us: ‘How about a Pepsi?’ ‘Sure,’ we replied. ‘What the heck!’ The fridge, it turned out, contained nothing but rows and rows of Pepsi bottles."

Bill Knott is a poet in the truest sense. As Simic can attest, in addition to his charming oddities, Bill was unbelievably well read. He was introverted, too, like most poets. And he desperately loved poetry. (He apparently loved Pepsi as well.) His poems are without boundary; they thrive on the lifeblood of raw creative energy. Many critics and academics consider him avant garde or just plain contrarian, as many have recently pointed out. Or, as Steven Dobyns says on the back cover of Knott's collection, Laugh at the End of the World: Collected Comic Poems 1969-1999, “It is no accident that the major British and American poets of the 19th and 20th century were outsiders…. The most original poet of my generation, Bill Knott, is also the greatest outsider.” Thus Bill often found it difficult to publish in the best-known journals. Perhaps that is not a bad thing. I mean, is anyone besides me getting tired of the manufactured quirky hermeticism—or randomness—of the poetry that’s often published these days? Only the convolutions of time will tell if they have real staying power.

Bill liked meaning, but not necessarily linear meaning. Perhaps he believed in depth—as something hidden, waiting to be uncovered. Good poems do this kind of digging. When I think back to my time studying with Bill, I remember two things very clearly: first, that everything he said about our poems was an attempt to get us to discover our one true voice and our one true subject. And yet, the voice should almost mask the subject, as if the voice, the persona speaking the poem, hasn’t quite realized the truths he or she speaks. Perhaps that’s why he seemed to like Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery so much. Matters of craft, such as rhythm and line breaks, were important—and he taught us about those things as well—but it all began with being true to the things we needed to write. Which is to say that Bill wanted us to create a voice that was as original and peerless as our own signature, and yet he was aware how difficult a task that was.

Bill loved originality, but he also encouraged us to read, and to know what was going in the world of poetry—ironically, a world in which he didn’t belong. One time in workshop he told me I needed to immediately read some Tomas Transtromer. Who? I thought. How do you spell his name? And then I immediately went to the Boston Public Library and checked out some books. Another time he came to class with a copy of Best American Poetry 1993. Why are you all writing such short poems, he wanted to know of us. “In this book, there are 78 poems, and 288 pages, which equals out to an average of 3.69 pages per poem. So let me ask you again: why are you writing such short poems?” I was surprised that he wanted us to think of the current climate; I was less surprised that he’d done this sort of math. Somehow, it seemed to fit his personality. (If he’d gone to the board and drawn out quantum physics problems, I also would have not been surprised.)

Every once in a while, when I'm feeling insecure about my writing (which is, you know, all the time), I like to remember a time when Bill and I shared an elevator ride at Emerson. It was just a week or so after my thesis defense. He was one of my advisors, but he'd missed the meeting. Apparently, there had been a plumbing emergency at his apartment and he'd had to rush home.

As the elevator made its way down through the building, he glanced at me and said, “I really liked your poems.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“On the whole, it was one of the three or four best student collections I've read.”

“Wow. Thanks,” I said, lamely. “That means a lot.” We avoided eye contact.

The doors slid open and he stepped out, and that was it. He probably said that to all the poets brave enough to ask him to be on their thesis committee, but still, it did mean a lot to me. It still does.

Bill's role as my teacher—as my mentor—ended right there in that elevator, although it never really ends. Even though he’s gone, I’ll always hear his voice, will always be learning from him. After all, that's what a mentor is: not merely someone who shows up in your reading now and again, but someone who’s continually present in your writing life, someone still speaking to you.

Here’s a list of just some of the many reviews and pieces about Bill: