Kora in Hell is a William Carlos Williams' series of prose poems in which he attempts "to refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we alone live". It first appeared serially in the Little Review in 1919 alongside installments of James Joyce's Ulysses. Although it proved an important work in Williams' development of a characteristic American diction and experimental forms, the work baffles the critics and even his friends: ...
Kora in Hell is a William Carlos Williams' series of prose poems in which he attempts "to refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we alone live". It first appeared serially in the Little Review in 1919 alongside installments of James Joyce's Ulysses. Although it proved an important work in Williams' development of a characteristic American diction and experimental forms, the work baffles the critics and even his friends: Ezra Pound calls it "incoherent," and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) complains that it is "un-serious."
Kora in Hell was written in 1918 and published in 1920. It is a unique text written in a form that defies categorization. Subtitled "Improvisations" the closest way to describing the text in familiar genre terms is as a prose poem. Specifically it is a series of paragraph entries comprised of two types of writings: (1) spontaneous writings that he composed over the course of a year -- a kind of poetic diary; and (2) italicized critical commentaries on the "diary" passages. The fragmentary form is an attempt to demonstrate the process of the imagination as it moves "from one thing to another." In doing so Williams is tracing the discovery -- and the movement towards understanding -- that the opposite of a perception can also true. In this way Kora in Hell juxtaposes the tension between -- and interdependence of -- the imagination and the objective facts--the hard objects--of the world.
The "Prologue" to Kora in Hell is considered one of the most significant statements on modern poetic form. At the time Williams was interested in Dada and the ideas of the artist Marcel Duchamp. Kora in Hell was written at the peak of this intense and significant but short-lived avant-garde movement and it is the most fully realized work of Dada poetics. It bears the hallmarks of the movement's in its absurdity, irony, chance, and the need to create art that challenges conventional ideas about art itself. It is profoundly unsentimental and scoffs at exalted conceptions of art:
There is nothing sacred about literature, it is damned from one end to the other.
As befitting a work that evokes the myth of Kora's descent into hell (Kora is a figure for Percephone -- although Williams also connects the theme to Euridice), the work is often deeply pessimistic and despairing about the human condition. It is important to note that the book (and the Dada movement) were created during the time of World War I.
In keeping with the Percephone myth rebirth is a recurring motif in the work, as is the theme of returning: the flip side of the coin of renewal. This is the necessary journey of the artist who must create a break from the past in order to see the world anew. Indeed, Kora in Hell marks a major transition in Williams as a modern poet.
There is so much more to say about this book but for now let this stand as a brief "advertisement" for you to go read it for yourself.
William Carlos Williams (September 17, 1883 – March 4, 1963) was an American poet closely associated with modernism and Imagism. He was also a pediatrician and general practitioner of medicine with a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Williams "worked harder at being a writer than he did at being a physician" but excelled at both.
The poet/critic Randall Jarrell said of his poetry, "William Carlos Williams is as magically observant and mimetic as a good novelist. He reproduces the details of what he sees with surprising freshness, clarity, and economy; and he sees just as extraordinarily, sometimes, the forms of this earth, the spirit moving behind the letters. His quick transparent lines have the nervous and contracted strength, move as jerkily and intently as a bird."
Williams' major collections are Spring and All (1923), Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962), and Paterson (1963). His most anthologized poem is "The Red Wheelbarrow", an example of the Imagist movement's style and principles (see also "This Is Just To Say"). However, Williams, like his peer and friend Ezra Pound, had already rejected the Imagist movement by the time this poem was published as part of Spring and All in 1923.
Williams is strongly associated with the American Modernist movement in literature and saw his poetic project as a distinctly American one; he sought to renew language through the fresh, raw idiom that grew out of America's cultural and social heterogeneity, at the same time freeing it from what he saw as the worn-out language of British and European culture.
Williams tried to invent an entirely fresh and uniquely American form of poetry whose subject matter was centered on everyday circumstances of life and the lives of common people. He came up with the concept of the "variable foot" which Williams never clearly defined, although the concept vaguely referred to Williams' method of determining line breaks. Williams commented that the 'variable foot' was a metrical device to resolve the conflict between form and freedom in verse.
One of Williams' aims, in experimenting with his "variable foot", was to show the American (opposed to European) rhythm that he claimed was present in everyday American language. Stylistically, Williams also worked with variations on a line-break pattern that he labeled " triadic-line poetry".