Kora in Hell

A writing friend once gave me a copy of Kora in Hell Improvisations by William Carlos Williams. Bob Sullivan inscribed his name on the back of The Pocket Poets Series and the date: 1971. The paperback, published two years earlier, cost him $1.50. 

On the back is a quote by Williams saying this “is a unique book, not like any other I have written.” I read somewhere Ezra Pound found the prose poem “incoherent.” I agree although I admit I lost my head for poetry long ago and I prefer reading and writing prose. 

But this is what I like about Kora in Hell and why I’ve held onto this slim volume for over 40 years despite my many moves. As always, it is the personal connections.

First, Williams first published Kora in Hell in 1920 and dared to try something new. I count his Red Wheelbarrow — you know the one about the rain and chickens — among my favorites. But he kept evolving, as any good writer does.

And I appreciate his inspiration —  the myth of Kora or Persephone, who is carried off by Hades to the Underworld. Because she ate six pomegranate seeds, she must live six months of the year with Hades and during that time nothing grows on earth. That explains the seasons well enough for me.

I also enjoy the quotes Bob, who became a college professor, underlined with the same ink he used to inscribe his name. “In middle life the mind passes to a variegated October. This is the time youth in its faulty aspirations has set for the achievement of great summits.” And a line later, “At this the fellow is cast into a great confusion and rather plaintively looks about to see if any has fared better than he.”

He underlined “better than he” twice.

Bob also underlined “No spring days like those that come in October” and drew a thin star next to the coda. And then one more: “words pirouetting with the music.” I am certain Bob chose that one for the beauty of the phrase.

I wonder if those lines still resonate for him.


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