Your Book Review: Kora In Hell
Finalist #16 in the Book Review Contest
[This is one of the finalists in the 2022 book review contest. It’s not by me - it’s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. I’ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you’ve read them all, I’ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked.]
The sense that everything is poetical is a
thing solid and absolute; it is not a mere matter
of phraseology or persuasion.
— G.K. Chesterton
William Carlos Williams attributes the title to his friend/rival Ezra Pound, mythological references’ number one fanboy. Kora is a parallel figure to Persephone or Proserpina, the Spring captured and taken to Hades by Hades himself. Persephone as a plant goddess and her mother Demeter were the central figures of the Eleusinian Mysteries, which promised the initiated a groovy afterlife glimpsed at by psychedelic shrooms. And Kora means maiden. Ancient Greeks called her that either because she was like Voldemort, and you were apotropaically not supposed to say her true name because this is a Mystery Cult, damn it. Keeps some of the mystery. Or because she in a way represents all of the maidens, everywhere. So, in that sense, Kora in Hell alludes to the multitude of suffering young women Williams met while working as a doctor, assisting in 1917 style home labors, and, because WWI was going on at the time and doctors were extremely scarce, as a local police surgeon. Conditions were dire:
“When they came to question the girl before the local judge it was discovered that there were seventeen men more or less involved so that there was nothing to do but to declare the child a common bastard and send the girl about her business. Her mother took her in and after the brat died of pneumonia a year later she called in the police one day. An officer opened the bedroom door. The girl was in bed with an eighteenth fellow, a young roaming loafer with a silly grin to his face. They forced a marriage which relieved the mother of her burden. The girl was weak minded so that it was only with the greatest difficulty that she could cover her moves, in fact she never could do so with success.”
In another interpretation of the title, the author sees himself as the Spring and he feels like he is being captured and taken to Hades. Although he also says he didn’t get very far, only to New York on weekends to drink with his artist buddies.
Besides his friendship/rivalry with Pound, there’s also one of those with T.S. Eliot. Eliot’s gimmick is knowing everything, being very cultured, very erudite, speaking every language, mastering and combining and quoting every poetic form under the sun. And while Pound took himself very seriously and Eliot was somewhat more lighthearted, both represent Western Tradition incarnate in mortal bodies, cultural classicists who felt everything was obviously better in ages past, and their hope for Modernity was to preserve that tradition, reprising old forms but, in Pound’s slogan, “Making Them New” so as to keep them alive and fresh and fascist. WCW is in the antipodes of all that. He looks ahead. When seemingly every single one of his friends expatriated to the Old World, to Paris or London in order to build their audiences there, he stayed in Rutherford, New Jersey, where he lived during most of his life. In America, he felt, everything was yet to be made, and Eliot, in his project of first somehow turning British and then knowing and preserving everything ancient in poetic jars of quotation, was robbing other American poets blind, contemporaries and even those yet to emerge in the future.
So yet another interpretation of the title is that WCW is not the Spring taken to Hades. WCW is Demeter, Persephone’s mom, who is desperately moving Heaven and Earth to get her daughter, the American poets of the future, back from the greedy claws of the God of the Underworld, personified in this allegory by the author of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.
As its name implies, the Improvisations is not a meticulously planned book. It’s not a high concept type of thing where you literally move the Eleusinian Myth to New Jersey. William Carlos Williams simply went to work in the morning and when he returned home at night, no matter how late it was, before going to bed, he wrote something, anything, and at the end of the year he had a pile of texts in front of him which were now the rough precursor of a book. Those texts were loosely based on what had happened to him throughout that day, or on something he had seen or thought about. Williams wrote the book during 1917, when he was around 34 years old. That’s the age Dante had when he began the Divine Comedy:
“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.”
Middle life, dark jungle, lost the way. Or, as WCW puts it:
“In middle life the mind passes to a variegated October. This is the time youth in its faulty aspirations has set for achievement of great summits. But having attained the mountain top one is not snatched into a cloud but the descent proffers its blandishments quite as a matter of course. At this the fellow is cast into a great confusion and rather plaintively looks about to see if any has fared better than he.”
This is the early Midlife Crisis of a doctor in Rutherford, New Jersey. According to the doctor himself, some entries were basically gibberish and were discarded at the time of publication. Only 81 from presumably 365 days survived. Each one had a particular meaning, but Ezra Pound urged his friend to “give some hint by which the reader of good will might come at the poet’s intention”, so WCW added a commentary. In his own words: “Notes of explanation often more dense than the first writing. Explain further what I intended would be tautological.”
They’re stuff like “It has always been the fashion to talk about the moon” or “The poet transforms himself into a satyr and goes in pursuit of a white skinned dryad. The gaiety of his mood full of lustihood, even so, turns back with a mocking jibe.“
What they very clearly state is that in middle life, WCW is very horny all the time. He drives around town and countryside, watches people, gets horny, then even hornier, talks to people, has a great ear for their voices, a great medical eye for little details, knows the names of all the flowers and which ones can be used in abortions (pennyroyal), then gets home and writes. The style is part aphoristic and part like the highbrow version of passive-aggressive Tweets, where you know the people you’re talking about might be reading and you want plausible deniability. Both the town and the artist circles WCW moved among were small communities, where everyone knew everyone else and probably could infer the specific person you were talking about when you said, for example:
“The empty form drops from a cloud, like a gourd from a vine; into it the poet packs his phallus-like argument.”
Or when you’re fashion policing everyone to death:
“Who can speak of justice when young men wear round hats and carry bundles wrapped in paper”
“It is no part of the eternal truth to wear white canvas shoes and a pink coat.”
Williams also comments on his chosen profession:
“Pathology literally speaking is a flower garden. Syphilis covers the body with salmon-red petals. The study of medicine is an inverted sort of horticulture. Over and above all this floats the philosophy of disease which is a stern dance. One of its most delightful gestures is bringing flowers to the sick.”
Shares Don’t-speak-to-me-until-I’ve-had-my-coffee type of memes:
“Many a morning, were’t not for a cup of coffee, a man would be lonesome enough no matter how his child gambols.”
And has opinions about the concept of Surplus Value:
“A lattice screen say fifty feet long by seven high, such a thing as is built to cut off some certain part of a yard from public view, is surprisingly expensive to put up” “Carry clapping bundles of lath-strips, adjust, dig, saw on a diagonal, hammer a thousand ends fast and discover afterward the lattice-arbor top’s clean lines in a dust of dew (...) It is a wonder the artisan cannot afford more than the luxury of these calculations”
The general idea is that “A poem can be made of anything”. This is simply because any discreet word possesses many possible meanings. First, the immediate, direct, as in the word Apple means a type of fruit to anyone who speaks English. And then the internal, indirect: Apple means Sin or Temptation or New York or the color Red or the color Green or a Record Company or a Tech Company or all of that at the same time and more depending on the specific conjunction of reader and writer, and that internal meaning is, according to Wassily Kandinsky, “the pure matter of poetry and literature, the material which these arts alone can manipulate and through which they speak to the spirit”
Kora In Hell follows a Romantic program in the sense that when one reads WCW one feels that what he is talking about has happened to him. That this is something personal. When he says:
“A man watches his wife clean house. He is filled with knowledge by his wife’s exertions. This is uncomprehensible to her. Knowing she will never understand his excitement he consoles himself with the thought of art.”
He is talking about his house, himself and his wife, and also knows that she will probably read the book at some point. This is different from what happens with classical works of art. They have something alien in them. We don't really know if “that” has happened to Eliot or Pound, because they're outside and above the poem. Instead with Williams we are sure that when he talks about a white skinned dryad, that dryad really crossed paths with him. There is closeness between the artist and the work. So, in a sense, WCW and the way in which he wrote ARE the text.
Improvisation is not random crap in a random order. Pizza banana turtle thirty nine ninja Carlos ninjams. Random crap is the Surrealist’s program. They were looking for ways for the unconscious to express itself unmediated by reason, such as hypnosis, drugs, dream mining or automatic writing, and the problem turned out to be that the unconscious is generally lazy or insane. Frida Kahlo met a bunch of them when she went to Paris and claimed:
“They talk endlessly about 'culture', 'art', 'revolution' etc. They think they are the gods of the world, they dream of the most fantastic nonsense and poison the air with theories and more theories that never come true. The next morning, they have nothing to eat at home, because none of them work.”
And the Surrealists answered pizza banana turtle thirty nine ninja Carlos ninjams. Checkmate, Frida.
Now, good improvisation is very rigorous. There is a method to the madness. A Jazz musician improvises, but within a few scales. That’s how a whole band can improvise in tandem. When someone improvises too much, that is, they are creating the rules as they go along or, worse still, decide that there are no rules, then it is not improvisation but delirium. Improvisation is establishing which rules I am going to follow and then, without taking time to plan, coordinate or strategize, all of the sudden, I do something artistic: writing, painting, music, etc. If I decide to play the piano and just bash a random key, that's not improvisation. That's, well, nothing. And what amazes the public about the improviser is how they create difficulties for themselves and then overcome them. When we see a good improviser in action, when we see them arting at such speed, we marvel like we’re seeing a wizard arriving precisely when he means to.
Improvisation is the Zen way to do the thing. If a Zen Master asks you a question, you can’t stop and ponder it because then he starts beating you with his stick. You must Improvise. This is also the way martial artists are supposed to fight. My source is, of course, Jackie Chan movies. He doesn’t do the Robert Downey Jr. 's Sherlock Holmes thing where he freezes time to calculate in detail where every punch will land and how the opponent will react. He just goes. But before going he trained every day and repeated each move many many times until it became ingrained in his muscles. Williams:
“That which is known has value only by virtue of the dark. This cannot be otherwise. A thing known passes out of the mind into the muscles, the will is quit of it, save only when set into vibration by the forces of darkness opposed to it.”
To improvise you reIy on intuition, the part of your brain which thinks so fast it’s not really thinking. If you speak Spanish every day and I say “La sombrero ser mucho grande” you know that’s wrong before you can explain exactly everything that’s wrong with that sentence. If you don’t speak Spanish, you may know that’s wrong even though you don’t speak Spanish just by virtue of having watched a buch of American movies where they show a dumb American saying stuff like that to show he’s a dumb American. There are many paths to knowledge, that’s what I’m trying to say, and as Jackie Chan knows very well, intuition has to be trained. If you don’t, you may still try to intuit your way out of problems, but your intuition will probably be wrong more often than not and you’ll get demolished.
In the same way, imagination has to be trained. For Benedetto Croce, aesthetics is the science of expression. A strong artist relates to their environment like a prism with light. They take lame, generic white light and produce a rainbow. They take experience and turn it into symbols, which in the case of a poet would be discreet sounds, and words. “A frail imagination, unequal to the tasks before it, is easily led astray”. If you think in an endless stream of cliches, you will improvise an endless stream of cliches. If you’re the Hindu god Brahma, you’ll improvise the Universe like you’re dancing.
And while dancing as creation is an important metaphor for Williams, that’s not the end of the story. We are not actually seeing WCW improvising on the fly. He takes his method from Kandinsky and the method is “Never go Full Unconscious”. For Kandinsky, improvisation is a way through which an artist reaches a higher form, which is composition. You use your improvisation as material for your final work. That’s why only 81 entries survive in Kora In Hell from the original 365. Williams cut all the nonsense out so you don’t have to suffer it like Frida suffered the surrealist’s air poisoning. Composition is then an act of love and care towards the reader, and is what classicists and romantics share in their method.
That 81 number is not random. It’s the 3-based form Williams was following.There are three sections: the introduction, the improvisations and the commentaries, roughly equal in length. There are twenty seven parts with three improvisations each. Threes everywhere. All the triads come, of course, from Kandinsky, whose method also has three parts: The preparation, the improvisation and the composition.
Kandinsky also had a theory of color, in which he claimed colors have physical and psychical effects and are also part of a system of correspondences. White is birth, black is death, green is nature, yellow is happiness, blue is peace and so on. Literary critics will sometimes talk about a text by mapping such correspondences, because the craft is descended from the hermeneutics of Holy Books, where correct interpretation could turn out to be the key to salvation or enlightenment or knowledge of divine will, and this often scares people away from reading primary sources. For example, every chapter in James Joyce’s Ulysses references an event in the Odyssey, sure, but how the hell are you supposed to figure out on your own that each one is dominated by a particular color and a particular part of the body and so on if an expert doesn’t tell you that. Well, it turns out it’s not that important. It’s just something Joyce did to encourage himself to continue writing his Holy Book dedicated to the God of Art. You can extract meaning from his fried inner organs of beasts and fowls, but that’s because you can extract meaning from anywhere. What Joyce really wanted was an excuse to show off his verbal powers. It’s hard and complicated on purpose, like getting into a fight with ten people to justify that you’ve been doing martial arts every day for decades.
Even if you don’t know that red is supposed to make you angry or that everything in the world is secretly the number three or what’s up with all the circles and rings, you can still enjoy Kora In Hell. Williams is usually thought of as a visual poet, in the sense that he uses a lot of visual metaphors and really really likes to talk about painting, paintings and painters like Kandinsky. But as he jumps from metaphor to metaphor I personally found the best way to understand what he is saying is to follow logically the way words unravel themselves in space. That is a visual metaphor for, in Marshall McLuhan’s terms, a rational, continuous and uniform way of reading a text which is in itself not rational, but discontinuous and fragmentary. “Many matters are touched but not held by the speed of emotions thrashing, more often broken by the contact, and by the brokenness of his composition the poet makes himself master of a certain weapon which he could possess himself of in no other way”. Like Cortazar's Hopscotch, Kora in Hell lets you alter the order in which you read it. Williams: “There’s more sense in a sentence heard backwards than forwards most times.” If you prefer, again in McLuhan's terms, the participatory, incomplete, mosaic images, you should definitely start with the improvisations, and maybe even skip the commentary altogether. Ezra Pound said “It is not necessary to read everything in a book in order to speak intelligently of it. Don’t tell everybody I said so.” But if you like rationality, and if you’re reading this you probably do, then you can start with the commentary and use it as a frame of reference. Just keep in mind the WCW dictum: “Poetry makes logic a butterfly.”