"Halfway to Hell": Williams Carlos Williams' Kora in Hell

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Date: Summer 2007
From: The Literary Review(Vol. 50, Issue 4)
Publisher: Fairleigh Dickinson University
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,006 words

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The three years during which William Carlos Williams composed Kora in Hell , his "unhappiness book," yet also his favorite child, were crowded with events, both familial and public, that pushed him to the brink of a prolonged crisis. In rapid sequence, America declared war on Germany in 1917; his father-in-law, Pa Herman, was accused of pro-German sympathies and Williams sprang to his defense, thereby inciting some townspeople in Rutherford to urge a boycott of Williams' budding medical practice; the influenza epidemic broke out, killing patients capriciously (there was little he could do since Fleming's discovery of penicillin was still a few years away); his Pop died on Christmas Day, 1918; Paul, the young brother of his wife Floss, was killed in a gun accident, and Grandma Wellcome died. With two young sons and a strained marriage as further burdens, Williams recalled in his Autobiography (p. 158), he felt like "Persephone gone into Hades, into hell. Kora was the springtime of the year; my year, my self, was being slaughtered."

An appropriate word for the carnage of a World War, "slaughtered" sounds histrionic when applied to personal circumstances, but since Williams was no more hysterical than he was stoical, "slaughtered" clearly signals that he was floundering in a rising tide of defeats; his will was ineffective. All the same, it is puzzling that the weary doctor, disgusted by the brutish power of Pluto, identified with Kora, the young woman innocently gathering flowers in a meadow when the god of the underworld spirited her away to be his queen. We know that Kora's outraged and grief-stricken mother, Demeter, appealed to Zeus to return her daughter to her, and that Hades, pretending to relent, enticed Kora into eating a pomegranate seed that sapped her desire to leave Hell. (Kora's vulnerability to temptation makes her Eve's mythological sister.) As was customary with sexual politics on Mt. Olympus, a gingerly compromise was worked out: Kora would split her residence, staying with Hades in autumn and winter but returning to Earth in spring and summer.

Why did this agricultural/fertility myth appeal so powerfully to Williams? After all, he could have chosen Hercules, Odysseus, Aeneas, or other Classical figures as models: militant or wily heroes on noble missions who defied the odds and descended into hell as part of their probation (Williams often felt that his poetic manhood was being tested). Instead, when he transplants the Greek gods and heroes to American soil, he subjects them to democratic parody (levity being his peculiar tone of respect). They are "fallen gods," "smothered in filth and ignorance." In the improvisations of Section XVI of Kora , Williams transforms himself first into a satyr chasing a wood nymph and then into Zeus, "a country doctor without a taste for coin jingling," while Flossie plays "Hebe with a slack jaw and a cruel husband--her mother left no place for a brain to grow" (a remark that might whet any wife's appetite for vengeance). Hercules appears twice, first as a muscular farm boy...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A181858369