Tarot & the Poets

Bent Sørensen
Aalborg University
Tarot & the Poets – why and how?
• Academics know little about the Tarot – Tarot enthusiasts are not
always academics or well-versed in poetry: Why not for once bring
the two communities together in an informal, yet scholarly
informed manner..?
• “…to restore the spiritual dignity of Tarot…” – perhaps
• The best vehicle for this might well be poetry, as an accepted
canonical feature of higher education, as well as a means of
exploring the Self.
• Poets of the 20th C. have used Tarot extensively, whether employing
the Tarot imagery generally, describing Tarot readings and
practitioners, or interpreting in words specific cards or spreads
from Tarot decks.
• Today I’ll focus on a few American poets as examples…
Tarot & the poets –
a selective American corpus
• Sylvia Plath
• Anne Sexton
• Diane di Prima
• Alice Notley
• Ted Berrigan
• Philip Whalen
• John Wieners
• Philip Lamantia
• Robert Creeley
• Charles Olson
• T.S. Eliot
Sylvia Plath (1932 - 1963)
Plath keywords & works
• Suicide
• Ted Hughes marriage
• Father obsession
• Personal history, confessionality…
----• The Bell Jar (novel)
• The Ariel poems
• Daddy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hHjctqSBwM
• “With my gypsy ancestress and my weird luck/And my Tarock pack
and my Tarock pack”
Anne Sexton (1928 - 1974)
Sexton keywords
• Suicide after many years of therapy
• Bipolar disorder
• Confessionality, examination of sexuality in her poetry
• 1967 Pulitzer Prize winner
---• Live or Die
• Love Poems
• The Death Notebooks
Anne Sexton: Live
Well, death's been here
for a long time
-- it has a hell of a lot
to do with hell
and suspicion of the eye
and the religious objects
and how I mourned them
when they were made obscene
by my dwarf-heart's doodle.
all along,
thinking I was a killer,
anointing myself daily
with my little poisons.
But no.
I'm an empress.
I wear an apron.
My typewriter writes.
It didn't break the way it warned.
Even crazy, I'm as nice as a
chocolate bar.
Even with the witches' gymnastics
they trust my incalculable city,
my corruptible bed.
Diane di Prima (b. 1934)
Di Prima keywords & works
• Beat
• Sexual revolution – playful confessions
• Feminism
---• This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards
• Revolutionary Letters
• Loba
Di Prima: Princess of Disks
Princess of Disks, part II
Thoth Princess
Alice Notley (b. 1945)
Notley keywords & works
• Embodies the life of a migrant poet – from Arizona to California,
Chicago, New York and Paris – to name but a few of the places she
has lived.
• Friend of Frank O’Hara and fellow traveller of the New York School
poets (60s/70s)
• Married to Ted Berrigan
• ---• 25 volumes of poetry, Pulitzer finalist
• “Two of Swords”
Two of Swords
Two of Swords
Alice Notley & the Tarot
• "Well, Ted and the tarot. Ted was living in a single room in a boarding
house in Ann Arbor in fall, 1969. It was midnight and I was waiting for
Ted to arrive from somewhere, I was sitting on the floor of the room
(only furniture a mattress, maybe a chair) with John Godfrey, visiting
from New York. He and I were poetry babies, Ted was older. So the
downstairs door, it turns out, locks after midnight; Ted couldn't get in.
The window opened and there he was at the window, he'd climbed up
the fire escape -- third floor room. He had a brand new Rider tarot deck,
god knows where he'd gotten it, I can't remember. And he proposed to
tell our fortunes. I'd never seen a tarot deck before. I guess I knew that
there were different fortune-telling methods though. What method will
you use? I asked. I'm going to make up my own method, he said. Then he
told me and John, in turn, to select the cards we liked best and he'd use
those. I had enough sense to select about ten, but John fell in love with
all of them and couldn't narrow it down. He finally got the number down
to 22 cards. Then Ted told our fortunes, but I don't remember what they
Ted Berrigan (1934 - 1983)
Berrigan keywords & works
• Innovator of the sonnet form
• New York School (2 nd gen. affiliate)
• Inspired by the hybridity of The Waste Land
• Humorous
• Many collaborative projects
---• The Sonnets (1964)
Ted Berrigan: The Fool (from Real Life)
Philip Whalen (1923 - 2002)
Whalen Keywords & works
• Zen master and poet
• Spent years in Japan
• Beat – friend of Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac
---• Every Day
• On Bear’s Head
Whalen: Card #21
Le Monde
John Wieners (1934 - 2002)
John Wieners keywords & works
• San Francisco Poetry Renaissance (late 50s)
• Mental illness
• Homosexuality
• Friend of Charles Olson
• Collaborator w. painters such as Francesco Clemente
• ---• The Hotel Wentley Poems
• Ace of Pentacles
• Nerves
Ace of Pentacles, 1964
Wieners: Le Chariot
Le Chariot
Philip Lamantia (1927 - 2005)
Lamantia keywords & works
• Surrealist affiliate, friend of Breton
• SF Renaissance/Beat Gen. fellow traveller
• Reveler and drug addict
• Late convert to Catholicism
---• Ekstasis
• Narcotica
• Meadowlark West
Lamantia: Oblique and Direct
Robert Creeley (1926 - 2005)
Creeley keywords & works
• Black Mountain College
• San Francisco Renaissance / Beat Gen.
• Close friend and correspondent w. Charles Olson
• Battled alcoholism
• Lost one eye in early childhood
---• Le Fou
• For Love
• 50 other volumes
Creeley: Zero (from Numbers)
Creeley: Zero
Creeley: Zero (using Waite as afterword)
Robert Indiana: Zero
Charles Olson (1910 - 1970)
Olson keywords & works
• Black Mountain College
• Gloucester, Mass.
• 6’ 8’’ tall – a towering presence
• Did not write poetry before the age of 35
• Battled alcoholism, and a strong fatalist tendency
• Projective verse
• “Archeologist of morning”
• Maximus – mythopoeic poetry sequence
---• The Maximus Poems
• Y&X
• A collaboration with Italian artist Corrado Cagli, who also
introduced Olson to the Tarot and gave him his first deck – a
Marseilles type.
• Contains only 5 poems and 5 drawings by Cagli
• Cagli’s drawings are based on the poems, but can be seen as
versions of the cards filtered through Olson’s words
• Several other early Olson poems are ekphrases (specific
descriptions/explications) of Tarot cards – some very simplistic
ones, others obscure.
• These poems include: Bagatto; The Green Man; The Fool; Double,
double, root and branch…; X to the Nth; The Moebius Strip, a.o.
Y & X (1948-9)
Bagatto (dedicated to Cagli)
Bagatto, cont’d
The Fool, first stanza
“Double, double, root and branch…”
“Double, double, root and branch…”
Olson: The Green Man (from Y & X)
Cagli: The Lion (from Y & X)
Critics missing the point…
Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888 - 1965)
Eliot keywords & works
• Born in St. Louis, emigrated to Britain 1914
• Read philosophy, classics and languages
• Worked days in a bank
• Converted to Church of England
• Grew increasingly conservative with age
• Was markedly misogynist and anti-Semitic on occasion
• Nobel Literature Laureate, 1948
---• The Waste Land (1922)
• Four Quartets (1945)
• The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915)
• The Hollow Men (1925)
The Waste Land
• A fragmented, mythopoeic poem, attempting to shore up
something of value against the coming ruin
• Contains a multiplicity of voices, several of which are women’s
• Includes a sequence detailing a visit to and reading with Madame
Sosostris, “known to be the wisest woman in Europe”
• This interlude is part of The Burial of the Dead, the first of five
numbered sections of the poem
The Madame Sosostris sequence
Eliot’s footnote on the Tarot
Madame Sosostris’s spread – version 1
Madame Sosostris’s spread – version 2
In conclusion
• 20th C. American poets have used the Tarot for their own ends in multiple
• Eliot satirizes the need for clairvoyance as the dark ages recur and we toil
through the waste land of civilization, knowing not from whence we came,
nor where we are going
• Olson believed in the cards to the extent that he claimed to abandon them
when they accurately foretold his mother’s death
• Plath uses the reference to the “Tarock” to paint a picture of Central Europe
as the origin of suffering and a potential alternative heritage
• Sexton mirrored her own bipolarity in the dichotomies of the Major Arcana
• Beat poets used Tarot as one of many ways to re-open the doors of
• The best of these poets (Creeley and Olson) integrated the Tarot in their
personal and universal re-mythologization of the West (America) as a new
cradle of civilization and spiritual awakening

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