The tragedy of Thetis

The first draft of the cover for Thetis

In 2022, my poetic narrative about Thetis, immortal sea nymph and mother to Achilles, will be published. Thetis is an immortal goddess who learns what it means to be human, and the narrative follows her life, before and after the Trojan war. Stories of gods and goddesses have always fascinated me, and it’s both exciting (and a bit scary) to think of Thetis finally becoming available in print.

Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, tells us about the final weeks of the Trojan war and Thetis plays an active part in all the major plot points. Yet she remains a peripheral figure, despite her power to intervene with the gods, which is evident throughout.

The story of Thetis is a tragic one. Raped and forced into marriage with the mortal King Peleus of Phthia, Thetis was initially a reluctant mother. In some versions outside of Homer, she killed her first six children, before Achilles was born. This son was different and Thetis adored him, doing all she could to prevent his dying young as foretold by the Fates. Efforts to save Achilles included dipping him in the River Styx to make him invulnerable, and sending him to Skyros, disguised as a maid for the Princess Deidamia, to avoid having to fight at Troy.

The attempt to hide Achilles failed when Odysseus tricked him into revealing his identity. At Troy, Achilles died from an arrow shot through his heel. This was the spot where Thetis held him in the river between her finger and thumb, when he was a baby, an action which inadvertently led to his death. Tragedy is defined as great suffering, destruction, and distress and the story of Thetis is tragic by anyone’s standards, yet Thetis has rarely been a central topic of attention.

Thetis and Peleus

My version of the life of Thetis is being published by Esplanade Press, an independent publisher based in Scarborough, and run by Scarborough poet Felix Hodcroft.  Part of the narrative was due to be performed at Rotunda Nights, a monthly poetry and music event run by Scarborough Museums Trust, but was cancelled during the first lockdown. We still hope to arrange a performance of some of the most vivid excerpts during a launch event or events. Throughout the preparation stages, a constant topic of discussion has been the extent to which we can assume – or not – the reader’s awareness and knowledge of ancient Greek myth.

Classical writers are themselves divided on how to read and interpret ancient stories. There are no original copies so our understanding relies on fragments and references, often made many centuries later. I’ve used the Iliad, alongside other classical works which refer to Thetis, as a foundation for the narrative.

5th century BC water jar depicting the sack of Troy

The Iliad was an oral poem, thought to have been first written in 800 BC, which tells of events alleged to have taken place around 1200 BC. The ruins of a great city, believed to be Troy, have been excavated at Hissarlik in northern Turkey, as have the remains of palaces at Sparta and Mycenae, thought to belong to the king brothers Menelaus and Agamemnon.

Findings suggest the war between the Greeks and Trojans has some historical basis, but Homer’s epic is inextricably entwined with myths about the Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses. Thetis is set in a world where mortals and immortals live side by side and the gods think nothing of interfering in the lives of humans. This makes her story full of poetic potential while the gaps in our knowledge are a gift for the creative imagination.


Thetis and Hephaestus

The eldest of 50 sea nymph sisters known as the Nereids, Thetis’s parents were Nereus, often called the Old Man of the Sea, and Doris, goddess of freshwater rivers and springs. Thetis’s grandmother was Gaia, earth goddess and her grandfather was Uranos. Both were Titan gods, overthrown by the Olympians, led by Zeus and Poseidon.

Thetis has provenance and a long history. Responsible for saving Hephaestus when Hera threw him from Olympus, Thetis also supported Zeus when Olympus was in rebellion, gave sanctuary to Dionysius when he fled from Thrace, and helped Jason and his Argonauts to navigate through the Clashing Rocks.

Images of Dionysus, the God of wine, and Jason travelling through the Clashing Rocks

All this took place before the famous Judgement of Paris, where Paris, the youngest prince of Troy, was forced by Zeus to choose the most beautiful goddess. Aphrodite, Athena and Hera were in competition with each other but it was the goddess of love, Aphrodite, who bribed Paris with the promise that the most beautiful woman in the world, would fall in love with him. The affair between Paris and Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, caused Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon, to go to war against the Trojans. During the judgement, Paris gave Aphrodite a golden apple. Inscribed with the words to the fairest. This was bought by Eris, the goddess of strife, to the wedding of Thetis and Peleus.

There she is again!

Detail from the 5th century BC Francois Vase showing the wedding of Thetis and Peleus 

The Trojan War has fascinated many writers and the 21st century has seen a range of published books inspired by the wars alongside the pantheon of ancient greeks gods and goddesses.

I love them all.

They include The Song of Achilles and Circe by Madelaine Millar, The Silence of the girls by Pat Barker, A thousand ships by Natalie Haynes (who also presents the Radio 4 series Stands Up for the Classics), Achilles by Elizabeth Cook, The Peneliopad by Margaret Atwood, and Ransom by David Malouf. There are historical non-fiction books such as Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan Wars, Brittany Hughes‘s Helen of Troy and In Search of Homer by Adam Nicholson, plus films; the Hollywood version told in Troy and the BBC series Troy, Fall of a City. Poems inspired by the Trojan war include Christopher Logue’s War Music and Seamus Heany’s The Cure at Troy. All these provide evidence of a continuing fascination. The women of Troy have all recently been revisited but so far, Thetis has not yet played a central role.

From the BBC drama Troy Fall of a City

I’m curious as to why so little about Thetis has come down through history. She is sometimes mentioned in passing so maybe it’s because few writers seem to have joined up the dots.

Esplanade Press will be publishing Thetis in the summer of 2022 and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to raise her status and position her centre stage. In my mind, this is where Thetis has always deserved to be.


Thetis asking Hephaestus to make new amour for Achilles

The yin and yang of poetry submissions

image showing scrabble letters spelling Do not give up

Dreich have selected my collection Heaving with the Dreams of Strangers for publication as one of their Chapbook Slims. Now, like eggs, these poems are resting in the Dreich nest. The acceptance email from Jack Caradoc last month was a reminder of how acceptance is the plus side of rejection. The two go hand in hand. They’re the Yin and Yang of the whole submission experience, and I’ve been reflecting again on the whole process of attempting to release work into the public sphere.

Rejection is integral to the publishing endeavour. But if you don’t try, the chances of seeing your work in print are zero. It has to be done. My rejections far outway the acceptances so although the Publications page on this blog looks healthy, it comes at a cost.

Rejection hurts.

Imposter Syndrome loves it.

When a poem, or group of poems, are refused, it brings back the early fears of never being good enough or not having anything worthwhile to say. It’s something all writers and poets have to deal with.

image showing a poster about imposter syndrome

I’d tried submitting to collection calls before but with no success.  This time I took a different approach.  I’d previously submitted poems which formed a narrative on a single theme. This time, I opted for individual poems but, as I worked through the selection process, I found myself bringing together work which had more connections than I first realised.

Almost without exception, the poems deal with myth and legend with a touch of magical realism. They were less about the personal and more about ways in which past can connect with the present. The value of mythical thinking is the lack of hard evidence that the characters and happenings have truths There’s no confirmation that any of it is real in the way history claims to be, and it’s this lack of empiricism that creates spaces where readers can bring their own interpretations. At least, that’s how I understand working within the area.

Myths fascinate me, and the acceptance from Dreich feels like confirmation after all the silence. I re-read an earlier post on  Rejection Blues, and thought it worth including some reminders of my thoughts from a year ago.

The standard advice on rejection is to remember it’s the words, not yourself, which is being rejected. The poem might not fit the theme or the editors had hundreds of submissions for just a handful of spaces. This inevitably means saying no to good work.

image showing posters of the word No

For most writers, it takes a significant amount of bravery to put yourself out there. Art comes from within. It’s influenced by our ways of being and seeing the world so there’s no getting around the fact rejection can feel personal. However, you have to find ways to deal with it because not submitting isn’t an option for an aspiring writer.

I’ve learned to think of rejections as:

  • opportunities to give poems another polish then resubmit to a different publication
  • evidence I’ve shifted from having aspirations to having completed work
  • a sign I’ve become a writer because I have my own rejection stories to tell
  • time to change my negative thinking; instead of reject I now use decline in my records, somehow it feels kinder 🙂
  • confirmation I’ve upped my game. You have to be in it to win it and the only way to get published is to submit!

Image of the quote Poetry is the shadow cast by our streetlight imaginations by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Poetry is one of the hardest genres to work in when it comes to pleasing people. Writing a poem involves both art and skill but also a lot of effort to make your point using the least amount of words alongside style and presentation on the page. It’s a tough call and I’m now realising the bar is set even higher.

How do you follow a collection?

In particular, if it contains what you think are some of your best poems, those you’ve worked with on and off for a long time. The only answer is to carry on doing whatever inspired these poems in the first place. For me, it’s joining online poetry courses and workshops where you write to prompts. The results might not be perfect poems but they’re foundations to work on. Without these incentives. many of the twenty poems in the chapbook would not have been started, never mind finished. So it’s thanks to the course mentors for their time and attention. I’d recommend looking up the following; Wendy Pratt @wondykitten, Angela T Carr @dreamingskin and Jim Bennett @thepoetrykit. Also, it’s thanks to everyone else on these courses for sharing and commenting on the group’s work.

In the face of rejection, the best advice of all is to carry on observing the world around you and find the ways you feel most comfortable with when describing it. It helps to get into a writing habit. It doesn’t matter what you produce at the time, it’s more about the doing. Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way suggests writing every morning in a random stream of consciousness. Get your thoughts down onto paper and often a single idea or phrase will appear which you know you’ll be able to use in the future. Dorothea Brand in Becoming a Writer says you need to make regular appointments with your muse because it’s only through the action of writing that she will appear.

Most of all, don’t give up.

Keep writing, reading, taking workshops, and have the confidence to go through the submissions process.

One day it might happen, and then all the hard work will feel worthwhile!

image showing a single person silhouetted on a hill in front of a sunset

Something for everyone – films about bees

Long sunny afternoons on the allotment are already this year’s memories. Winter is coming, and Sundays are for curling up indoors with a good film.

There’s a game newbie beekeepers play. Complete the sentence ‘You know you’re a beekeeper when…..’ Filling the blank includes first sting, having a frame full of bees and honey fall apart in your hands, and the first time you leave your hive tool under a roof, then spend hours searching for it!

This year I added a new category. ‘You know you’re a beekeeper when…. you watch a film about beekeeping and think I wouldn’t do that‘. While everyone looks after their bees differently, when this happens, it shows how far you’ve travelled on the beekeeping path.

Here’s a variety of films with a beekeeping theme. Hopefully, something for everyone as we move through the winter months.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORI2PFOePYM&ab_channel=HDRetroTrailers

Ulee’s gold is a 1997 US film written and directed by Victor Nuñez and starring Peter Fonda as Ulee Jackson, a widowed beekeeper from Florida. Struggling with his broken and troubled family, the film made use of existing beekeeping apiaries, with the family of beekeepers acting as consultants and playing the role of extras. The honey Ulee’s bees make comes from the nectar of the tupelo tree. A bit like heather honey in the UK, the light tupelo honey is sought after for its mild but original taste.

A review on Variety describes the film as “A gem of rare emotional depth and integrity, “Ulee’s Gold” is the cinematic equivalent of a wonderful old backwater town, a community bypassed by the interstate of the mainstream American film industry that possesses virtues and knowledge that travellers in the fast lane never stop to appreciate.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7nhkNAfHtw&ab_channel=GoodDeedEntertainment 

Tell it to the bees is a 2019 film based on the book by Fiona Shaw. Set in the 1950’s, it’s the story of two women; Lydia Weekes (Holliday Grainger), and Jean Paquin (Anna Paquin). They come together through Lydia’s son who is interested in Jean’s bee colonies. The film contains the memorable line ‘tell the bees your secrets then they won’t fly away’. Reviews are mixed but most of them agree it perfectly recreates a small town atmosphere where two women moving in together creates suspicion and increasingly negative reactions.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WY9RvcbzTCw&t=92s&ab_channel=MOVIEPREDICTOR 

I loved the book Secret life of bees by Sue Monk Kidd so was looking forward to the 2008 film adaptation. It didn’t disappoint. Secret Life of Bees is set in South Carolina, the story follows the journey of Lily Ray (Dakota Fanning) and her family’s housekeeper Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson). The two leave home and, guided by the label on a jar of “Black Madonna Honey“, they arrive at the Tiburon home of August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) and her sisters May (Sophie Okonedo) and June (Alicia Keys). Lily becomes an apprentice beekeeper and finally discovers the truth about her mother, who she believed, wrongly, abandoned her as a child. Set against 1960’s racism in the American south, the film offers a realistic portrayal of rural life and is a coming-to-age story which will stay with you long after the film ends.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ycccI-ES_2w&ab_channel=MovieTrailerFan1980

Bee stings cause many people to be more than a little afraid of them. This fear underlines The deadly bees, a British horror film based on H.F. Heard’s 1941 novel A Taste for Honey. An exhausted singer, sent away for a holiday to Seagull Island, finds a farmer rearing a strain of deadly bees. As the trailer above shows, it’s typical of the horror genre in the 1960’s. Starring Suzanna Leigh, and Frank Finlay, the film is dated to say the least, and watching this in 2021 provides comedy as much as fear. It does nothing to persuade anyone to consider beekeeping as a hobby or career but is worth watching as a reminder of a style of filmmaking long since abandoned.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvIHtXc_Urg&ab_channel=MovieclipsClassicTrailers 

Another horror film with bees in a starring role, is The Swarm, based on Arthur Herzog’s 1974 book. Starring Michael Caine and Richard Chamberlain, it uses the common trope of a swarm of killer bees annihilating everything in its path, and a group of humans seeking to destroy them.  A classic example of US horror from the 1970’s, the stye is less dated than the British equivalent, or maybe it’s just the presence of Michael Caine who always has a gift for making the absurd seem credible.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4ZzMkDLjWI&ab_channel=MovieclipsTrailers

Bees can also be found in the Sci Fi film Jupiter Ascending. Produced by Andy and Lana Wachowski, you might expect something far-fetched but watchable, and viewers comments suggest it lives up to expectations. Jupiter Ascending was slated by the critics but even they admit the music is great and the special effects are superb. The character of Stinger, played by Sean Bean, is half human and half honeybee. The bees give him enhanced speed, special vision, and a sense of loyalty, so at least the bees have some positives. Stinger keeps hives and dabbles in genetic engineering. The film is a typical action-packed intergalactic adventure, with lots of CGI, and the voice of Sean Bean as an added bonus!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fz_MxmGP6Aw&list=PLM6a8JVoBC8KPWgoevQ4hcVFU73gh7ZW-&index=3&ab_channel=DamienPerez 

I couldn’t write about bee films without including the classic family favourite, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree. This can be watched in segments on YouTube, beginning with Part One (which is all credits) and followed by Pooh’s Stoutness Exercises. Who doesn’t love Pooh Bear and can’t identify with the part where he splits his stitches.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VONRQMx78YI&ab_channel=AnimationTrailers

On the subject of animations, there’s also the Dreamworks film Bee Movie. Voiced by Jerry Seinfeld and Renée Zellweger, it tells the story of Barry B. Benson, a bee who can communicate with humans. In the supermarket, he discovers they’ve been stealing and eating honey, and on a visit to Honey Farms, Barry sees first-hand the terrible conditions the bees live under, such as the use of smoke to daze and confuse them. Barry decides to sue the human race to end their exploitation.

Like most animations, it has multiple layers of meaning and if, like me, you’re a fan of Dreamworks and Pixar etc, Bee Movie is worth a look.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B27ORUHlp6E&ab_channel=NEON

If you can manage subtitles, I’d recommend Honeyland. Set in Turkey, this is a film/documentary portraying the life of Hatidže Muratova, who lives in the remote mountain village of Bekirlija, with no electricity or running water. Hatidže is a keeper of wild bees who earns her living by selling honey in a town a four-hour walk from her home. The film shows Hatidže collecting honey from nests in remote places, and you can hear her chanting ‘half for me, half for you’ based on the traditional custom of her grandfather, who taught her how honey was essential for giving bees enough energy to fly and mate. Visually stunning, it explores topics such as climate change, the loss of biodiversity and human exploitation of natural resources.

Another subtitled film about bees is called Keeping the Bees. I can’t find a trailer and it only seems to be available on Netflix which is a shame because it’s well worth watching. This is a story about what happens when the youngest daughter, Ayse, returns to her childhood home in northeastern Turkey, because her mother is ill. As she lies dying, her mother tells her she wants Ayse to take over her beehives. Ayse has built a life for herself in Germany and is afraid of the bees, but nevertheless makes an attempt to fulfil her mother’s wish.  The community is set in a rural area and is full of local traditions and customs. If you have Netflix, or know someone who has, I’d recommend it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2vQ5PV-bNtM&ab_channel=DocumentaryTrailers

Queen of the sun; what the bees are telling us is a documentary full of wonderful characters. It takes a serious look at the role of bees in nature and what can be done to try and prevent Colony Collapse Disorder, where beekeepers find their bees have mysteriously disappeared. Including the perspective of beekeepers, scientists and philosophers from around the world, it shows what people are doing to try and help, and gives insight into all the different ways bees can be kept and looked after.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rac_D_v-nrc&ab_channel=1091Pictures

The documentary The Pollinators is set in the US, where Colony Collapse Disorder was first recognised. It follows the migratory beekeepers who drive truckloads of honeybees across the United States, often from Florida to California, to ensure the pollination of flowers in areas where bee populations have diminished.

Einstein is reputed to have said ‘If the bee disappears from the surface of the Earth, man would have no more than four years left to live.

The exact source of this quote is unknown, but we’re dependent on bees for fruit and vegetables, not to mention the role they play in maintaining the natural ecosystem on which we all depend, so there may be some truth in the statement.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NT05qEJxUk&ab_channel=FilmsBoutique

More than Honey is full of the most amazing photography of the life of bees, both within and without the hive. It also looks at pollination problems and their effect on beekeepers around the world, with insight into beekeeping in California, Switzerland, China and Australia. Made by Markus Imhoof, and narrated by John Hurt, More than Honey is a hard-hitting look at the reality of a world which, if not in crisis now, very soon will be if issues like Colony Collapse Disorder are not better understood and dealt with.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EEY9tcZS_eY&ab_channel=BioHoneyBeeFarm

Finally, Who Killed the Honey Bee is a UK documentary narrated by Martha Kearney, who presented the four-part BBC series The Wonder of Bees. This followed her own experiences as a novice beekeeper and clips from the programmes appear in this documentary.  Who Killed the Honey Bee includes a looks at commercial beekeeping and the changes bought about in the industry by the mysterious loss of colonies. The full documentary is available on YouTube and can be watched on the link above.


The next bee-related blog will take a look at books with a beekeeping theme. If you have any recommendations, please leave the details in the comment box below, contact me via Twitter @suewatling or email watlingsue@gmail.com.


 

John Keats and ‘negative capability’ then and now

John Keats by Joseph Severn (painted 1845)

I revisited Keats after reading this blog post a fix of autumn, the darkness coming down by Felix Hodcroft. Felix writes about the Keats poem To Autumn, saying it’s a ‘poem, so well-known that it’s become a cliché, a hand-me-down (“season of mists and mellow fruitfulness….”) which, however (like much ye olde stuff) repays a fresh look.’

So I did.

I struggle to like traditional poetry, such as the romantics, Keats, Shelley, and Byron. I find them difficult to read. For me, there’s a lack of resonance, but I followed Felix’s advice and listened to the Radio 4 series on Keats Odes, starting with Sean O’Brien and Ode to Melancholy. They didn’t help and I still found the poetry of Keats hard going.

Comments on Felix’s post included references to Bright Star, the Jane Campion film looking at the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. Beautifully photographed, it’s a visual treat. The film covers the last years of Keats life and how he was forced to choose between staying with Fanny in Hampstead, or going to Italy for his health.  Keats died within three months of arriving in Rome and twelve years later, Fanny married Louis Lindo with whom she bore a son Edmund, and daughter Margaret.

Fanny kept letters from Keats and her children had these published as Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne. By this time, Keats had become famous for his poetry but his relationship with Fanny was unknown. The knowledge created a scandal during which Fanny was criticised and seen as ‘unworthy‘. This viewpoint remained until the 1937 publication of her letters to Keats sister, also called Fanny. Letters of Fanny Brawne to Fanny Keats helped to change public opinion and the relationship between Fanny and John was finally acknowledged as a true love affair.

Portrait of John Keats at Wentworth Place on the day of his composing ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, 1834, by Joseph Severn.

Bright Star includes Keats poetry and hearing his work within the context of the film worked well. The language which I found difficult on the page came to life in a different way, but I still struggled to appreciate the written versions. I think this is partly to do with the language. To Autumn, for example, is full of the dated use of thee’s and thou’s:

Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

This is poetry belonging to a different time, unlike Keats’ letters which I find more readable. In particular, I was intrigued by his reference to ‘negative capability’. In a letter to his brothers George and Tom, dated 1817, Keats describes this as ‘…when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…’ It’s the only reference he makes to ‘negative capability‘ but the concept has remained associated with him to this day.

I’ve been reflecting on how this might look in practice.

Discussions with Felix and other poets have shown how poems can be interpreted differently to the poet’s intention. The best way I can describe it is when poems contain fluidity. The lack of fixed meanings allows them to mean different things to different people, despite poets and readers often being strangers to each other, and the poet having no way of knowing what the reader brings to the page in terms of their own life experience.

For me, this is part of the magic of poetry which, like certain music, can reach out and touch. We feel this happening, and can’t always explain why. I’ve been wondering if it might be an example of ‘negative capability’ i.e. the mystery exists, and we’re comfortable accepting it, without the need for explanation. An effective poem is one which leaves ‘space’ for the reader’s resonance. They find themselves on the page, and recognise a life experience, because the poet has left gaps for this to happen.

Sketch of Keats by Joseph Severn, drawn shortly before his death in Rome
I don’t think it matters that I’ve struggled to appreciate Keats poems. It doesn’t lessen my interest in him as a person, and I remain fascinated by his short life and the personality which comes over from reading his letters. Culture changes and Keats speaks from a different time, using words and phrases belonging to the early 19th century rather than 2021. Language is constrained by the time in which it’s used, yet Keats works better for me when heard rather than read, which suggests his poetry still contains magic.
Keats Shelly House in Rome and the room where Keats stayed and died
While researching Keats, I came across some interesting videos on You Tube.

The Death of Keats‘ provides a tour through the Keats Shelley House in Rome, as does A Walk Through the Keats-Shelley House with Giuseppe Albano, Curator of the museum.

Keats House, also known as Wentworth House, visits what was originally a pair of semi-detached residences in Hampstead, where the poet lived from 1818 to 1820, and where Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on an Grecian Urn were written.

I’m currently reading the book Bright Star which contains the love letters from John Keats to Fannny Brawne.

Often beginning ‘My Dearest Girl‘, or ‘Lady‘, and ending ‘Yours forever’, they’re still full of emotion, for example ‘Will you confess this in the Letter you must write immediately….write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been‘.

Like Keats’ poetry, the language comes from a different time, but anyone who’s felt love will find something to identify in these letters where the voice of Keats remains on the page.

My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you — I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again — my Life seems to stop there — I see no further. You have absorb’d me.’

Such a shame the art and practice of letter writing has waned!

Finally, it might be worth remembering that Keats poetry was not well thought of in his own time. This was maybe due to him not fitting into the English class system, as much as a dislike of his poems. Unlike fellow Romantic poets Byron (educated at Harrow and Cambridge) and Shelley (Eton and Oxford), Keats left school at 14 to become an apprentice to a surgeon and apothecary. His life is detailed in a number of biographies both old and new. Keats by Sidney Colville (1909)  and The Life of John Keats by William Michael Rossetti (1887) can be read online while contemporary accounts include the controversial ‘John Keats a New Life‘ by Nicholas Roe and more traditional Keats by Andrew Motion. Chapter One can be read online here.

When Endymion, the first ‘long’ poem by Keats, was published in 1818, it was poorly received. I quite liked it on first reading, and then discovered On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. Maybe the subject matter of ancient Greek myth and legend was closer to me than the Odes, I’m not sure.

Nevertheless, it goes to show if at first, you don’t like a poet, don’t give up. Keep trying their work and maybe something, somewhere, at some time, will eventually speak to you.

Posthumous image of Keats by William Hilton, in the National Portrait Gallery, London

 

Auctioning Sylvia

In July, Sotheby auctioned possessions belonging to Syliva Plath and a pack of tarot cards caught my eye. A gift from Ted Hughes, the estimated price was £4-6000 but they sold for £151,200 (exclusive of taxes and costs). Since then, I’ve often wondered who owns the pack now, whether they use them or not, if they’re on display to selected visitors or maybe even shut up somewhere out of sight.

Possession always carries the risk of theft. Some owners choose to store valuable objects in secure vaults like The Geneva Free Port where investments appreciate in darkness year on year. Da Vinci’s Christ as Salvator Mundi, was there following its purchase for $75 million in 2013.  Also Klimt’s Water Serpents II, bought for $183.8 million in 2012, before being sold on privately a few years later. This secrecy contrasts with valuable items on public display in museums and art galleries around the world.

Images from the Marseilles tarot

Syliva Plath’s tarot is a Marseilles pack. Also known as tarocchi or tarock, the design can be traced back to 17th century Italy. Playing cards with four suits and court cards have been dated from 13th century China. Over time, the 22 images of what’s known as the Major Arcana, has been thought to function as some form of trumps. The association of the tarot with mysticism and divination isn’t referenced until the 18th century. Like astrology, the intuitive value of the cards is often rubbished, but the archetypal representations of the major arcana images remain a fascination for many.

It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to think of the poet holding, shuffling and laying out the cards on a table. Syliva refers to the tarot pack in her letters and journals, although the references appear more to do with her intentions to learn rather than the record of any first-hand experiences. Ann Friel in Sylvia Plath, Ariel and the Tarot claims the cards appear in her poetry although some of the links feel tenuous rather than factual. It’s easy to conclude Plath-fans are looking for what they want to see rather than what is. Nevertheless, the tarot was undoubtedly a part of her life, one which sat alongside a desire to cast horoscopes and delve into the existence of fate as a force to be understood, sometimes challenged, but always present.

What gives inanimate objects, such as the tarot, the power to attract?

We’re moving into the world of relics. The church is full of them; alleged bones of saints, cross splinters, crown thorns and fabrics with the imprint of a face in blood and sweat. The last time the Shroud of Turin was on public display in Turin’s cathedral in 2015, millions queued to see it. Regardless of the lack of science, pieces of cloth like the Veil of Veronica, the Mandylion, or the Veil of Manoppello, all retain a fascination for those who want or need to believe in hard copy evidence of the existence of Christ.

It’s not just religious items which have this power. At Haworth Parsonage you can look at Emily’s writing desk, Charlotte’s clothes and a cambric hanky belonging to Anne. Possessions like these remain with us long after their owners have gone. I don’t think it’s too difficult to believe something of the people who owned and used them also remains left behind. The objects have become relics.

Relic derives from the Latin reliquiae, meaning ‘remains’, and is a form of the Latin verb relinquere, to ‘leave behind, or abandon’.  Religious relics are housed in reliquaries which often form part of a shrine, a word from the Latin scrinium meaning a case or box for keeping papers.  A relic has survived the passage of time. Even where the original culture has disappeared, they remain cherished for their historical and emotional value.

Victorian collectors often housed their relics or collections in what’s referred to as a Cabinet of Curiosities. These are fascinating to see, for example, Wondrous Obsessions: The Cabinet of Curiosities, while A Cabinet of Curiosities includes the Rotunda at Scarborough and Whitby Museum. Both contain huge eclectic collections, open to the public and well worth a visit.

The Rotunda Museum in Scarborough

Objects create connections while the shared experience of seeing them feels incremental. The more they’re revered through the centuries, the greater their power. I’m not particularly religious but like to visit sacred places, both pagan and catholic, and have often felt something tangible which is hard to explain. Maybe it’s partly the accumulated effects of centuries of belief rather than a connection with some form of divinity.

Outside of the sacred, the 1999 ‘Monet in the 20th Century’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, included several of Monet’s giant water lilies. These were displayed with the canvas edge showing rather than it being hidden by frames. Viewers could see where the brush strokes faded away before stopping. Seeing this was like going back to the moment of origin. The personal connection was more effective than seeing the overall completed work.

Back to the auction of Slyvia Plath’s possessions. Sotheby’s called the sale ‘Your Own Sylvia‘, a play on words as successful bidders now ‘own’ the items, and in doing so can be said to possess something of Sylvia herself. This is an old belief, one stretching back to the ancient Greeks who thought a statue was much more than a representation. The physical shape of a god, or an image on the tomb of the dead made popular by the Romans, somehow indicated presence.

Tarot cards are traditionally believed to absorb energy from their owner. An old belief says no one else should handle them, other than shuffle or draw for a reading, and they should be kept in the dark. There’s little factual evidence they possess power, yet many people have unswerving faith in the ability of such inanimate objects being able to connect with external forces. This involves believing in several things simultaneously i.e. that such forces exist in the first place and the world is layered into conscious and subconscious awareness. In the case of the tarot, the archetypal images act as bridges or doorways to alternative realities.

image showing a selection of tarot cards

I wrote about the tarot in a post titled Tarot archetypes and Poetry Prompts which followed on from On Archetypes and Poetry. Both posts address the sources of creativity and the need for a translative process in order to make connections between the ‘here and now’ of the present and the existence of universal beliefs and memories. Jung called this the collective unconscious or a form of genetic memory. Without proof, I still believe the tarot can be a useful prompt for bringing these together. It’s similar to the experience of an open fire at night, or the single eye of a harvest moon rising low on the horizon in September.

image showing a fire at night beside a river

Whoever owns Sylvia Plath’s tarot is now in possession of a device which she appears to have believed was an effective prompt for poetry. Belief, like faith, is a powerful emotion and many people will claim meditation on the images can help cross the boundaries between the known and the unknown. When it comes to writing poetry, it’s these universal experiences that help create the resonance which stays with the reader long after the poem has ended. Someone, somewhere, wanted this tarot pack enough to pay over £150,000 in order to own it and I wonder if they are a poet.

 

maybe I should have tanged the swarm

image from a medieval manuscript showing someone tanging a swarm

Last year I had a colony swarm within a few weeks of it arriving on the allotment. I wrote about this in The Day the bees Left, with a follow-up post After the bees swarmed. If I’d known about tanging, I might have given it a try. Tanging is to hit a metal object, loudly and with enthusiasm. This is alleged to encourage the bees to return to their hive, or settle in a cluster above the head of the tanger.

image of tanging in Victorian times

There’s lots of references to tanging, both historical and contemporary. Search ‘tanging bees’ on YouTube for videos of beekeepers trying it out, such as the one below where the practice seems to make the bees change their minds about leaving.

This year I was determined to avoid another swarm situation, but determination was not enough. The swarming instinct is strong. Once it’s kicked in, it can be hard to persuade the bees to change their minds. Fortunately, my bees seem to have found a new first-stage swarming spot on the allotment behind me. Even more fortunately, Walter, my plot neighbour, loves them.

This is part one of the swarming story for 2021.

I met the first swarm on a warm sunny Sunday morning at the end of May, after several weeks of poor weather. I’d just arrived at the plot when Walter called for me. There was a cluster of bees, up the side of a fence post, and extending out onto the lower branches of a tree. Here it was, my first swarm of the year.

I did what most newbie beekeepers do and panicked. Mentor Patrick was having a cup of tea, Sunday morning style, but in the best mentoring fashion, was soon driving down the allotment road, booted, suited and ready to go. He loves bees!

Walter was fascinated. He said they’d arrived the day before. He’d filmed them and posted the clip onto Facebook.

He knew the queen was in the cluster, and that the bees would follow her, so was watching our every move with interest. Patrick cut back some branches and sprayed the cluster with water to help them bond together, before laying a white sheet out on the ground while I fetched a nuc to catch them in.

The nuc was my first mistake. It was too heavy. The roof was a tight fit and the floor separate so, like all things in beekeeping, I learned by doing that a lighter box with an integral floor was a better option. In the role of assistant, I held the box as best I could under the base of the cluster, as Patrick tapped the branch and down it fell., covering me in bees. Patrick flipped the box over, stood it on the sheet and propped one end up so the other bees could walk in and join their queen. At least, that was the theory.

You know when you get a bee on the outside of your veil, and for a moment it looks like it’s on the inside?

It took me a moment to realise it wasn’t an illusion. The bee really was inside. When the cluster fell and covered me, there must have been the tiniest of gaps somewhere and this bee had found it. Fortunately, it wasn’t bothered but I decided the best option was for us to part company.

Immediately!

Meanwhile, the bees continued to find their way into the box.

Patrick was full of swarm-catcher tricks such as having a queen bee suspended in a jar of pure alcohol and lemongrass so he could transfer her pheromones onto the swarm box.

After a while, we noticed the bees were reclustering on a branch above the original swarm spot. This could have been a sign we didn’t have the queen, but as the bees were walking into the box, it might have been some stragglers who’d detected a smell of her. Maybe she’d rested on that branch during the initial flight.  Patrick brushed them in with a feather saying he preferred feathers because bees can get caught in the hairs of a bee brush and they don’t like it. The last thing you want is to upset a bee, especially a calm, happy one.

We also smoked the tree as this can disguise any lingering queen pheromones. Some beekeepers suggest using a deodorant spray or air freshener, but smoke feels more natural and, as you’re likely to have your smoker with you, it’s one less thing to carry in your swarm kit.

Finally, there were more bees in the box than were buzzing around, so Patrick wrapped it up in the sheet and carried it back to my allotment. As it was hot and sunny, we put it in the shade by the side of the shed, and I returned that evening to transfer them into their new forever home.

I got everything prepared, unwrapped the sheet, opened the lid and – nothing. The box was empty. I don’t know how they got out. I’d been working in the apiary later that day and saw no sign of escapees, plus the entrance was shut. However they’d done it, they were gone. I’d lost my swarm.

It had been a textbook collection. The cluster was reachable and close by. My plot neighbours were delighted to see the bees up close, and collecting them had gone well, but I’d lost them all.

Bees swarm in two stages. The first is where the queen and her attendants leave the hive and gather somewhere relatively close by, while scout bees determine their final destination. The colony then agrees on their new home and during the second stage, they fly off. The whole process from hive to new home can take several days.

Where they went, I’ll never know but the act of collecting them had been a new learning experience. This was useful because the following week, I received a call from Walter to say another cluster was forming, this time on one of his apple trees. I booted and suited up on my own, ready to go solo collecting for the first time.

The sex life of flowers

forget-me-not flowers ‘tell’ bees about the amount of pollen they have by changing colour

The weather this April and May has been dire, both for bees and the early flowering plants they rely on for food. It’s the end of May and I’m still feeding my hives. The nucs are getting 1:1 syrup while the colonies are chomping through the last of the fondant. Pollen and nectar are not as plentiful as they should be and the bees are hungry. I’m trying to prevent them from starving to death.

Bees building comb up through the crown board and into the fondant box

Last year was a steep learning curve. This year continues to pose challenges. My primary aim was to prevent another swarm so as soon as swarm cells appeared, I started to make splits. Bad weather is not conducive to virgin queens having successful mating flights and there’s only a narrow window for this to take place.

It needs good weather and time to open up a hive and spot eggs in the cells

I have four nucs with open queen cells, which suggest hatching has taken place but haven’t been able to take a good look inside so can’t confirm the presence of eggs or larvae. These would indicate the new queen is up and laying. It’s also been too cold and wet most days for the foraging bees to venture out and the unseasonable weather is affecting the availability of pollen and nectar. I’m crossing my fingers the predicted spell of good weather in June will help restore the balance.

The situation means I’ve had to take a closer look at the production of pollen and nectar. Like almost everything to do with beekeeping, I knew less than I thought I did. It’s been a useful opportunity to do some background research about the sex life of flowers.

Bees need pollen for protein. It’s collected and stored in pollen ‘baskets’ (corbicula) on the bees hind legs. When a foraging bee finds a good source of pollen, it returns to the hive and performs the ”waggle dance’. This shows other bees how far to travel, and in which direction to go.

I bought a selfie stick and the photo above shows a bee returning to the hive with a basket of pollen, its body drenched in golden pollen grains. The photo below shows some of the cells where the pollen baskets have been dropped off. They’re waiting to be mixed with saliva and honey to make pollen-bread for feeding bee larvae.

Different coloured pollen at different stages in the pollen-bread production process.

Nectar is the bee’s source of carbohydrate. They have a tongue like a straw which allows the foragers to suck nectar up and out of flowers, before storing it in a stomach sac called the crop.

Back at the hive, some of this nectar is used as food for young bees and the rest is put into cells for future stores. Nectar is easy to spot as the light usually reflects on it. The water content of nectar has to be evaporated so it thickens into what we call honey. it’s passed around from mouth to mouth and the bees also create a breeze by ‘fanning’ their wings. A beekeeper will use a refractometer to determine when the moisture content is between 16-18%. This is the optimum measurement for preventing fermentation once the cells are capped with wax.

Store cells showing both different coloured pollen and liquid nectar with light reflecting on its surface. 

Bees need pollen and nectar, but the plants themselves are dependent on insect pollinators like bees for fertilisation to ensure the reproduction of seeds. Plants have male and female anatomies; the Stamen’s Filament and Anther are the pollen-producing and storage parts, with the Pistil containing the Ovaries.

Parts of a flower from the Open University free online Open Learn course UK Pollinators https://www.open.edu/openlearncreate/course/view.php?id=5143 

Different flowers store nectar in different places, some being easier to reach than others. The length of the pollinator’s tongue determines which flowers they prefer. For example honeybees like open, flat petals where the pollen and nectar are easy to access, such as Poached Egg Plant, Calendula and Cosmos. Bumblebees have longer tongues so find it easier to reach into flowers like honeysuckle, foxgloves and snapdragons.

Forget-me-not flowers showing different coloured central rings

Pollen is generally easier to access than nectar. In many species, it brushes on and off the insect bodies as they fly from one flower to another. Some plants, such as the forget-me-not, change colour to signify their available pollen levels, as shown on the inner rings in the photo above.

Pollen comes in a fantastic range of shapes, colours and sizes. Seeing it magnified always reminds me of grains of sand on the beach.

Grains of sand (left) and pollen (right) magnified

The scientific term is Palynology, while Melissopalynology is the more specific study of pollen in honey. You might find more different types of pollen in an average jar of allotment or orchard honey than you’d expect. The National Honey Monitoring Scheme will tell you what’s in your honey. A beekeeping friend keeps bees on his allotment and the data he received from them is amazing.

Data from the National Honey Monitoring Scheme

I’d expect to see brambles and dandelions but was surprised at there being so many vegetables on the list, in particular turnip, and cabbage, but this is exactly what beekeeping has been like for me; one long and continual journey of discovery.

out of the strong came forth sweetness

Lyle’s Golden Syrup brings all my life interests together. It’s not about the sweet sticky stuff though. For as long as I can remember, the image of a dead lion, bees pouring out of its body, has fascinated me. Why was it dead? Where did the bees come from? What did it mean?

No one could answer my questions and the words underneath the picture made nothing clearer. Out of the strong, came forth sweetness.

I’d seen dead animals in the woods; fox, badger, rabbit. The only creatures to come out of them were maggots. A corpse discharging a swarm of bees made no sense to my six-year-old self. It remained a solitary interest. We weren’t a Britannica home. There was no library and this was long before the internet.The Acropolis in Athens, Greece

Recently, researching ritual in ancient Greece, I came across the term Bugonia, the emergence of bees from a dead animal. Memories of golden syrup were triggered. A few more clicks and I discovered the motto connects to the biblical Book of Judges where Samson killed a lion, and later discovered a swarm of bees had colonised the carcass. Long story! Detailed explanation here.

Samuel poses a riddle which, depending on the translation, goes something like this:

Out of the eater, something to eat. Out of the strong, something sweet.

The answer is honey. Sweet to eat, while a lion is both the eater and something strong. Problem solved.

Only it didn’t stop there. While this remains the common explanation for Abram Lyle’s tin design back in 1885, the relationship between bees and dead animals has older and deeper roots.

Bees and humans go back a long way. A cave painting in mid-eastern Spain shows the collection of honey over 8000 years ago. The ancient Egyptians left numerous stone references to honeybees in their tombs and temples, while beeswax was a treasured commodity in the old China of emperors and royal dynasties. It seems the relationship between humans, bees and honey is universal. You don’t have to scratch local history or culture very deep to find a reference.

Bees also appear in a number of ancient Greek myths. Aristaeus was the god accredited with introducing beekeeping, and poet Theocritus tells the story (in Idyll XIX) of how Aphrodite‘s son Eros was stung after stealing honey. The incident, alongside his mother’s less than sympathetic response, was later shown by Cranach the Elder in his painting Cupid complaining to Venus (c.1526-27).

Greek sky god, Zeus had an early relationship with bees.  Each time his mother Rhea gave birth, father Chronus ate the babe but when Zeus was born, Rhea tricked Chronus with a swaddled stone. Tiny Zeus was taken to a cave on Mount Ida, where a group of nymphs, led by Melissa, fed him goats milk and honey. When Chronus discovered the deception, he punished Melissa by turning her into an earthworm. The adult Zeus, realising what had happened, transformed Melissa into a honeybee. Stone bas-relief showing Rhea deceiving Chronus with swaddled stone (Capitoline Museum, Rome)

Bees were connected to Apollo and Artemis but – leaving the best till last – one particular story has close connections to Mr Lyle’s tin. It involves Demeter, goddess of agriculture and harvest, probably best known for losing her daughter Persephone to Hades, god of the underworld. For six months of the year, Hades allowed Persephone to return to Demeter, but for the other half of the year, she was confined to hell, thereby explaining the seasons of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter.


Hades abducting Persephone by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1622)

Demeter was a powerful goddess with her own temples and rites, and initiation into her cult was always a closely guarded secret.

Once upon a time, there was an elderly priestess called Melissa. She had been initiated by Demeter herself and, as rumour of the connection between mortal and goddess began to spread, Melissa was put under pressure to reveal details. Refusing to speak, the new priestess was attacked, and eventually torn to pieces. Furious to hear what had happened, Demeter sent a swarm of plague-carrying bees. They burst out from Melissa’s dead body, carrying Demeter’s revenge on all who had dared to harm one of her own priestesses.

There may be other examples, but this is the oldest story I’ve found so far with connections to golden syrup. The same image and motto was used for Lyle’s black treacle, launched later in 1950, a continual use of design which has been recognised by Guinness World Records as the oldest branding and packaging in the world.

To finish with, here’s a moment of slow-motion bees. It was taken using a camera phone with a macro lens, which shows high-end professional gear is not always necessary to capture the beauty and grace of bees at work.


If you want more, here’s 11 minutes of similar footage by beekeeper Frederick Dunn from his YouTube Channel.



The next post will look at beekeeping in Medieval times, and how this in some of the illuminated manuscripts of the period.


Rejection blues

For some time I’ve been suggesting to fellow poets we need to create a rejection society. This would be our own Salon des Refusés  Somewhere to share how it feels to open emails containing the words ‘not this time‘ or a sentence beginning with ‘Unfortunately…

The standard advice is to remember it’s the words, not yourself, which is being rejected. – or – the poem might not fit the theme – or – the editors had hundreds of submissions for just a handful of spaces.

These inevitably mean saying no to good work.

Too often there’s no feedback to explain the decision. It’s rare for editors to comment but occasionally one might refer to liking a particular poem and even say why. This is gold. Not only does it confirm you’re on the right path, it’s a welcome reward for having the courage to submit in the first place.

For most writers, it takes bravery to put yourself out there. Art comes from within. It’s influenced by our ways of being and seeing in the world so there’s no getting around the fact rejection is personal. You have to learn to deal with it because not submitting isn’t an option for an aspiring writer.

I began sending work out in August 2020. Since then I’ve had 22 acceptances and 77 rejections. I’m not good at maths but that’s definitely more no’s than yes’s, and it still hurts to see a poem come home.

I’ve learned to think of rejections as:

  • opportunities to give poems another polish then resubmit to a different publication
  • evidence I’ve shifted from having aspirations to having completed work
  • a sign I’ve become a writer because I have my own rejection stories to tell
  • time to change my negative thinking; instead of reject I now use decline in my records, somehow it feels kinder 🙂
  • confirmation I’ve upped my game. You have to be in it to win it and the only way to get published is to submit!

Rejection is also an opportunity to improve my work.

A common reason for the no word, is the poem doesn’t conform to submission guidelines so always double-check these, especially the word or line limits, and be sure to read the journal you’re submitting to. If your work doesn’t fit its theme or style then it’s a waste of everyone’s time and energy. As for any lines or phrases which didn’t feel quite right – now’s the time to rethink them. Make every syllable earn its place. less is more and all that. Reread some poetry books or watch YouTube poetry videos, both your favourites and maybe some new ones.

I’d recommend the following –

Find some critical friends. Being told your work is great does wonders for your ego, but you need more specific detail, such as what works and what doesn’t.

The downside of critique is conflicting advice which leaves you uncertain of which way to go. Here instinct and intuition come in.

I submitted a poem to an online poetry group and without exception, everyone came back to say they didn’t like the ending, yet I did.

The phrase ‘kill your darlings‘ has been attributed to various writers but it doesn’t really matter who first said it. What counts is being prepared to let go of something you think is good when no one else does. In this case, I’ve kept the poem as it was because I feel so strongly about it. However, if it goes out for submission and gets repeatedly rejected, at least I’ll have an idea why!

Stay positive.

Submission is a strange experience. Quite often a personal favourite is declined while the least favourite, or the one added at the last minute to make up the numbers, is accepted. Also, there’s the poem you really like which keeps coming back home, until someone somewhere unexpectedly says Yes.

Subjectivity is the name of the game and there isn’t much you can do, other than stay calm and keep submitting.

Remember you’re not alone.

J.K. Rowling’s original Harry Potter manuscript was famously rejected by 12 different publishers, and the advice she received included “You do realize, you will never make a fortune out of writing children’s books?” I wonder what they think today wherever they’re in the R section of Waterstones!

Stephen King is also no stranger to rejection. Carrie was turned down by no less than 30 publishers, Despite being told “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. he kept sending it out. You might not like the genre or Stephen King’s style of writing but his persistence is worth remembering.

There are lots more examples of rejection responses online, such as the one in the image above which was sent to Alice Walker about The Colour Purple.  If you’re having the rejection blues, try these https://www.openculture.com/2013/11/rejection-letters-sent-to-three-famous-artists.html I guarantee reading them will make you feel at least a tiny bit better.

To end with, always remember the quote below from Sylvia Plath (The Unabridged Journals)I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”

The next post is from the series ‘beekeeping through history’ and offers a journey through the world of medieval beekeeping.


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All images are copyright free and taken from pixabay.com


tarot archetypes as poetry prompts

image showing a selection of tarot cards
image showing a selection of tarot cards from https://pixabay.com/photos/craft-tarot-divination-2728227/

Last month I posted some thoughts about archetypes and poetry. These touched on the role of the unconscious in creativity and how studying archetypes can help create bridges between our inner and outer worlds. Archetypes reside at an unconscious level, but by lifting them into the light, it’s possible to utilise these universal images and ideas. A tarot pack is full of archetypal figures and this post explores how they might be used for writing poetry.

Jo Bell in How to be a Poet suggests ‘Poetry is part alchemy, part practical formula‘ (2017: 34). Alchemy is a useful word for describing the writing of poems. Combining science and magic, the alchemical process is not dissimilar to how solid words can frame more transient thoughts and emotions. To be an alchemist is to work with the transmutation of one substance to another, while poets need to utilise both realism and symbols, and be able to segue seamlessly between conscious and unconscious levels.

The Alchemist by Joseph Wright of Derby

Sometimes a poem appears and you find yourself wondering where it came from, or weeks might pass without the magic happening. In the way an alchemist deals with multiple layers of reality, poets often work in those blurred spaces between the real and symbolic. For the times when the poetry gets stuck, I find tarot cards a useful stick for prodding the unconscious back into action.

A tarot deck consists of two parts; the major and minor arcana (arcana from the Latin for hidden or secret). There are clear similarities between the hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds of today’s playing cards and the swords, cups, wands and pentacles in the minor arcana. However, the origins of the major arcana are less obvious.

These 22 cards are full of archetypal images such as the Fool, Magician, and Lovers but their exact beginnings are unknown. There’s no references to tarot prior to the 15th century, and current links with the occult and mysticism can all be traced to the writings of Eliphas Levi in the 1800’s. Working with tarot involves accepting these blurred origins. It’s best to think of the cards as being less about where they came from, and more about how they’re used today.

The strength of the tarot is it can be whatever you want. Packs have been linked to numerology, mysticism, spirituality, occult, astrology, kabbalah, fortune-telling, a psychological journey, therapy, meditation and so on. The list is almost endless. The reason for this eclectic spread of beliefs is because the cards use the language of symbols, and this ensures everyone can relate to them on a personal level.

examples from the Arthur Rackham tarot pack

There are over a hundred different tarot packs ranging from traditional designs to more contemporary ones, many of which are themed. I recently added the Arthur Rackham deck to my collection because I’ve always loved his illustrations.

However, most of the time, I use the Rider-Waite deck illustrated by ‎Pamela Colman Smith. First published in 1909, there’s a picture story on each of its 78 cards. I’ve had this pack all my life and it’s the images underpin a collection of 22 tarot poems, one for each card in the major arcana, which is currently under development. The choice of pack is important. The design has to have lasting appeal and this one remains my go-to set for new ideas and inspiration.

Connections with archetypes are clearly visible on most of the cards, in particular the major arcana.

For example, the Empress represents everything to do with creativity and the natural world. She is fertility, motherhood, abundance and femininity as opposed to the masculine energies of the Emperor, who stands for authority, leadership and control.

The High Priestess is also a feminine card, but whereas the Empress is about physical reality, the priestess represents the intuitive and spiritual world of the heart and mind, hidden behind the veil in her temple. The Hierophant is the male equivalent and stands for the physical dimensions of faith and belief, alongside a need for study and shared experience. While the High Priestess (initially called the Papess) is about solitary intuition, the Hierophant (or Pope) is more to do with bringing together people with similar spiritual attitudes and ideas.

The chariot is another physical card. This time the individual is being torn between opposing forces, represented by two sphinx or horses. These are often shown in contrasting colours and facing opposite directions. The Chariot signifies a need for strength or willpower to bring disparate, sometimes contradictory, elements together. Physical endeavour is required to enable a destination to be reached, or a desire to be realised.

In contrast, the Hermit is silent and solitary. This card always reminds me of the archetypal wizard in myth and legend. His stick might be a wand (tarot wands represent the element of fire) plus he carries a hexagon star for light.  The landscape suggests standing on top of a mountain range, but there’s no sense of movement. It’s a card which signifies both consciousness and unconsciousness and the Hermit has learned to move between them with grace.

Other cards with clear connections to archetypes include Death, Devil, Sun and Moon. The origins of cards such as the Hanged Man and Tower stuck by Lightening are less obvious but they are equally full of symbolic meaning.

While each card represents a given set of ideas and images, they can also spark unique insight which derives from individual ways of seeing and being in the world. Used as prompts for creative writing, the tarot offers a valuable psychological tool for bridging real and imaginary and can stimulate creative responses from both the conscious and unconscious parts of ourselves.

image from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/full-moon-forest-woman-wolf-1654539/

The cards can be used as tools for meditations, or to stimulate a free-writing session. You can work with the cards singly, in pairs, threes, or even a circle. Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • imagine each character’s name and background.
  • where do they come from?
  • where are they going?
  • focus on potential sounds, what can you hear?
  • is the water smooth and calm, or wild?
  • examine the landscapes, are there mountains, a garden or a desert?
  • what can you smell?
  • how is the weather, is it hot, cold, wet, dry etc?
  • which colours are the strongest and what do they remind you of?
  • which three characters would you invite for dinner?

Get to know each person. Do you know anyone who looks like they do? Swap their gender. How would they change if they were smiling, shouting or crying?  Encourage the characters to speak and listen to what they say.

Try it and see what happens. Use the comment box below to share anything unexpected or inspirational. It might feel strange but no one is watching and the experience may well be worth it!


To come…

A future post will revisit the Walter Benjamin essay on The Work of Art in the time of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) and The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction by Douglas Davis (1991) to examine the notion of original work having an ‘aura’, which a reproduction cannot have but at the same time, challenge the exclusivity of a first edition. This will link to the advantages and disadvantages of the rise of internet poetry and poets.


tarot card images on this page from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rider-Waite_tarot_deck 


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