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.

 

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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