Tarot, witches and poetry

Googling connections between tarot cards + poetry, I found this post from almost exactly three years ago Tarot archetypes as poetry prompts. I remember writing about the auction of Sylvia Plath’s Tarot pack in Auctioning Sylvia, but this one surprised me.  I tell myself a lot has happened in the past three years. The memory lapse is nothing to worry about – but still…

Tarot has been in my life for many years and recently I’ve been looking at the minor rather than the major arcana. Similar to contemporary playing cards, the minor arcana consist of four ‘suites’ of wands, swords, cups and pentacles (although names have varied over time). These represent the elements of fire, air, water and earth.  I’ve come back to the tarot because I’m having problems with an idea for the next poetry collection.

Intially, it was to be based on 17th century women accused of witchcraft.  I had a narrative timeline and some draft poems, but nothing felt right. Also, I’m discovering more contemporary interest in this topic – both poetry and prose – than I first realised. Everything I found seemed too familiar. Whether set in the past, or narrated from the present, the arc was much the same. Good competed with evil and the accused were pricked, tortured, swum and hung.

My little witch girl Maggie was born with a cleft lip – a sure sign of the devil back in the 1640’s – and her mother covered the split with a scarf. It was set against the religious conflict underpinning the civil war, had a priest and a puritan preacher, a roundhead father and rogue cavalier hiding in the forest. Predictable, unoriginal, and most of all I couldn’t find the narrative voice.

Usually a problem like this is a sign I’m on the wrong track, but I liked Maggie and didn’t want to give up on her.  You know what it’s like when you get an idea and can’t let go, despite it not coming together as you want. This is the space I’m stuck in.

Where to next?

I’m drawn back to the Tarot.  Thousand of words have been written about the ‘meanings’ behind these cards. For years, I thought the ‘right’ answers were out there. Someone, somewhere, would have written a solution for me to follow. It took a long time to realise this doesn’t exist. Within the parameters of the symbols, Tarot is what you make of it.

Many readers – but not all – use the principle of reversal or upside-down cards with  generally more negative interpretations. I was never a fan of reversals and tended to shuffle and lay the cards in upright positions, but lately I’m taking more interest in their opposing possibilities.

I’ve been renewing old interests in binaries. How language, symbols and beliefs are usually one side or other of the same thing. We know something by what it is not.  A tree is a tree because it isn’t a bush or a flower. Research for Maggie included revisiting the biblical principles of good and evil, in particular the idea of Satan or Morningstar as a fallen angel. A god needs a devil in order to shine and we tend to find our life-balance on a spectrum between primary oppositions. There are two sides to every coin.

Tarot images are not only about dualities. Both the design and potential meanings of each card are like individual poems.

The best feedback is when someone reads your poem and sees something which surprises you. One of the Maggie poems had a line about a cat asleep in a circle of black. It went on to refer to charcoal scratches on the earth floor. For me, the cat was asleep inside this circular mark, but another person saw it as a black cat curled in the shape of a circle. I hadn’t thought of it like that. This is also the Tarot where every image has the potential to be seen and interpreted differently.

I still have my first tarot pack, a Rider Waite/Pamela Coleman combo. The cards have thickened with age but are larger and better coloured than the pack I use for day-to-day research. Re-reading old tarot poems, I realise I’ve focused too much on recreating the images rather than exploring alternatives offered by the mythical origins beneath them.

When I reach a point where an idea isn’t working, it’s usually a sign I’m on the wrong path. It’s hard to let go of the time and attention paid to following an idea, but I’m  wondering if the Tarot offes a path to follow, in particular if the minor arcana could be slanted towards a specific story.

The second cataract surgery was successful (see Cataract surgery and anisometropia for a post about the first one) and I now have equal vision in each eye. This is huge progress. Maybe by the end of next month, there will also be some progression with this collection!

Please let me know below if you have any suggestions or experiences with changing directions with ideas for poems.  It’s always good to know you’re not alone!


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