(Ed note: Charles Coe's final post of last week, In Praise of Imperfection, reminds me of this poem by Aaron Fogel from The Printer's Error, 2001 Miami University Press, Oxford, Ohio Copyright 2001. Richard Howard selected this poem for The Best American Poetry 1995. sdh)
I, Chief Printer
having worked fifty-
seven years at my trade,
and served five years
of the Holliston
being of sound mind
though near death,
leave this testimonial
concerning the nature
of printers' errors.
First: I hold that all books
and all printed
errors, obvious or no,
and that these are their
most significant moments,
not to be tampered with
by the vanity and folly
of ignorant, academic
Second: I hold that there are
three types of errors, in ascending
order of importance:
One: chance errors
of the printer's trembling hand
not to be corrected incautiously
by foolish professors
and other such rabble
because trembling is part
of divine creation itself.
Two: silent, cool sabotage
by the printer,
the manual laborer
have at times taken this
not to be corrected
censoriously by the hand
of the second and far
more ignorant saboteur,
the textual editor.
from the touch of God,
divine and often
of whole books by
nearly unnoticed changes
of single letters
sometimes meaningful but
about which the less said
by preemptive commentary
Third: I hold that all three
sorts of error,
errors by chance,
errors by workers' protest,
and errors by
are in practice the
same and indistinguishable.
for thirty-seven years,
and cooperative Master
of the Holliston Guild
being of sound mind and body
though near death
urge the abolition
of all editorial work
from all textual editing
to leave what was
as it was, and
as it became,
except insofar as editing
is itself an error, and
therefore also divine.
Last February 1 was the New York launch reading for The Incredible Sestina Anthology, held at the beautiful Poets House. Featuring yours truly as the master of ceremonies, we had a host of contributors (or, as I call them, "Sestina Masters"): David Lehman, Sharon Mesmer, Iam Sparrow, Jade Sylvan, Victor Infante, Marilyn Nelson, Patricia Carlin, Sharon Dolin, Scott Edward Anderson, Michael Costello, Jason Schneiderman, Drew Gardner, Jeanne Marie Beaumont, Jenna Cardinale, Marilyn Nelson, Brendan Lorber, and Ned Rust.
It was an intense afternoon of sestinas, and I was floating. There was a film crew there--Thomas V. Hartmann, Michael Bodapoti, and Nadine Guerrera. Thomas and a College of Saint Rose MFA student, Juliet Barney, took stills. Here's a selection below, and if you want more, here's a link. And another.
We're in the middle of a tour this month, and hope you can make it out for some all-sestina readings for the ages.
Next Wednesday, February 19, we'll be at the NYU bookstore, with Paul Muldoon, Scott Edward Anderson, Patricia Carlin, Victor D. Infante, Jason Schneiderman, Drew Gardner, Carley Moore, and more.
We'll be in Chicago next Friday, February 21 at The Book Cellar, with Jonah Winter, Quraysh Ali Lansana, Marty McConnell, Kent Johnson, Jenny Boully, Elizabeth Hildreth, Michael Costello, Kathleen Rooney, and more.
And then, in Seattle, the big one: an off-site reading to coincide with AWP, at LUCID Lounge: Patricia Smith, Paul Hoover, Geoff Bouvier, Ravi Shankar, John Hoppenthaler, Sarah Green, Beth Gylys, Sharon Dolin, Nate Marshall, Tomás Q. Morín, Richard Peabody, Tara Betts, Sonya Huber, Aaron Belz, Jade Sylvan, Kiki Petrosino, James Harms, Jeffrey Morgan, Sandra Beasley, Marilyn Nelson, Lynn Kirkpatrick, Jay Snodgrass, and more.
More information, go to IncredibleSestinas.com.
There’s one typo in my first book of poetry, and for years it drove me nuts. The book was printed old-style, from offset plates rather than from a digital file, and making the correction would have meant producing new plates—hideously expensive and completely out of the question. I just had to learn to live with it. Thirteen years later I can (almost) laugh about how my editor and I went over and over the copy, but neither of us caught the glitch until we saw the book in print.
I work hard to get every line right, to make sure every word says exactly what I’m trying to say; close enough isn’t good enough. I might take all day and night to decide between “outraged” and “indignant.” Then the next morning I’ll change my mind. Even when I’ve spent more time over the thing than any sane person could justify, and I watch the poem finally wobble off on it’s first solo bike ride to the publisher, I have a hard time letting go. I want to run after it shouting, “Wait, wait…I gotta fix that line break!”
And for most poets the obsession doesn’t end when the work’s in print. A very careful reader might notice tiny differences between a particular poem as it originally appeared in a book or literary magazine and its anthologized version. A comma added or subtracted. A different line break. Changes usually invisible to anyone but the poet.
This drive for perfection is firmly rooted in a certain aproach to the creative process, an approach not shared by every culture. In Japan, a country where an extraordinarily high level of skill exists in virtually every area of art and craft, there’s a tolerance for—in fact, an embrace of imperfection. A potter might intentionally leave a cup or a bowl for a tea ceremony a bit asymmetrical. An exquisitely crafted model boat might have a tiny spot where a joint is left a little rough. The imperfection is a place to “let the spirit out.”
"Wabi Sabi" is the traditional Japanese world view that focuses on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. For a craftsperson or artist with this perspective, an object a bit worn from use, or solidly made but not quite “perfect” might be more esthetically satisfying than something absolutely perfect, shiny and new.
Keeping all this in mind, maybe we poets can learn to treat ourselves with what the Buddhists call “ruthless compassion.” Let’s try as hard as we can to write poetry that's as clean and clear and strong as possible, to say what we have to say with a fierce commitment to honesty and craft. And then let's learn to set our poems free, knowing that everything we write is really a work in progres. (And yeah, that typo's a drag. But nobody's bleeding.)
I’ve had a blast this week as guest blogger here and I hope we meet again, somewhere down the road. Until then, "Metaphors Be with You."
I’ll sign off now with one of my favorite poems:
by Molly Peacock
The best thing about a hand-made pattern
is the flaw.
Sooner or later in a hand-loomed rug,
among the squares and flattened triangles,
a little red nub might soar above a blue field,
or a purple cross might sneak in between
the neat ochre teeth of the border.
The flaw we live by, the wrong bit of warp,
now wreathes among the uniform strands
and, because it does not match,
makes a red bird fly,
turning blue field into sky.
It is almost, after long silence, a word
spoken aloud, a hand saying through the flaw,
I’m alive, discovered by your eye.
CHRIS CRAWFORD (2/13)
Ya kick it in the head
Ya take it if it’s offered
And smoke it in the bed
Ya smoke it in the bed
Ya smoke it in the pasture
You never shoulda asked her
Crampoline and Trampoline
And Trapper got a pelt:
We trying out the Benzedrine
And seeing how it felt
With a Bric-a-brac and Awkward
Backing up the loo
A-whatcha gonna do
Ya kick it in the head!
Ya take it if it’s offered
And then ya go to bed
And then ya go to bed!
And then ya go to bed!!
And then ya go to bed
I was at a memorial service for a community activist recently, when a man stepped up to the microphone who was clearly not used to speaking in public. He fumbled a moment with a sheet of paper, then leaned forward and began to read. Tentatively at first, but with growing confidence as the words carried him along:
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
I've heard this poem, “To Be of Use” by Marge Piercy, many times over the years at funerals, fundraising events, retirement parties and the like. And it makes me wonder: why has it broken through the wall that often seperates the world of poetry from the lives of “ordinary people”? I asked Marge to reflect on her poem’s iconic status.
Why do you think this poem is known and appreciated by so many people who aren’t usually interested in poetry? "From a structural standpoint, the poem has resonant imagery and strong cadences that make it easy to recite. It’s also easy to memorize."
It’s also a poem that's easy to engage with. You don’t often hear poems that honor the efforts of ordinary people. "No, there isn’t a lot of poetry that praises ordinary work. Work of all kinds. 'To Be of Use' has been used in memorials to activists, radical lawyers, labor unionists and so on. People put it up on walls and refrigerators."
It’s a very “accessible” poem. Some poets use that term like an insult. As if a poem can’t be “important” if ordinary people can engage with it. "My poetry is not for the poetry community only. One time I was a member of a Jewish wedding that used a couple of my poems. Afterwards someone asked me if that poem was part of the regular wedding ceremony, because he'd heard it at three other weddings that spring."
Obviously, a number of your poems have become part of the canon. "Yes, and sometimes it gets a little odd. “To Be of Use” is on the New York Regents exam. And my other poems sometimes wind up reaching beyond the poetry community. Some of my liturgical poems like my “Nishmat” get used in Reconstructionist and some Reform synagogues and in Liberal synagogues in England as well as in Unitarian Universalist services. My Kaddish has been part of funerals. I am very pleased that people use my poems in their lives..."
On Another Note: SOMETHING YOU DON’T WANT TO MISS
The “Split This Rock” Poetry Festival is coming up March 27-30 in Washington, DC. Featuring readings, workshops, panel discussions, parties, and poetry activism. Guest artists include Sheila Black, Joy Harjo and Yusef Komunyakaa.
If you can make it, you have NO EXCUSE to be anywhere else.
Check it out here.
I recently gave a poetry reading where I’d been paid no appearance fee and no one but the event organizer bought a copy of my book. (I don’t know whether she really liked it or was just embarrassed; I suspect a bit of both.)
So I’d spent my entire Saturday afternoon to make $13.95. Actually less than that, since I buy copies from my publisher. Plus, it was a three-hour round trip; while grinding my teeth on the drive home I did some hard thinking about how presenters should approach poets to read at their events.
1. Mention money early in the conversation.
I can’t count the times someone’s invited me to read and never even brought up the subject of money. I always say, “It sounds like an interesting event, and I’m available that date. What compensation are you offering?” Often they start to sputter and mumble, as if I’d asked if I could come read in my Donald Duck feetsie pajamas.
If you have no budget, say that right up front; then I can factor that in when deciding whether to accept your invitation. BUT NEVER SIMPLY ASSUME AN ARTIST IS WILLING WORK FOR FREE.
2. If you can’t pay an appearance fee, find other ways to compensate the poet.
If the reading’s a grassroots, volunteer-run affair, take up a collection. After all, the audience hasn’t paid admission; most people can afford to drop a few bucks into the hat.
If the presenter’s a non-profit organization with a low (as opposed to no) budget, even a twenty-five or fifty-dollar honorarium—gas money and a meal–would be appreciated. Or board members and volunteers could solicit tax-deductible donations from local businesses (restaurant or bookstore gift certificates, fruit baskets, and so on.) in lieu of cash.
“What about bookstores?” you might ask. “You don’t make any money there.” Well, that’s not exactly true; you make whatever royalty off each copy of your book the store sells. No that tiny bit of cash isn’t the motivation to read at bookstores. But the store will have the poet’s book propped up near the door, prominently displayed for a month or so, and that visibility is a form of compensation. And besides, people who run bookstores—especially independents—are heroes, and authors need to do everything we can to support them. Support what supports you.
3. Encourage book sales.
In advertising the event, presenters should point out that the author will have signed copies of books available for sale. (It's amazing how often reading announcements don’t mention this.)
Repeat this while introducing the poet. Tell people that buying art is the most tangible way to show your support for artists. Tell them that books don’t mess on the rug or ask if they can get tattoos when they turn six. Tell them books make great presents and encourage them to buy an extra copy. Heck, tell them they can buy a bunch and cross a half dozen people off their holiday shopping list. Don’t be shy.
I do a lot of gigs at series that include an open mic, and I realize many of the regulars come mainly for a chance to read their work. It’s probably not reasonable to expect those folks to buy a book every week. But remind your audience that never isn’t often enough.
Poets, it's time to take a stand.
Some people get wiggly when a poet talks about money; they seem to think we should be happy to read for free as long as someone can scare up a dozen people to sit on butt-numbing metal folding chairs and listen. No one expects a mechanic to change their oil for free or the vet to worm their dog, but it doesn’t occur to some folks that a poet is like anyone else who’s put in time and effort to learn and practice a craft. They have a right to expect financial compensation for it.
In my opinion, poets who feel “uncomfortable” at the thought of seeking pay for their work should ask themselves one question: is poetry a hobby they’re willing to subsidize out of their own pockets or are they professional artists running a small business? I'm not criticizing those who simply enjoy sharing their poetry and don’t really care about making money. But there's no getting around the fact that when poets routinely give their work away they undermine the efforts of those who want to be compensated for their time and talent.
After all, if poets don’t value ourselves as working artists, if we don’t take ourselves seriously…who will?
“Caregivers spare family and society the sorrows and costs of full-time institutionalizations at the price of their own freedom. We owe them a break,” she says of her encore calling. “Too long unseen and unsung, these heroes have much to teach about love.”- See more at: http://www.encore.org/heather-mchugh#sthash.c0ndPFSM.dpuf
CAREGIFTED is hosting a jazz and poetry soiree/fundraiser on February 28, in Seattle, which happens to coincide with the time when many of us will be attending AWP. The party will feature MOLLY RINGWALD, the film star and jazz singer, ROBERT PINSKY, the former U.S. Poet Laureate, and LAURENCE HOBGOOD, a brilliant jazz pianist plus a poetry reading by Heather.
Please give this worthy organization your full support?
The sestina is both a deeply modern form and a very old one. First invented by French troubadours 700 years ago and made modern by Ezra Pound with his explosive sestina “Altaforte,” poets from W. H. Auden to Denise Duhamel have written sestinas. Part of its allure is the challenge. Each end word in the six lines in the first stanza must be repeated in a prescribed order in the following five stanzas, with a victory lap at the end called the envoi that includes all the end words once again.. It’s the obsessive math genius’ attention to form combined with a total freedom within that structure that perhaps has attracted such a wide assortment of “different teams and badges from poetryland,” as Daniel Nester told David Lehman at the New School Poetry Forum last Tuesday, February 4.
Nester is the editor of the world’s first all-sestina anthology, The Incredible Sestina Anthology (Write Bloody Publishing, 2013), a project ten years in the making. He was the former assistant editor for Sestinas at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency where he first encountered many of the poems in the book. (He is as well an accomplished poet himself and teaches at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY.) One telltale sign of the appeal of the sestina is that three of the poets employed by the School of Writing are included in The Incredible Sestina Anthology: Sharon Mesmer, Laura Cronk, and Best American Poetry’s own series editor, David Lehman. All three attended last week’s forum (David Lehman moderated) and like a good preacher who knows how to build up the congregation, Nester brought them up one at a time to read their contribution to the crowd. “This is like church or something,” he quipped, “Come on up!”
Although the form is the same, there were marked differences in execution among these three poets: David Lehman’s gripping “Operation Memory” builds an amorphous tension around a loaded gun that ends up on the speaker’s lap at the end, the gun taking on a new layer of meaning with each repetition. By the concluding envoi, it is not clear who the gun is meant for, while memories evoked of rotating through different jobs and beds and marriages have taken on their own ominousness.
Laura Cronk’s smooth “Sestina for a Sister” was “seamless. "You almost forget it’s a sestina,” Nester noted about this meditation on a fictional sister figure. There’s an intense quiet to Cronk’s portrayal of a woman stopping to smoke a cigarette after each act of perfect housekeeping.
“It’s such an honor to be in this book," said Cronk. "It’s such a wild book.” And wild it is, if only partly because of the exuberant array of subject matter. It’s also the exuberant array of literary philosophy and technique that lends itself to the sestina form that makes this book so gripping. Sharon Mesmer, a flarf poet, read an arresting number titled “Super Rooster Killer Assault Kit” that uses the flarf strategy of generating language with an internet search engine that is then recombined by the poet, not unlike the action of a sestina, if less orderly. The sestina is after all essentially the art of recombining. Mesmer in this case used the Urban Dictionary to find most of her end words: crapsauce, nacho,gangsta fag, smashed, shitler, and Orville Redenbacher
Many of Mesmer’s lines spread out and continue down the page, which illustrates one of the liberating qualities of the sestinas. There’s no requirement about the length of the line, or that anything rhymes. There’s a curious freedom within the iron tether of the sestina, some real room to move about. Mesmer commented that for her poem, reading it takes this “long, bardic breath.” Compare with Geoff Bouvier’s “Refining Sestina,” which is reduced into a Bach fugue of a poem.
Nester commented that “what these poets do with the constraints and exigencies [of the sestina form] is truly remarkable.” Some writers impose further constraints on themselves, like imbedding an “ex”within every end word (see Catherine Bowman’s “Mr. X”), or using only one end word, like the sublime “Sestina: Bob” by Jonah Winter in which each line—tahdah—ends in the name Bob, all while telling the story of one man stealing another man’s girlfriend. “It was a lot harder than it sounds,” Winter told Nester. No surprise there.
Not all the sestinas draw their tension from technical constraints. Auden’s “Paysage Moralise” is a lyric portrayal of an allegorical city that like much of Auden’s work draws attention to an underlying moral vision, the building concern we develop as readers for the inhabitants of these starving, unhappy people leaving for the islands.
What’s appealing ultimately about the modern sestina is the mash-up of formalism with popular or general culture. An example of this in a postmodern send-up kind of way is Harry Mathew’s “Histoire” that uses a spread of political ideologies – militarism, Marxism-Leninism, fascism, Maoism, Racism, sexism-- for end words that end up in highly compromising positions: “It’s probably the dirtiest poem in the book, but it gets past the censors,” Nester remarked. It’s a kind of dirty semiotics, the way the words keep changing meaning each stanza, the references unmoored from the words as they swing towards the climax of a successful date night.
Nester also read to us one of his own sestinas, a memoir sestina that tells a deeply hilarious story of drinking beer as a boy in New Jersey that will be part of a book in progress.
During the Q & A with Lehman, Nester explained that he first fell under the spell of the sestina while an undergraduate at Rutgers. Assigned to read John Ashbery’s sestinas, he made his first attempt, though he remembers it as “over the top,” with end words like ketchup and Freddie Mercury. Now he uses a couple of methods he would recommend to writers attempting their first sestina: either lay out the pattern of the end words first and fill in the poem, or write the first six line stanza and continue from there. “Both work,” he said.
Some of Nester’s favorites among great sestinas of the past, besides those by Auden and Ashbery, include T.S. Eliot’s from The Four Quartets, which Nester was unable to include because of prohibitive permissions fees. Many publishers were happy to support Write Bloody, a press run on a shoestring by touring performance poets, by waving or lowering permissions fees. On the other hand, some big publishing houses, would, said Lehman, “rather see the poem not get published than lower its $1200 fee to $500.” It’s a dilemma with which Lehman is quite familiar and that he observes has gotten worse over the years: “it’s much harder today.”
Towards the end of the evening, Lehman and Nester attempted to parse the mathematics of the end words, why the sestina is really a spiral, something Nester illustrates in his introduction. It’s hard to describe, like talking about dancing. It’s possible, but remains a bit abstract. “If you didn’t follow what I just said, believe me, it’s a spiral,” Lehman remarked, and then Nester held up a schematic of the words unfurling in a slow numbered spiral. It looks like fractals. It’s the secret engine of the sestina that generates this panoply of plain-spoken verse of all kinds of subject matter in all different genres—the structure that creates these constraints to push up against. The sestina is half mathematics and half wild wordplay. There are prose sestinas with no line breaks, double sestinas and comics sestinas. There is a sestina about the Brady Bunch, and fancydancing on a PNW reservation, and S & M. As Nester remarked, the sestina “represents a dream of a common poetry,” a truly egalitarian playground for poets of every banner and team of the literary landscape.
ANSWER: Whoever was responsible for the Snowflake Malfunction.
QUESTION: Who’s number one on the list of people I wouldn’t want to have been the morning after the Sochi Winter Olympics opening ceremony?
Let's drop in and take a little peek:
After a sleepless night, Sasha Golikov, Chief Sochi Snowflake Engineer, is drinking strong black tea at the kitchen table of his tiny flat. Suddenly, there is the expected knock at the door; he opens it to two men who look like rhinos in black suits. One of them nods toward the street. Sasha grabs his coat and pads meekly down the hall behind them.
Soon he’s in the back of a limo for a short ride, after which he is escorted by the rhinos to President Putin’s office. Not a word has been spoken.
Sasha takes a seat. The president stares at him for a long moment, unblinking, then says, “The Fifth Snowflake. It did not become a ring.”
The words are quiet and calm, but they strike like a punch in the gut. There were many factors outside Sasha's control, but he knows that even more than failure, Mr. Putin despises excuses. So he takes a deep breath and meets the lizard gaze. “I and I alone am responsible, Mr. President. I am filled with sadness and shame that I have disappointed you and the Russian people.”
Putin continues to stare. Finally he says, “There is a certain small cabin in Northern Siberia, deep in the forest, many kilometres from the nearest village. It is a place where wolves are counted. Occasionally, a pack will pass. When you hear them it is best to stay inside.” He pauses. “Do you understand this?” Sasha swallows and nods.
“When the wolves pass, you will write in your notebook: 'Today, a pack of wolves,' and you will note how many. Every two weeks a helicopter will drop water and food. There is much wood nearby for the stove, an axe and a sharpening stone. Do you understand this?” Again, Sasha nods.
"Perhaps in a year you shall be done counting the wolves," Mr. Putin says. "Perhaps." Then he swivels his chair around to gaze out the window at the snow-covered mountains.
A heavy hand settles on Sasha's shoulder...
Vladimir Putin spent $50 billion on his Olympics, and although it’s been suggested that upwards of $30 billion went directly into his buddies’ pockets, you figure that $20 billion should at least buy a fellow five working snowflakes. So one supposes he has the right to be a little annoyed, and he is a man most Russians try extremely hard not to annoy. Mr. Putin’s Russia is a great place to live if you happen to be on his good side. But if you aren’t…not so much.
In 1988 I spent a week and a half in Moscow, singing with a jazz band as part of a group of American artists touring the Soviet Union; we also performed in Tbilisi, in Georgia, and Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan (about 150 miles from the Iranian border).
The collapse of the Soviet Union was just three years away, and everywhere we went the air was electric; people were amped at the prospect of democracy. Of course a lot of Russians were really talking about capitalism, not democracy, but everybody got faked out; what they actually wound up with was a feral, gangster oligarchy, with old KGB spooks like Mr. Putin & Company doling out chunks of infrastructure to each other over vodka and caviar while life for ordinary folks got worse than ever.
I can think of another country where the government is in bed with massive corporations that run roughshod over the lives of their citizens. Let’s call it…The United States. Because that’s its name. But when it comes to bare-knuckled corruption, Russia puts us in the shade. It's no place for amateurs.
Nonetheless, watching the opening ceremonies brought back pleasant memories of my time there. I got so caught up in the moment that I dropped to my knees on my friends’ living room carpet and started singing “From Russia with Love” to their cat—at the top of my lungs—in my version of a Russian accent. The cat listened for a moment, head cocked, then ambled off to the kitchen to see if any food had magically appeared in her dish since she'd last checked it five minutes earlier.
Maybe she’d have stuck around for the whole song if this guy had been singing it.
I am a young girl trying to fly
A plane but I don’t really know
How to fly one. So let’s see, um,
Let’s try this button…or that one…
This one looks good… um…um…
I am a girl who finds a panda
That is black and white as I too
Have my good and bad sides
And this girl goes through a time
Of actually liking to get in trouble.
We read about Stonewall Jackson
And about his last words which were
‘Let us cross over the river and rest
‘Under the shade of the trees.’
Then he died. That is so sad.
Big stars of today like [insert name]
And [insert name] will be dead
Someday so I like to invent names
Like Essence Gladstone of imaginary
Stars who are not even born yet.
As my life goes from day to day
I do wonder about the end of it
Or maybe it will not ever end
Or it will end for everyone else
But me. But am I so special? Ha.
I'm very happy to be with you this week as guest blogger on the Best American Poetry website; many thanks to the trusting souls who invited me…
I’d be remiss not to note here the recent death of Maxine Kumin at 88. Although her passing is a sad occasion, it’s also an opportunity to celebrate her extraordinary life. Ms. Kumin won virtually every important literary honor during her long career, and in 1981–1982 served as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (a post which later became Poet Laureate of the United States).
She began teaching at Tufts in 1948, after finishing her masters at Radcliffe. That year she was one of the first two women ever hired by the English department, but she and her colleague were limited to teaching freshman comp to physical education majors and dental technicians. That experience inspired a life-long, passionate advocacy on behalf of women in higher education and publishing. (In 1998 she gave up a seat on the board of chancellors of the Academy of American Poets to call out the need to include more women and minorities in leadership positions.)
Maxine Kumin was never interested in poetic fads and fashions. Her work was direct and spare, often informed by the beauty of her adopted New England, and she unapologetically described herself as “a story teller.”
Next to poetry her great love was horses. She was an accomplished rider, and for years she and her husband Victor bred Arabian and quarter horses on their New Hampshire farm. But one day in 1998 while in Vermont training for a riding exhibition, she was thrown from her carriage, which the spooked horse then dragged over her. She suffered massive internal injuries, many broken bones and a broken neck, and spent nearly a year in a "halo," a metal cage that immobilized her head and neck.
None of her doctors expected her to live, and assumed that if she did survive she'd spend the rest of her life as a quadriplegic. But she staged a remarkable comeback, and like an alchemist—transforming suffering into beauty—wrote about the experience in a compelling journal: Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery.
In Spring of 2005 I had the great honor of interviewing this giant of twentieth-century letters for Colloquy, the magazine of Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. We talked about all the above, as well as many other aspects of her personal and professional journey. During our conversation she offered, with generosity and humor, a glimpse into her restless, inquisitive mind.
You can read that interview here. (It starts on page six.)
Many thanks, Ms. Kumin... and safe passage.
KGB Monday Night Poetry is pleased to present...
Jillian Weise + LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs
Monday, Feb. 10, 2014
Hosted by John Deming and Matthew Yeager
Series founded in 1997 by Star Black and David Lehman
Doors open at 7:00 pm
Reading starts at 7:30pm
Admission is FREE
85 East 4th Street * New York, NY
Jillian Weise's latest poetry collection, The Book of Goodbyes (2013), won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and the Isabella Gardner Award from BOA Editions. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Tin House and Verse Daily. She received creative writing fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, the Fulbright Program and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Aboout her first volume of poetry, The Amputee's Guide to Sex, the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Readers who can handle the hair-raising experience of Jillian Weise’s gutsy poetry debut will be rewarded with . . . a fearless dissection of the taboo and the hidden.” She is also the author of The Colony, a novel.
LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs is the author of the collection TWeRK (Belladonna Books 2013) as well as three chapbooks, which include Ichi-Ban and Ni-Ban (MOH Press), and Manuel is destroying my bathroom (Belladonna Press), as well as the album, Television. Her work has published in Rattapallax, Black Renaissance Noir, Nocturnes, Polvo, Spoken Word Revolution Redux, Drumvoices Review, Long Shot, The Black Scholar, P.M.S, Bum Rush the Page, Jubilat, Everything But the Burden, Black Belt, and Tea Party Magazine to name a few. LaTasha has received scholarships, residencies, and fellowships from Cave Canem, Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center, Naropa Institute, Caldera Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts (2003/2009), the Eben Demarest Trust, and the Barbara Deming Memorial Grant for Women. LaTasha was the poetry curator for the online arts journal,www.exittheapple.com. She is a Harlem Elohi Native.
This week we welcome Charles Coe as our guest author. Charles is author of two books of poetry: All Sins Forgiven: Poems for my Parents and Picnic on the Moon, both published by Leapfrog Press. His poetry has appeared in a number of literary reviews and anthologies, including Poesis, The Mom Egg, Solstice Literary Review, and Urban Nature. He is the winner of a fellowship in poetry from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Charles’s poems have been set by a number of composers, including Beth Denisch, Julia Carey and Robert Moran. In addition, Charles is co-chair of the Boston Chapter of the National Writers Union, a labor union for freelance writers. He has been selected by the Associates of the Boston Public Library as a “Boston Literary Light for 2014.”
I am the unsympathetic villain
a thirty year old boy
re-growing from a stump
in the graveyard
more stubborn than
I’m a frog yearning
for a fly thick swamp
an empty bus
with a flat
on some rutted front lawn
one of those underdogs that had a day
long-shot odds and
all he has
-- Alex Norelli
In memory of Maxine Kumin, here is a short song I wrote on her poem "The Revisionist Dream". This is a performance by Angela Denoke and Roger Vignoles at the Kölner Philharmonie.
Pictured: Alligo and the Cestaro brothers’ Tarot of the New Vision (Lo Scarabeo)
California poet Kay Ryan, sixteenth United States Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner, used tarot cards as writing prompts when she started in poetry. She’d draw a card at random and write a poem about it. Alice Notley talks about how “poets tend always to write in a trance.” A ritualized writing process helps tap into the unconscious within ourselves to generate creativity. That is the kinship of poetry and tarot mentioned earlier in the week. Tarot is an indispensable tool for writers, and poets especially, because it ritualizes the writing process and can facilitate the trance that Notley mentions. That trance is the bridge between the conscious to the unconscious.
I’d like to conclude my week guest blogging here at Best American Poetry with a method for using tarot to read about writing. A deck of tarot cards will be needed, any deck, though for illustration purposes the Rider-Waite-Smith will be used here.
SIG. is the signifier card. If the goal is to gain insights into a writer’s project overall, then select a signifier card that corresponds with the writer’s identity. If one has encountered writer’s block and is looking to move past that blockage, select a signifier card that corresponds with the project itself, such as a tarot card that resonates with a poem’s theme or subject matter, or perhaps the tentative title of a book. If the intent is to tailor a character’s back story or to better understand how to craft that character, select a signifier that corresponds with the identity of that character.
Next, shuffle the tarot deck thoroughly, concentrating on the matter at hand. Set down the entire deck in the spot illustrated in the above diagram as Pile 1. Do what you can to eyeball a quarter and cut the deck again into Pile 2. Continue with Pile 3 and Pile 4, so that each has about a quarter of the deck, though precision is wholly unnecessary. Like the YHVH piles in David’s tarot reading yesterday, these four piles correspond with the spiritual-theoretical four corners of the universe, the collective unconscious.
Start with Pile 1. Draw a card from the pile and place it to the side of the pile. Write about patterns and correlations between the card drawn, community or institutional influences, and the matter at hand as related to the signifier. A free write in a stream of consciousness style is best. If the writer feels so compelled and is inspired by that particular Pile, draw yet another card and continue. When sufficient free-writing has occurred for Pile 1, move on to Pile 2, correlating with perception, observation, and the sensory realm, then Pile 3 and Pile 4. The exercise should have generated a brainstorm to work with for the project.
You do not need to know how to read tarot to use this technique. Pull the cards up one by one and study each card’s imagery. Concentrate on the imagery. What do they symbolize to you? What is the tone of the card? Focus on the whole card, the foreground, the background, or just one small symbol on the card. Let the imagery dim the conscious part of the mind and open the unconscious. Let it pull you into a trance-like state and from there enter the recesses of your own mind for inspiration.
Now the above explained how to use tarot to generate a brainstorm and trigger the unconscious to yield greater insight into the subject matter at hand. It can be used by any writer with a tarot deck to ponder how a pending project can be further developed.
The same technique can be applied for a tarot reading on the poet or writer and the project itself. This is particularly effective if a project seems to be challenging and the poet/writer would like assistance from the Universe to help organize the project. A tarot reader can be brought in to establish a trinity across the collective unconscious, formed by poet, tarot, and tarot practitioner.
Amy Glynn of A Modern Herbal (Measure Press, 2013) and a regular contributor to Best American Poetry has kindly allowed me to showcase the technique using her current project, a collection that she described to me as “Romance Language.”
I’ve selected the Knight of Cups to represent her project. The knight wears armor with red fish printed on his tunic, emblematic of faith and prophecy. There are wings on his feet and on his helmet, which to me intuitively resonate with the romanticism of the project. The Knight of Cups in the tarot is a character who sees the world through poetry and beauty and there is a strong sense of romance about him. There is also a sense of perception through a self-made filter, perhaps resulting in one who is just a shy bit out of touch with reality, in a mostly endearing (though sometimes epically tragic) way. I felt he, the Knight of Cups, could signify Amy’s project.
I cut the deck into four piles. The first: community and institutional influences. Two very strong, potent cards. The Sun in reverse and The Fool, both from the Major Arcana. In reverse, The Sun speaks of disorientation and profound quiescence and calm in the face of such disorientation. Since The Sun card is positioned in reverse in the area of institutions, it could suggest marriage gone awry. Traditionally, The Sun card in reverse indicates the loss of something valuable, be that a literal something or a figurative. There is trouble in paradise, as they say.
The Fool is a harbinger of new beginnings, and although this project is not Amy’s debut, there will be something new about it. It is a project of a clear conscience. The Fool here turns up his nose at community and institution. There will be a great deal of diversion from standards and norms. Whether that means the project will fly off that cliff that The Fool stands so close to and ascend to the heavens or plummet downward remains to be seen. There isn’t going to be much middle ground here. The so-called “middle path” of Buddhist thought is not going to be what “Romance Language” is about.
This project bleeds with pain. In the second pile on perception, observation, and the sensory, we see a dominance of swords and The Devil, who symbolizes bondage, temptation, seduction, and addiction—all interesting words to come up in a project called “Romance Language.” The Four of Swords is about caution and social unrest. It is about recovery. The body is in recovery. The Seven of Swords shows an impulsive spirit, but one who engages in games of deception. Of the physical sensations the project could play off of, it will be about pain, an unsettled spirit descending into indulgences as a means of escaping that pain.
In the plane of thoughts and emotions, there is The Star, the card of hope and visions. One poem in particular in Amy’s collection, the golden seven-pointed star in the center, will shine brighter than the others. It will be a poem governed by Air, of higher intellectual realms, of the thought plane rather than the emotional, of philosophizing rather than feeling, and it will be a poem influenced by Saturn and Uranus, should one be any bit interested in astrology. The Three of Swords needs little interpretation: it speaks of heartbreak, loss, and strife, but synchronously enough, speaks of ideological conflicts, again calling reference to ideas over feelings, which is an intriguing premise given the “Romance” part of the project theme. The Ten of Pentacles in reverse is about the fall of a family empire. There is familial disunion, ostracism, and disengagement. These are the emotions amuck. It seems to be a reflection, or maybe shadow, of The Sun card in reverse that appeared earlier.
As for the values and culture explored in “Romance Language,” the Nine of Pentacles speaks of an independent woman, a woman in solitude. She is a woman of refinement and privilege, but there is also something lonely and misunderstood about her. There is only a bird, as fiercely independent and indulgent of freedom as the woman, to keep her company.
The Ace of Cups suggests great success with Amy’s project. It also suggests spiritual and emotional catharsis. What is of value? Independence and freedom, says the Nine of Pentacles; fulfillment of desires, spiritual revelation, and the much-needed breakthrough, says the Ace of Cups. Outwardly there may be a masculine quality to the project, signaled by the Knight of Cups, but inwardly, “Romance Language” is decidedly feminine, and yin, as manifested in the Ace of Cups.
I see the reading as a roadmap for Amy’s unfinished project. It could be used as a reference and revisited when there is a block in her creative flow. The imagery and themes here can be used to trigger new poems. Drafts can be polished if any points raised in the tarot reading resonate strongly enough with the poet. It can help her reconcile the diverse parts of the project into a cohesive whole. Perhaps it helps her see patterns more clearly than before. Or it does nothing but entertain the poet for a few moments and rejuvenate her to return to her project with full force.
In any event, the poet, whether the poet is conscious of it or not, understands tarot, and to approach tarot as a writing tool is to consummate that powerful alliance. Start by drawing cards one by one and writing poems (or free writes) about them as Kay Ryan had done. Perhaps Corinne Kenner’s Tarot for Writers (Llewellyn, 2009) could be helpful. Give the foregoing exercise a try.
The mutual affinity tarot and poetry have comes from the language of mythology and metaphor they share. That affinity is embodied in the Two of Cups, of fates and karma intertwined.
I found that affinity in a poem as well.
We meet on the road
But once and I cannot tell you
In the time we have:
'We are one.'
'What's left, what survived, what remains
Of old dreams, old wars, old loves.'
from “Leuk Lao” by Bryan Thao Worra, Tanon Sai Jai (Silosoth Publishing, 2009)
Tarot helps the poet understand, in the time we have, “what’s left, what survived, what remains of old dreams, old wars, old loves.”
Teachers of the tarot may talk about the importance of understanding astrology or numerology or even mythology or various other esoteric studies to understand the tarot. I say if you want to know who I am, then you must first know who I love and likewise, to master tarot, you must first know poetry. Thus, the poet begins in a propitious position to read tarot and where better to start than to read for your writing.
Have a great weekend.
Compiled by the American Booksellers Association, and based on sales at hundreds of independent bookstores across the United States, for the twelve-week sales period ending February 2, 2014. For information on more titles, please visit IndieBound.org
1. Dog Songs by Mary Oliver, Penguin Press, $26.95, 9781594204784
2. Aimless Love by Billy Collins, Random House, $26, 9780679644057
3. A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver, Penguin, $16, 9780143124054
4. Poems to Learn by Heart ed. Caroline Kennedy, Jon J Muth (Illus.), Hyperion, $19.99, 9781423108054
5. The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems by Emily Dickinson, New Directions / Christine Burgin, $39.95, 9780811221757
6. The Conference of the Birds by Peter Sis, Penguin, $18, 9780143124245
7. O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound ed.Garrison Keillor, Grove Press, $20, 9780802121615
8. The Prophet Kahlil Gibran, Knopf, $15, 9780394404288
9. New and Selected Poems, Volume One by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, $17, 9780807068779
10. The Best American Poetry 2013 ed. David Lehman, Denise Duhamel Scribner, $16.99, 9781476708133
11. Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins, Random House, $14.95, 9780375755194
12. What the Heart Knows: Chants, Charms & Blessings by Joyce Sidman, Pamela Zagarenski (Illus.), HMH Books for Young Readers, $16.99, 9780544106161
13. This Day: Sabbath Poems New and Collected 1979-2012 by Wendell Berry, Counterpoint, $30, 9781619021983
14. Incarnadine by Mary Szybist, Graywolf Press, $15, 9781555976354
15. Love Poems by Pablo Neruda, New Directions, $11.95, 9780811217293
Or shop IndieBound on-line here.
Go here for the Small Press Distribution poetry bestsellers for January 2014.
On January 30, the eve of a New Moon, housed in Aquarius, I read tarot for Best American Poetry’s very own David Lehman. The King of Swords was selected for his signifier card. In tarot, a signifier card anchors the deck around a singular energetic frequency, and the selection of the signifier identifies that frequency as the subject that the tarot is to be read for.
From the King of Swords, we can extrapolate some of David’s personality traits. In his essence, he is Air, the cardinal element governing the suit of Swords. He is an intellectual. Compare: Men of Water have spirituality, the emotive, and the creative. They ask the question, “Who?” Men of Earth are resourceful and pragmatic. They ask, “What?” Men of Fire have their bodies, their passion, and innovation. They want to know, “How?” Now men of Air, like David, are analytical, rational, and learned. They are the ones who ask, “Why?” From French playing card tradition, the King of Swords is said to correspond with the righteous and fair warrior-king, King David of Judeo-Christian mythos.
Hmm. Same name, too.
To start, I borrow from Golden Dawn traditions and cut the deck into four piles, right to left. The four piles correspond with the four Hebrew letters that spell out the Telegrammaton, or the name of God, and represent the key to accessing the collective unconscious, the infinite and the supreme unity, which is understood by the framework of its four corners—the spiritual-theoretical elements Fire, Water, Air, and Earth.
Diagrams from Wen’s forthcoming book Holistic Tarot (North Atlantic Books, 2014).
David’s signifier, the King of Swords, appeared in the Y pile, which indicates matters of work, career, or health and wellness. Y is about our labors and our own two hands. It is governed by Fire energy, such as ambition, passion, leadership, and vitality.
Fire is also the area related to creativity and innovation. Perhaps David has been mulling over another project that he would like to materialize. If so, the cards here affirm that he should go forward at full vigor. It could also be a caution to watch his health. The H-Love pile would tell us to focus on our family and relationships. The V-Community pile is about our contributions to society. The final H-Economy pile is about our net worth, our property and assets, our financial health. At present, it is David himself that he must focus on. Y-Work is about the self. David has given much to the world around him already and now is the time in his life to care after his own body with the devotion he gave to others before.
Now we proceed to the heart of the reading. To limit the length of this posting, I will draw 4 cards only.
The Knight of Wands in David’s past indicates a fiery, impetuous character who has thrived on stirring conflict and challenging others (including himself). The Knight of Wands is a visionary, though has trouble finishing what he starts. There is also immaturity in the Knight of Wands, mostly because when he has thought up an idea, he charges forward to implement that idea, well before he has thought through the consequences. Fortunately for David, that impetuous nature has worked to his advantage in the past and by luck, has been successful. Therefore, perhaps, it is a lesson he never quite learned, and so that same fiery charge continues to this day. That confidence from past successes is the subconscious influence on his present.
The High Priestess explores what is below the surface of his consciousness and indicates a deeply intuitive and perceptive individual. The High Priestess is an intellectual, a mystic, is educated, but also possesses knowledge that cannot be taught. She is a personal metaphor for David’s greater spiritual role as a keeper of knowledge and wisdom, a keeper of the arts. The card, further confirmed by the strength of presence of a Major Arcanum here, speaks to the greater role he serves to his society. It seems also that his work is not finished yet. There is more for him to do and more greatness to come from him. However, the High Priestess is also a guardian of secrets, and so David is advised to keep his ideas secret for now. Do not tell others yet. Wait, David. Wait until that idea has matured some before sharing with others.
The Emperor is manifested in David’s external sphere. It is the card of authority and paternity. It is symbolic of an iron will. To others, David’s world appears to be one under great order, under control. Note that the landscape behind The Emperor in the card shows a stern, severe nature. Yet the Emperor is also about dominance and superiority in work and career realms. Whatever he pursues, he will conquer and succeed. However, what is it that he has conquered? In The Emperor card, the kingdom behind him is parched. The dryness of the imagery represents thirst, a thirst for a different kind of sovereignty than the one he has attained.
I liken the golden orb that The Emperor holds to the story of King Midas, the king who could turn everything he touched into gold, but ultimately died of hunger because when his lips touched food, it would turn to gold and gold cannot nourish. That myth might resonate with David. There is still thirst in him, in spite of all he has accomplished, because to date, he feels he still has not attained what would truly nourish him.
The final card gives us a sense of where David is going. The Three of Pentacles is one of those cards that frequently appears in spreads for artists and writers. Here, it appears in reverse, which hints at a deeply rooted fear of mediocrity. There is a motivation generated by that fear of mediocrity and it is that motivation that seems to be driving David’s current movements forward. The Three of Pentacles in reverse might also be seen as an indication that David’s current approach isn’t the optimal one. There is a better way to accomplish what it is he is striving for at the moment, and he may need to reevaluate his current movements.
The Three of Pentacles in reverse may also hint at difficulties with friends and those in his current social circle. There is a sense of displacement here that may be the theme of his struggle. On the current trajectory he’s intent to be on, the outcome will be that of someone who is outside looking in. There is some connection here between the Three of Pentacles in reverse and The Emperor. The one at the top is the one alone. Being an outlier is lonely business. That is his inner conflict. He fears mediocrity and strives for greatness. Yet greatness does not nourish him. Going forward, there is his struggle: The Emperor versus the Three of Pentacles reversed. His answer, of course, is given right there in the spread, in his unconscious: it is The High Priestess.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths sends in this good news about the Harlem style rent party she hosted on February 1 in her Dumbo Sky studio, with its fabulous view of downtown and glamorous guests: We had over 60 guests from a truly diverse gathering of poets and supporters from the NY area and beyond. I'm sure you'll see some familiar faces in some of the photographs below. We were actually able to exceed our fundraising goal for the Cave Canem Benefit thanks to the generosity of our poetry community. Our Harlem forepoets would have been very proud! We danced all night at Dumbo Sky with the glowing Empire State Building and East River as our backdrop!
Visit Cave Canem here for news of the L.A. rent party, happening later this month!
Beyond its interpretation of success, achievement, and validation of the ego, Key 19, The Sun card in tarot is symbolic of the individual external life. It is the state of consciousness. Meanwhile Key 18, The Moon is symbolic of the dichotomy between that externalized life and the spiritual internal. The Moon reflects the tension of that duality existing within every one of us. It is our subconscious.
Regressing backward to Key 17, The Star, the cards begin to talk about the varying states of human consciousness, synthesizing the messages of both the Sun and the Moon. These cards might serve as metaphors for literature as states of consciousness.
In prose, there is nonfiction, let’s say creative nonfiction for our discussion purposes, and fiction. Creative nonfiction helps us form a bridge between the physical world and the human consciousness. It is what we are aware of; it is full cognition and action; it is our filtered intellections and emotions. It is often our Sun card.
Fiction is the bridge between the consciousness and the soul. It engages our subconscious. It is our astral body moving about and expressing its observations. It is often the unintentional cognition and action, the unchecked, unfiltered intellections and emotions that speak to our truths, but we have put them in fiction form because we are not yet ready to tackle those truths in a nonfiction, conscious form. It is The Moon.
Poetry is ritualized language for tapping into the personal unconscious, and it forms the bridge between our personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious is the essence of the godhead beneath the surface of nonfiction and fiction. The poet is the angel depicted on The Star card.
The Star card is about hope, inspiration, and spiritual abundance. Its Saturn planetary governance infuses the card with an aura of wisdom, but also of hardship and suffering. The Uranus influence conveys the poet’s eccentricity and genius. Incidentally, Uranus is associated with arts and literature.
To understand the collective unconscious, one must first speak its language, and that language is poetry. Myths are our metaphors for expressing the collective unconscious. Tarot works as a divination tool because it uses myths, our metaphors, to help us access that unconscious. Tarot works because like the Iliad, it is poetry. To read and write poetry is to reveal the unconscious. Poetry itself is literary divination.
Temple of Apollo at Delphi, by Sam Korn, GNU Free Documentation License
The late Joseph Campbell inspired me to reexamine mythology and to approach myth as my mentor, my muse, a sage. Myths are maps that guide us from departure to destination because in myth we can find a metaphor for our own lives, and it is that metaphor that is meaningful to us. That metaphor is the template for what actions and conduct we must exert to achieve the goals we set. That metaphor is how we reflect deep within so that we may heed the revelation of the Delphian oracle: to know thyself.
Historically and common across many civilizations has been the expression of myths in poetry form. Curiously enough, that heritage of poetry is never lost because poetry through the ages returns to myths for the ontogenesis of personal metaphors. Eavan Boland’s poem “The Pomegranate” raises themes of motherhood, of the relationship of nurture between mother and daughter, and weaves her personal narrative with that of Ceres and Persephone. Boland writes of a universal archetype memorialized in the tarot, Key 3, The Empress card, which also happens to be a card that relies heavily on the symbolic significance of pomegranates. In “The Fall of Hyperion,” John Keats superimposes himself into enchanted dreams, suggesting an unconscious state—I speculate a journey through astral planes—and sets the landscapes of several Western myths with the poet as the direct attesting witness while he ponders metaphors for evil and good. In a reading of the poem, the tarot practitioner will nod with familiarity at many archetypes also found in tarot. The progression of the poem itself reads like the Fool’s journey. Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Merlin” calls forth the myths of Dagonet the jester of King Arthur’s time (Key 0, The Fool card) and Merlin the magi (Key 1, The Magician).
All that is not to say that Boland, Keats, or Robinson had anything to do with the tarot, but it is simply to contend that there is a natural kinship between poetry, poets, and tarot, and not because poets must have actually consulted the tarot, but because of their similar DNA. Poetry and tarot are connected to one another by mythology and metaphor. There is synchronicity between poetry and tarot.
A myth is a story, one certainly with a specific narrative, but one with broader implications. It can be set anywhere, be about anyone, either familiar or fantastical, and yet the themes will resonate universally because the story itself is a metaphor that shrouds a greater truth. By concealing, we reveal. And that is the classical schema of most poetry, to conceal by diverging from the literal, dwelling in the figurative, and through metaphor, confess certain truths. Tarot, too, is a story book with a specific narrative, but one with broader implications. How poets approach mythology as metaphors for their personal stories is exactly how tarot readers approach the semiotics of tarot to divine a person’s life path.
In that sense, tarot is poetry for the poets. The tarot—and I am thinking specifically on the Rider Waite deck—is a deck of cards depicting characters that have become myths, like Mother Earth (Key 3, The Empress), Lady Justice (Key 11, Justice), the magus (Key 1, The Magician), Alexander the Great (Two of Wands), Julius Caesar (Ten of Swords or King of Pentacles, depending on who you ask), Pope Joan (Key 2, The High Priestess), the legendary female pope, the archangels of Judeo-Christian mythos (making their appearances in The Lovers card, Temperance, Judgment, among others), Peter the Hermit (Key 9, The Hermit), Jesus Christ (fish motif throughout the Cups court cards; for many he is more than myth but stay with me here), the Judeo-Christian devil (Key 15, The Devil), the Egyptian deity Thoth (making its appearance on the Wheel of Fortune; represented in the Key 17, The Star by the ibis), and many others, and yet the delineations are obscure, and leave question as to whether these characters of myth are before us delivering a message or whether the characters are incarnations of us, delivering a message from the unconscious to the conscious.
Tarot practitioners would say that the characters are us, because the narrative told by the tarot in a reading is our narrative. The prophesied ending is what could happen should we choose one fork in our path over another. Mythology is how we dive into the unconscious and raise truths to the surface of the conscious. That process, of transforming the latent unconscious into the manifested conscious, often requires ritual. That is why tarot practitioners have ritualized methods for shuffling, cutting, prayers, invocations, and why ambiance matters. Poetry is no different.
Poetry itself is ritual. It is ritualized language. Its rhythm and metrics are intentional for transforming states of mind. Likewise, tarot uses a ritualized set of signs, symbols, theosophical concepts, and myths as metaphors to transform the state of mind. Each card is a line in the poem, a two part poem (the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana), a poem for the poets, and each of the four suits of the tarot a cohesive stanza.
There is such universality to the mythology, the metaphors, and the poetry of tarot that poets call upon the tarot’s images without even knowing it. I have no knowledge and not even any speculation one way or the other of whether poet Ed Bok Lee has ever dabbled with tarot. Yet his poem “Moon Projector Over Sea” echoes with the imagery of Key 18, The Moon. Lee’s poem is a felicitous interpretation of the card:
Life, the cluttered back-
stage of dreams.
In between, our
stealthily remove a single marionette
from the moon.
from “Moon Projector Over Sea” by Ed Bok Lee, Whorled (Coffee House Press, 2011)
Same with the up and coming Henry W. Leung, who published two poems in Kartika Review, “Portrait of Anonymity,” which calls to my mind Key 6, The Lovers, reversed, or maybe the meaning of Key 15, The Devil, and—apt as it is to this discussion—draws a mythological reference: “as Persephone did from Hades: bereft, delighted / by that tempered, accidental bloom, desire.” Leung’s “Quarantine” talks about the Black Death as both myth and metaphor, and I envision Key 13, Death, the hooves that—
into the earth, and I grow old
while the long, imperceptible curve
of the city cuts ahead of me
like a ledge. …
from “Quarantine” by Henry W. Leung, Kartika Review, Issue 15, Spring 2013
There is universality to our unconscious knowledge, which is why poetry so often reflects tarot and tarot to poetry. The poet and the tarot reader tap into the same collective pool. Poet Alice Notley has said about tarot and poetry: “words are like tarot cards . . . a poem manipulates unpredictable depths with its words. . . I like the tarot because it works like poetry . . . The symbols are remarkably durable and beautiful; they float out to encompass all kinds of meanings.”
If prose is the language of the solar eye, of aspirations, will, and that which is perceived through the conscious mind, then poetry is the language of the lunar eye, of intuition and connectivity to our unconscious. Prose makes sense of the landscapes we see. Poetry is the reflection of light after dark, the mining below that landscape for gems that might authenticate the nature, the essence of the godhead.
Today I woke up and stretched for a bit while listening to a dharma talk on pain. How boring. Sometimes I wonder how to write these posts. Maybe that’s a way of saying sometimes I wonder if I have a right to write these posts. I’m suspicious of memoir but then I think maybe that’s more about my own lack of self-confidence and my own long term commitment to silencing myself, which I think is something a lot of us do. Or maybe it’s that it seems so long ago. Or like no time at all.
It’s less than a month until the twenty-sixth anniversary of my mother’s death. For a long time I would have said: It’s less than a month until the twenty-sixth anniversary of my mother’s suicide. This year I’m trying to think of it in a different way. Suicide or not, the fact is my mother’s been gone for twenty-six years. It’s awful and common no matter how I cut it. Twenty-six years ago this February day I wasn’t talking to my mother. Or, I had just started talking to her after a year or more of silence. I thought it was just a year but then a woman she’d been in the hospital with found me online and sent a letter saying she’d read my work and it seemed like my mother and I had reconnected and were back in touch at the time of her death. She made it sound like it had been a lot longer than a year.
I mean, I know time is funny that way. I had a friend who would say, “How long has it been since we’ve talked? It’s been forever.” when, in reality, it had been at most a few weeks that didn’t seem like much time at all to me. But then another friend would have the audacity not to be in touch for four or five days and I’d assume the friendship was over. All this is to say I’m hardly a reliable narrator and also that so much depends on where one is standing.
In February of 1988 I was in 8th grade at McGee Middle School. All I can think of as I write that is the hallway near my locker and the Social Studies room I was sitting in when my mother died. That feels like no time ago or maybe a better way to put it is there feels like no physical distance between me and the girl sitting in the classroom, who will find out when she gets home that her mother died at ten o’clock that morning.
Yes, I can be right back there in a moment to the day my mother died. To say she killed herself is both true and somehow easier to bear, at least today. I spent so much time thinking about my mother killing herself that I hardly thought about her dying.
At first it was because I couldn’t say she killed herself. The day after my mother died, Sandy walked up to me in the hall and said, “What did you do last night?” I said, “My crazy aunt killed herself.” Which let me say it and not say it all at once. It let me test it out. I don’t remember what she did when I told her that. We were walking past the lunchroom, which was just past my Social Studies classroom. I can feel that room waiting for me to go in it but I won’t. Not now. I know I said the word, “Pills.” That must mean that she asked how she did it.
Why didn’t I say my mother killed herself? Why didn’t I say, at least, my mother died? Nobody in that school knew my mother. I felt embarrassed about all sorts of things and maybe that was one? Who was I to say that she died and get their pity or their sympathy? Especially since we had only started talking again after how, after how many years? That last part’s from the Bishop poem, “Santarem” and the lines are totally different. It’s about remembering things wrong. Actually it’s about remembering everything right and still being wrong. Actually, it’s about someone asking about a wasp’s nest a million years after the fact.
Of course I may be remembering it all wrong.
In February of 1988 I’d just started speaking to my mother again after what I believe was a year and a half at most of not speaking. This was after a visit where she told me I’d be happy if she died of cancer and then told me she was going to go cry and I probably should too. I remember sitting in the living room while she sobbed in her bedroom with the door all the way open. And then some things happened and I went home and we didn’t talk for almost eighteen months. And then we did talk. And then she killed herself.
Died, rather. She died. That’s the lasting effect on both of us. All this talk of ethics and selfishness and murder. It’s the wrong stone thrown into the pond.
“How did she die?”
“She killed herself.”
“She took a bottle of pills.”
“She was really poor and not in good health.”
“She lost hope.
“Is your mother still living?”
“No. She died.”
Stop all the clocks. Or set them all to the same time all over the world and through years so when the hour strikes we can’t make sense of anything through the horror of the clanging.
Some people you miss after a few weeks and some you wish would call you all the time. Some things you want to last forever and sometimes they do and mostly they don’t. It’s February 2014 or February 1988 and I haven’t spoken to my mother in too long. It kills me and it probably did back then too. Who cares?
I think she did. I do.
Source: Biography of Pamela Colman Smith.
Among the personal effects of poet and Nobel Prize winner William Butler Yeats was a pack of tarot cards. By most accounts Yeats was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn*, an occult secret society that practiced ceremonial magic. As it was, the Hermetic Order considered tarot divination to be one of the foundational studies that the society’s initiates learned (the others being astrology and theurgy).
While other notable members of the Golden Dawn, namely A. E. Waite and illustrator Pamela Colman Smith, were conceiving the tarot deck now known as the Rider-Waite (or Rider-Waite-Smith) deck, it is said that Yeats was an advisor to Pamela Smith on the mystic symbolism to be incorporated into Waite’s new deck. So poetry and poets have influenced the tarot and its symbology as much as the deck of cards has influenced and inspired poets and their poetry.
The title of Yeat’s autobiographical work The Trembling of the Veil hints at the poet’s association with the Rider-Waite tarot. The veil is a notable Hermetic reference, which has also been used by A. E. Waite in his book on tarot The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Part I of the book is titled “The Veil and its Symbols” and Part II, “The Doctrine Behind the Veil.” What’s more, in the Introduction to Pictorial, Waite writes, “The pathology of the poet says the ‘undevout astronomer is mad.’” (He takes the quote from William Herschel, a musician, mathematician and astronomer.) The more one digs, the more patterns are found.
For the poets who look to poetry as evidence, look to Yeats’s “The Tower.”
…Good fellows shuffled cards in an old bawn;
And when that ancient ruffian's turn was on
He so bewitched the cards under his thumb
That all but the one card became
A pack of hounds and not a pack of cards,
And that he changed into a hare.
Hanrahan rose in frenzy there
And followed up those baying creatures towards –
To start, the thematic references to pride and ego throughout are the ascribed meanings to the tarot card Key 16, named The Tower, which is also the title of Yeats’s poem. As for what that “one card” was, I suspect the title offers some indication. The fellow Hanrahan has been interpreted by many to be a representation of The Fool, significant because the progression of the Major Arcana cards in the tarot has been referred to as “the Fool’s journey.”
…Before that ruin came, for centuries,
Rough men-at-arms, cross-gartered to the knees
Or shod in iron, climbed the narrow stairs,
And certain men-at-arms there were
Whose images, in the Great Memory stored,
Come with loud cry and panting breast
To break upon a sleeper's rest
While their great wooden dice beat on the board.
The foregoing stanza describes The Tower card: the ruin, the rough men-at-arms, narrow stairs, and the general imagery reminiscent of the Tower of Babel, which is often the depiction on The Tower card in tarot. As for the “Great Memory stored,” it could be speculated that it is a reference to the card that follows Key 16, The Tower, which is Key 17, The Star. The Star card is associated with depicting the varying states of human consciousness and the unconscious, with the Great Memory a metaphor for the collective unconscious, which is a concept deeply rooted in ceremonial magic and the traditions of the Golden Dawn, which Yeats was purported to be part of (though the Golden Dawn do not use the actual term “collective unconscious,” and ascribe a different designation for the concept).
T.S. Eliot. Source: Public Domain
Tarot may be one of the lesser known muses of poets past. Take T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” for instance.
Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
In that stanza, Eliot makes reference to several cards in the tarot deck. Some speculate that the drowned Phoenician Sailor is the Ten of Swords and the Lady of the Rocks is the Queen of Cups. There is then the Three of Wands (“man with the three staves”), The Wheel of Fortune (“the Wheel”), the Six of Pentacles (“the one-eyed merchant”), and The Hanged Man. “Fear death by water,” writes Eliot. The Hanged Man is ruled astrologically by Neptune and is governed by the element Water.
If the tarot cards are to be interpreted, they may suggest pending doom and misfortune, empathy felt for that downfall, a period of waiting and yearning for validation, the karmic turns of the samsara wheel, and the ultimate benevolence--self-sacrifice and prophesy. The tarot reading sets the tone for the progression of Eliot’s poem.
Richard Palmer, a prolific contemporary poet and master tarot practitioner says that in the union of the tarot and poetry, the poetic voice is joined with the voice of the universe, our words with the ancient symbols, which is the language of the cosmic soul. Together, tarot and poetry “weave a song of mystery, meaning, beauty, and love upon the unfolding tapestry of Time,” as he eloquently put it. Palmer’s poetry, some of the most brilliant of his works showcased in The Traveler (Writers Club Press, 2002), among his other collections, demonstrate the richness of poems conceived from a poet-mind that has been influenced by the tarot. Likewise, his tarot books, such as Tarot: Voice of the Inner Light (Custom Book Publishing, 2008) exudes a depth and breadth to tarot interpretive work that surpasses other practitioners, precisely because of his poet-mind approach.
It is no surprise that poets might gravitate toward the tarot for inspiration. Poetry calls upon our mythologies as metaphors of otherwise hidden truths, and the notion of revealing what has been hidden is a fascination of, I dare say, all poets. And what is the occult? The occult is but the study of that which has been hidden from view. So it would be of little surprise that poets and occult secret societies might be bedfellows. Tomorrow, I hope to explore the idea of mythology and metaphor further, in particular how the tarot is itself a book of poetry, and even more significantly, poetry for poets.
* Notwithstanding Yeats, other acclaimed poets and writers that were known members of the Golden Dawn were Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, Sax Rohmer, author of the ever lovely Fu Manchu series, Scottish poet and writer William Sharp, who also wrote under the pseudonym Fiona MacLeod, writer Arthur Machen, who Stephen King has called perhaps the best writer of horror in the English language, Arnold Bennett, Algernon Blackwood, Gustav Meyrink, John Todhunter, Violet Tweedale, and Charles Williams, to name a few.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.