Shane W Kendal
It was the English Romantics in the early 19th century who first expressed the idea that poetry, and the proces of its making, was in some ways a sacred art. In Defence of Poetry Shelley gave poets the status of ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world‘. For me, that sums up the mysterious, esoteric nature of creating poetry, an alchemical combination of language, rhythm, and rhyme, that, if succesful, transforms both the poet’s and reader‘s view of some essential aspect of life. It is both a liberating and revelatory art – even so-called light verse, or comic poetry can achieve this. Whilst this is a high claim for an art that is not highly valued at the present time (and wasn’t even in Shelley’s time – hence the need for a ‘defence‘), I believe it to be a fundamental, a priori aspect of any attempt to make poetry: it is a task analogous with finding and giving meaning to the world.
In the same century as the English Romantics, the Tarot was first seen as a vehicle of perennial esoteric wisdom and truth. The images of the Tarot are now also understood by many to be not merely divinatory aids, nor merely symbols of ancient and universal wisdom, but active agents of spiritual realities. In particular, the major arcana or trumps are thought of in this way.
The above ideas on poetry and the Tarot are the inspiration for a writing project that has kept my mind active and alight during a current period of long service leave. Whereas previously, like the critic Hazlitt said of Wordsworth, ‘he is his own subject‘, I have set myself a poetical subject that is, at first blush‚ outside of myself: the 22 major arcana. So far, I have written drafts of 13 poems on 13 of the cards. I have found the process an intriguing and rewarding one, firstly in regards to the way the Tarot images – seemingly static images in space – give rise to not only the fundamental language of the poems, but their voice, form and rhythm, things that belong to an unfolding of meaning in time.
There have been at least two principles that I have felt I must adhere to in the creation of the poems (which are, by the way, based on the images from Marseille type decks – more on this choice later). The first follows from what is said in the above paragraph about the relationship of the Tarot to poetry: that the Tarot images belong, in some way, to an imaginative realm that is eternal and that expresses something timeless and universal about human experience. This idea came to me from reading the wonderful Meditations on the Tarot, where the anonymous author, a deeply Christian man, apologises for being enthusiastic about images and confesses to being a Hermeticist. And following from this, secondly: that at least some of the imagery of the poems must be taken directly from the card itself, so that faithful observation is a key to the emergence of meaning in all its forms in the poems. This is not to say that every detail of the cards is mentioned directly or literally in the poem, nor that the only imagery in the poem is that of the card. On the contrary, what I have found, in being open to each image, is that the cards have inspired the invention of a diverse range of voices, personas, forms, situations and subjects. Humour has manifested itself often – there is no doubt that sacred ideas and the satire of very human frailities sit side by side in the Marseille decks. Of course – and it seems obvious now – there is a great deal of interpretation in the poems, or I should say suggestion about what a card or aspects of a card may mean. However, poetry is not a dogmatic or even, really, a didactic tool. What seems to have flowed through are words and forms that are, like the Tarot images, pictures or imaginings of experience, articulated in the English language. These poetical suggestions of meaning are also, of course, peculiar to my own life experiences and particular poetic imagination and vocabulary – with all their limitations.
My use of the cards has therefore also made clear to me the way poetry, or at least my poetry making, is a mysterious search for the right word and phrase. It has been both liberating and sobering to have to find exactly the ‘right’ word. I feel I have had to be true to the cards, to their creator, and the figures and realities depicted. Whilst some of the poems so far have an irreverant or satirical aspect, I have felt a great need to not be trivial, mundane or arbitrary.
Finally, the process so far has been an incredibly personal one and, therefore, a confronting one, despite my initial feelings of writing about an ‘external’ subject. Composing poems on the Fool, the Magician, Death, the Devil, the Tower, the Star, the High Priestess, the Empress, the Pope, the Hermit, The Hanged Man and the Lover, has made me really look at these cards and that has necessarily lead to some uncovering of hidden depths in myself. Yet, the wonderful paradox of the sacred art that is the Marseille Tarot and the art of poetry, is that with the right language and form, the personal sounds and hopefully is universal – and timeless! At times, it has appeared all too clear to me that the cards are unfolding themselves everywhere at everytime. (Perhaps this is one of the benefits and reasons for having the leisure of long service leave!). Feeling very despondent and gloomy and then suddenly seeing Venus in the evening sky lead to a beginning for my poem on the Star; and a day in which I discovered my old home demolished, and a friend’s house in danger of catching on fire, made me think more deeply about the Tower. The Tarot has made me realise even more clearly how the literal and symbolic exist simultaneously in poetry and in life.
So, I am in the process of writing poetry inspired by the Tarot. Subjects like the Emperor (whom I am having trouble with), the Moon (what a poetical symbol!) Judgement and the World certainly make one humble and respectful; and yet a poet must be fresh and exuberant! My disclaimer in signing off is that these poems are not teaching or reading tools. They are free explorations, in poetical mode, of my personal imaginings on these incredible scared images. I have also gravitated to the Marseille for this reason, (among others), for the marseille type decks appear, to me, to leave the poetic imagination free to associate, dream and – despite their vintage – connect the Tarot to contemporary experience. I hope my efforts are smiled upon and forgiven.
XII (draft only!)