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Reading Tarot for Writing [Benebell Wen]
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...
Posted Feb 7, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
A Tarot Reading for David Lehman [Benebell Wen]
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...
Posted Feb 6, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
Using Tarot to Understand Literature as States of Consciousness [by Benebell Wen]
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.
Posted Feb 5, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
Mythology and Metaphor: The Kinship of Poetry and Tarot [by Benebell Wen]
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...
Posted Feb 4, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
Poets and the Tarot [by Benebell Wen]
Left: Yeats at his London apartment. Right: A sketch of Yeats by Pamela Colman Smith. 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...
Posted Feb 3, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
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