Reading T. S. Eliot’s tarot cards


I threw in the Queen of Cups in honor of the “burnished throne” with Cupidons

I was talking to my British and Irish poetry class about the “wicked pack of cards” Madame Sosostris wields in “The Waste Land” when one person said, “There should be a Modernist Poets tarot deck.” My brain exploded: H. D. as The Star, Pound as The Emperor, Sassoon as the Nine of Wands, maybe Yeats as the ever-dissatisfied Two of Wands, unless you wanted to go ahead and dub him The Magician, full of occult power. On the other side of the Atlantic, might Langston Hughes be the Ace of Pentacles, Helene Johnson The High Priestess, Marianne Moore Queen of Swords? I’d be inclined to peg Eliot in “The Waste Land” era as The Tower–London bridge is falling down–and later as The Hierophant. Anyhow, you artists should get on that and make a mint.

The three ACTUAL tarot cards Sosostris sees are “the man with three staves” (watching his ships on a golden sea) and the Wheel, signifying an imminent change of fortune. She doesn’t find the Hanged Man, which is a card of inner peace and independence–too bad for Eliot. Because he’s having so much fun Sosotrising, Eliot invents cards, too. I shuffled through just in case but there’s nothing like a drowned Phoenician sailor; water tends to represent not danger but a blessing of creativity in the tarot deck, as it does in Eliot’s poem, mostly. I guess you could call the Six of Pentacles a one-eyed merchant, dispensing favor unevenly. I’m less persuaded that the Two of Swords matches “Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,/ The lady of situations,” but here’s what I’d say if it did: hey, Madame, you’re misreading these (on purpose?). Your client is a blindfolded defensive type convinced of unfair treatment when in fact this poem represents his ships coming in and a major career shift. For an alienated banker-poet, the Wheel turns!

I didn’t even realize, when I finalized my syllabus, that we’d hit the exact centenary of its original (noteless) publication in The Criterion. Everybody’s publishing articles about “The Waste Land” right now and mostly not insightfully, if you ask me–then again, it’s hard to say something fresh about a poem people have been yelling about for 100 years. Anthony Lane’s recent piece in The New Yorker made me sigh: no awareness, huh, of it as a poem about sexual assault? It only takes a quick look at the original draft in the facsimile edition to realize how foundational misogyny was to the poem’s origins. The contempt for Fresca, the poem’s excised woman writer, is breathtaking. Modernism/ modernity‘s cluster of mini-essays on #metoo and “The Waste Land” still strikes me as a much better account of what the poem means now (that is, if you think women readers matter). My piece on teaching the poem in 2019 is in a follow-up essay cluster at the same journal, and I’m not claiming my comments are original or brilliant–I am far from conversant with all the criticism–yet participating in those conversations was revelatory. It’s a shame Lane cited the new Ricks and McCue edition of Eliot’s poems without acknowledging how disappointing many find it (not glossing the poem’s abortion reference, for example, in SUCH a heavily annotated edition). See Megan Quigley’s preface to the second essay cluster, the “Why Pills Matter” section, for a recap of how Ricks ridiculed women scholars’ readings of the poem. But then, as James Joyce wrote in his notebook, Eliot ends “the idea of poetry for ladies.” It’s amazing to me that eminences such as Ricks are still drawing a line and announcing, There feminist scholars shall not cross. I mean, really? Feminist rereading as a practice is kind of…old. I’m ready for more queering of the poem: it’s spiked with homophobic references, even while Eliot spends portions of it in drag and later claims the centrality of double-sexed (nonbinary?) Tiresias.

“The Waste Land” is an upsetting work with a lot of power. A poem that every generation makes new? That’s a worthy fragment to shore against criticism’s ruins.

More on criticism’s ruins later; I’ve been preparing a paper called “Critical Confessions” for a panel on confession that Gregory Pardlo will be running at the ALSCW conference next weekend. Soon I’ll be reading for Shenandoah: word to the wise, if you have ever lived in Virginia you’re eligible to submit to our donor-endowed Graybeal-Gowen contest (free to enter as of Oct. 15, final judge Oliver de la Paz). I also finally got out a brief newsletter on the second printing of Poetry’s Possible Worlds. I only send them out about twice a year because I don’t want to spam anyone and it takes longer to put them together than you might imagine. If you sign up (link below, if I’ve figured it out correctly), you might not get the next until lilacs are breeding out of the dead land, unless the Wheel turns in unexpected directions.

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8 responses to “Reading T. S. Eliot’s tarot cards”

  1. A lot to digest here (a very good thing). I almost lost a friend in the 80s to our decided diff of opinion on “The Waste Land” (and Eliot, in general) which seems all the more significant and “modern” if not actually as the years have stacked up. This is a wonderful essay. Thanks much.

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  2. I have been torn about whether or not I would go back and read the poem again. It’s been a very long time. Your insights here have nudged me though. I really appreciate the fact that *someone*, anyone (!) is still interested in close readings of poems, including the consideration of cultural context as well as craft. On a side note, I have this exact same Tarot deck with the updated look on the original and the borderless edges. 🙂

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    • I love this tarot deck–and since the Rider-Waite deck was published in London in 1909, maybe it’s the one Eliot saw at a salon somewhere? I do think the WL is worth revisiting once in a while. But I’m now rereading “Little Gidding” (for the next class) where he says “next year’s words await another voice”: it’s important to keep reading forward as well as backward.

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  3. I too have been mildly disappointed in the raft of 100-year bits, though of course any attention to a poem should be welcomed.

    Your rhetorical question about each age and mind bringing something new to “The Waste Land” is answered “YES!” by me as well. At its centenary, it ought to be about time. The intent of Eliot and his collaborators should fade into a side-light to the poems “possible worlds” (to borrow a phrase.). How flawed or gifted Eliot, Pound, and Vivienne Eliot were is by now another matter.

    Having gone through a multi-year journey to perform the whole thing with music a few years ago, there’s so much there, My original entry point was the musical composition aspect of the poem, how it worked with motifs, movements, and refrains. My re-engagement in middle-age was based on the hook that it was an emotionally closed-off person grappling with depression. Then as I performed it, even beyond the rape theme, I found an excoriation of sex (at least in a patriarchal culture) that’s powerful. Labeling it as misogynist (even if Eliot the man is historically misogynist) doesn’t reflect the poem’s actuality. I also began to see how often the voices switch gender and by the time we get to Tiresias, we are asked to experience the poem in some intersex state. In 1921 people! Bumbling through the “make page count for book publication” footnotes about from Ritual to Romance and all just keeps one from seeing what’s portrayed in the poem itself. “Draw the curtain on all that rape and everyday exploitation,” say the blind-to-feminism readers, “it’s all some high-class metaphor for something else. Gee, let’s study and study to see what it might be really about.” Sigh, or grrrr depending on one’s anger level I (and you) reply.

    Biographically, I finally realized that this poem scared Eliot, so much so that he eventually down-rated and sought to ignore it. And I think I’ve come to an explanation of why so much of the poem is full of hip-hop-style samples with all its quotes and paraphrases: Eliot the man couldn’t bear to utter himself the things that are in his greatest poem.

    Sorry for such a long comment on someone else’s blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love this smart excessiveness although yeah, put it on your blog sometime unless it’s already there somewhere. That last paragraph especially crystallizes so much–the evasion, shame, fear (all of which help make the poem powerful although they must have been awful to process). It’s fascinating to hear about the composing, too, which is after all another way of close-reading.

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