Thursday, 1 March 2012

The poet and dreams

As an editor, I see poems, often but not always from new writers, that are dream dependent. The imagination, the vision of the poem is juxtaposed with the awakening. Bobby Ewing in the Dallas shower scene. More often than not, the transition from one state to another - "hey, it was all a dream!" - doesn't work.

Not surprising. You are in good company. Samuel Taylor Coleridge couldn't make it out of his dream to finish Kubla Khan in 1797 after being disturbed by a visitor (or coming down from his high).


Transition as a focus of poetry has fascinated from the earliest examples of writing: in Celtic myth, beaches (sea or land?) and twilight (night or day?) offer intense possibilities.

But here are some more mundane techniques for harnessing your dreams.

Use a strong rhythm and/or rhyme

Coleridge does this. And how about this example of another 1967 trip from the Beatles.

Picture yourself in a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes

Cellophane flowers of yellow and green
Towering over your head
Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes
And she's gone

Stay in the dream

John Lennon's LSD does this and this is how most poets work it. There are advantages: Kathy Acker says " I started working with my dreams, because I'm not so censored when I use dream material". And dreams can end up in the more conventional avatar or dramatic monologue.

Against a gun-metal sky,
I saw an albino giraffe. Without
leaves to modify,
chamois-white as
said, although partly pied near the base
it towered where a chain of
stepping-stones lay in a stream nearby;
glamor to stir the envy

of anything in motley -
Hampshire pig, the living lucky-stone; or
all-white butterfly.

(Marianne Moore extract from The Sycamore - is this a dream? Only MM could tell us and she won't.)

Contrast the dream with reality

This can often have a profound impact. A great example can be found in this poem by the Peruvian poet Giovanna Pollarolo The grocer's dream translated here by Marjorie Agosin. This is an extract.

And when they would ask

what are you going to be when you grow up
and without thinking, I would answer
wait on people in a store just like this one
and they would laugh at such a meager dream

Focus on the transition

The crossover from dream to reality is the pivot for the poem and gives its dynamic. John Keats' dream is rudely interrupted. The dream is preferable to the reality. You know I am sucker for a ballad too.

Extract from La belle dame sans merci

VIII.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept, and sigh’d fill sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes 
With kisses four. 

IX.

And there she lulled me asleep, 
And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide! 
The latest dream I ever dream’d 
On the cold hill’s side.

X.

I saw pale kings and princes too, 
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all; 
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci 
Hath thee in thrall!” 

XI.

I saw their starved lips in the gloam, 
With horrid warning gaped wide, 
And I awoke and found me here, 
On the cold hill’s side. 

XII.

And this is why I sojourn here, 
Alone and palely loitering, 
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake, 
And no birds sing.


On the whole, the "it was all a dream" device is one to treat with care when starting out writing. But then again are there any rules?

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven by Irish writer William Butler Yeats. 1899 from The Wind Among the Reeds.

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