Saturday, December 23, 2006

Dreams of Poems

I'm in Chicago for an evening and morning. After the annual recording-studio party, sleeping on the floor, wrapped in warm blankets:

Most of my dreams last night were about poetry: I am sitting in a public place, an educational park, filled with various activities, when a tall handsome man wearing a business suit (in my dream it is actor Tony Todd) comes in and wants to know about poetry; eventually, I come down off my perch and tell him I can teach him, after most everyone else there sort of stumbles or says nothing; most of what I do is correcting his cerebral ideas, when he thinks he’s understood what poetry is; at one point there’s a poster on the wall of three haiku, which he takes down to look at, copy into his notebook, and analyze, and I go over and say, No, that isn’t poetry: poetry is when something you read recreates a poetic experience inside you; you’re still thinking that poetry is all of the mind; you haven’t been moved yet, you haven’t been possessed or captured by a poem. He looks at me, sincerely wanting to learn, but going about it the wrong way; this pattern repeats several times, until sometime later, he finally stumbles across a poem that gets to him, and his stands there silent, unable to speak.

The dreamscape moves on, as dreams do, but all my dreams over the night are still all about poetry, in one way or another. In the dream, there were several poems, some of mine, some others just there, including those haiku on that poster; I can’t remember any of the poems upon waking, sorry; most were nothing special. In later sequences, there are poetry readings in front of an audience; memorized poems performed; there are discussions around poetry, between poets. My mind churns this morning with lots of poetry, little fragments given in dreams, none of them adding up to a genuine poem. What have I memorized, that I would be able to recite? A few of my own shorter poems; a few other poems; a few classics. In the dream, I do recite, stumbling a little, my poem after elegies.

Maybe I'm an exception, but I get creative inspiration from dreams on a regular basis. Lucid dreams are normal for me. So are dreams in which I can jump into the sky, as though able to control gravity's effects on me. So are flying dreams. So are visionary dreams that are like direct communications from the unconscious; in the Jungian sense, archetypal and numinous. I mine my dreams, as my subconscious talks to me using them as a conduit: hailing frequencies open, captain.

People tell me they never remember their dreams. I find that amazing; I can't imagine living like that. Sleep research has proved, over the years, that everybody dreams, even if not everyone remembers them upon waking. You can learn to improve your memories of your dreams: you have to fix them in your mind, immediately upon waking, and transfer them from short-term memory to durable memory.

There's a very simple way to remember dreams: keep a dream journal right by the bed, to immediately write down upon awaking whatever you had in the dream. Anyone can do this, with practice. I've been writing down my dreams for over 25 years, and gotten a lot of poems out of them, as well as other things. The trick is to do it before you do anything else to start your day, before you settle into your waking-up routine; else the full cognitive me-ego-forebrain-usual-monkey-mind kicks in for the day, and the dreams evaporate. With regular practice, anyone can develop the ability to retain more from your dreams than the "experts" say you should be able to. In fact, one can retain whole segments and materials of things that arise in dreams: whole stories, whole poems, pieces of music, visual dreamscapes.

Here's an image I captured from a dream some time ago, after having an intense dream of traveling along a country highway, a long road journey under a blue evening sky, with several moons in the sky, in different phases. In the dream, the sky opened like a ragged window onto different times and places, many views of the same moon at different times, or perhaps different moons from different worlds. Immediately upon waking, I booted up Photoshop and assembled this:

In my dreams, at various times, I've been given: full solo cello sonatas; full poem texts; haiku; visions; prescient dreams (never anything unmundane, just little moments); piano pieces; ideas for artworks; the complete outline of an SF novel that I still hope to actually write someday (it's been sketched and sections written); about once or twice a year, I wake out of vivid dreams with a fully-formed essay in my head, and I quickly must write it down (some of these are the Spiral Dance essays). The hardest dreams to get down have been the musical compositions, although my ear and memory for music are otherwise excellent.

I can hear someone protesting now: Surely you don't think all things in dreams are valuable, since it's just the nightly clearing of the mental junkbox!

Well, now. While it's certainly true that some dreams are recycling the day's events, to clear out the psychological clutter, to dismiss all dreams as such is the height of the intellect's arrogance.

I think everything in a dream is as valuable as everything in so-called waking life. I dismiss none of it. It's all valuable, and it's all useless. It depends on what you do with it, doesn't it?

The theory that dreams are the nightly clearing of the junkbox is only partly true; it's a convenient excuse for the rational, waking mind to maintain its belief that it's all there is to the mind, that everything is just in the mind, while the truth is that we are all much bigger and wilder than we know, or in some cases desire to know. Dreams are a whole lot more than the nightly recycling of the day's inputs. They're also the unconscious talking to us. There are many things that arise in dreams that have no apparent connection to daily events, waking events, and so forth. When those dreams arise, they can be liminal and numinous; I think these occasional dreams are even more valuable (or valueless) than the ordinary, trash dream. They're also the shadow (in the Jungian sense) rising to speak. They're also the archetypes, the gods, the powers that be—pick a label—talking to us directly. They're also ourselves conversing with ourselves, higher self with lower self, subpersonality with subpersonality. Anyone who thinks that dreams are only clearing the junkbox is missing a whole world of experience and self-revelation.

Clutter and trash? Surely. Beauty and revelation? Absolutely. Terror and horror and lust? Definitely?

There is a rich shamanic literature about dreaming. In many ways it's much wiser on the topic than the rational-scientific literature, which seems to want to kill all mystery, everywhere, whenever encountered. Not always the best approach. (Jung noted that experimental psychology per se will never tell us anything meaningful about the psyche.)

I recall the many dream poems in poet/editor Jerome Rothenberg's big anthologies of aboriginal literatures, Shaking the Pumpkin and Technicians of the Sacred. There's a lot of good inspiration in these seminal anthologies, which I first read while i was in music school; what I was reading in those days was also influencing the music I was writing then.

I've been re-reading Robert Bly's long essay-with-poems, Leaping Poetry, in which Bly describes his idea of leaping poetry a few different ways. One of these is leaps of association. Another is when a poem leaps from the conscious mind, into the unconscious mind, then leaps back. This is one useful way to think about some of the dream-poems, or dreaming about poems: as leaps between the dreaming self and the waking self.

In this context I think also of Ron Silliman's delineation of most modern and postmodern poetry falling into two camps, which he labels "School of Quietude" and "post-avant." SoQ is basically, as near as I can tell, the post-Wordsworthian stream of the personal lyric poem: never too overwrought, "emotion recollected in tranquility" and all that, always a little bit formal. "Post-avant" is the post-avant-garde, into which Silliman groups most post-Modern experimental poetry, including his own primary camp of Language Poetry. I think he's correct about the SoQ tending to be more conservative, and the post-avant tending to be more wild and experimental. I disagree however that the post-avant is inherently more progressive, and I find much post-avant poetry to be very shallow: playful, even interesting, but doesn't stick to the ribs.

Bly's category of leaping poetry is a third stream, and needs to be acknowledged as such: the tradition(s) of dream-poetry, shaman-poetry, dream-psyche-anima-symbolic poetry, as presented in Bly's anthology News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness, as well as the two Rothenberg anthologies previously mentioned. Bly's leaping poetry, and the other poets who practice this sort of thing, are a third stream in contemporary poetry, and an often overlooked and ignored stream. I feel that many of the South American poets, notably Neruda and Paz, fall into this camp, as do the Spanish Surrealists, and Machado, Lorca, et al.

This is the stream of the dreaming poets, of the poets whose poems come from dreams, or deal with dreams, or who use dreams as spiritual technology, as have shamans and visionaries throughout the ages.

I place my own poetry in this stream, if it is necessary to categorize my poetry. I do not feel at home in either Silliman's School of Quietude or his post-avant categories, both of which I feel are over-inhabited with overly-rational poets whose discourse ignores vast realms of psyche and symbol. I feel much more akin to the shamanic poets I read in Rothenberg's anthologies, and Bly's Leaping Poetry, in the creative writings of analytical psychology, and in the Buddhist, Taoist, and animist poets of East and Southeast Asia.

The final word belongs to a poet pondering about dreams: Maybe poetry isn't an attempt to make sense of our dreams. Maybe it's an attempt to make dreams of our senses.

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Blogger Ron said...

Yes, Bly, Merwin, Wright & others were clearly rebels in the 1950s against the Boston Brahmin aesthetics with which they were brought up (see Bly's work in Poetry magazine in the 1950s, for example, totally unlike his later work). But they're a revolt within the SOQ, and no more outside it than Phil Levine and the "plan verse" types around American Poetry Review.

It would be just as foolish to say that langpo was a revolt out of the larger Pound-Williams/New American Poetry tradition, when it's clearly a part of that tradition. If you overstate the event -- which there is always a tendency to do -- it actually casts everything out of balance.

12:12 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for the historical clarification, and the delineation of lineage. I'm still wrapping my head around some of your ideas on SoQ and post-avant, as you probably surmise; I haven't decided yet if I accept or reject your overall paradigm, but it's an interesting structure to contemplate, and see where it works for me, and where it doesn't.

I still feel like there is that third stream of poetry, though, because it doesn't really feel like it fits into SoQ to me: probably that's in part due to subject matter. Rothenberg's own poetry, as Richard Kostelanetz points out, is avant-garde but simultaneous rooted in archaic, archetypal topics. The same can be said for Rilke, Lorca, Villaruttia, some of Paz' best work such as that anthologized in A tale of Two Gardens, a lot of Elytis, some of Seferis, a lot of Sikelianos, and so forth. Maybe it's a matter of content (topics being addressed) rather than style (means of expression) that I'm zeroing in on. Obviously, as I've stated before on this blog, visionary poetry to me is far more interesting than rather more purely-intellectual poetry.

I do see langpo as the continuation of a tradition, rather than a revolt against one: in some ways, I think it;'s the ultimate culmination of that tendency towards word-play and exploration for its own sake, taken to an extreme. Even some of Dickinson falls into this, as she seems to sometimes be playing with words more than with sense; Hayden Carruth's essay on her is revelatory along these lines.

What I do find interesting is that some langpo does work for me, when it crosses over into these same topical areas of dream, myth, archetype, and so forth. It is always intriguing to find a new language with which to represent consciousness, stream of consciousness, and so forth. So, again, what interests me is the topic, not necessarily independent of means, but to see various ways the topic can be supported via different means.

I wouldn't deny, if pressed, that content is paramount for me most of the time: that style and form are, in my view, the tools by which to best present the topic at hand. Style and form and shape and meter, etc., work best when they organically support the poem, not when they are the foreground concerns, or ends in themselves. Thus, matching the style to the material, to make a good fit, that synergizes and enhances, rather than dectracts from, seems to me to be the essence of good poetic technique: form follows function.

12:31 PM  

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