The Poetry in Dreams

I’ve been thinking a good deal about dreams and the role they play in our lives. I’ve also been thinking about how they relate to poetry. In a recent expository writing class I was teaching, many students admitted having trouble reading poetry. I discussed this difficulty with them. “Why,” I asked, “in a class of twenty literate, intelligent young men and women do only two or three read or write poetry—even occasionally?”

They thought about the question, and then a few raised their hands tentatively; they tried to articulate why poetry was hard for them: “It doesn’t have anything to do with my life,” said a female business major from Hong Kong. “I can’t get it,” said a male psychology major from Philadelphia. “I feel silly saying I read poetry—people think you’re weird if you do,” admitted another young woman from Los Angeles. “They’re too depressing—they always seem to be about sad things,” claimed someone else.

I urged them to give poetry a chance, reminding them that poems are compressed use of language, so they work like instant food: you need to add water before eating it. With poetry, instead of water, you need to bring your full attention, intellect, imagination, and heart. if you do, the poem will open and reveal itself to you.

largeI also made a parallel between poetry and dreams, since I believe that both arise from a similar place in the psyche, the more archaic part of ourselves that isn’t available to us except through images and symbols. The psyche seems to be preverbal, though this statement makes it sound as if it can’t make use of language; a better way of putting it may be that the psyche—what Carl Jung called the objective psyche—has existed since the beginning of time, and our individual psyches hook into it. Dreams, poetry, and other art forms communicate from this place, especially if they’re transformative, capable of lifting us out of our ordinary perceptions.

For people who have no relationship with their dreams, they often seem arcane, nonsensical, strange. But once you’ve become acquainted with how dreams work, you discover that they speak a special language, not unlike the language of poetry: You need to read between the lines, hear the “message” that the dream contains.

But message sounds too much as if both poems and dreams are didactic, intentional creations. A poet doesn’t start out with a message. Rather she has a feeling or image or idea she wants to explore, the poem being a place where she can make new connections between the world, memories, and language. Similarly, dreams take the flotsam of daily life, mix it with memory, desire, and potential new life, and create a coherent symbolic whole.

Yet to “get” a poem or dream, we need to enter it, walk around inside it, rather than examine it from the strong, sometimes harsh light of rational intellect. Of course we need to take our intellect with us, some aspect of it at least; but we descend into the dream or poem in order to “get it.”

In my next post, I’ll talk about the “getting part”!

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