The Poetry in Dreams (Part 2)

In my last post, “The Poetry in Dreams,” I promised to talk next time about how one “gets” a poem. Here is my attempt to deal with that topic.

To understand either a dream or a poem, we need to develop a new faculty, a “third eye.” William Stafford has another way of saying this:

“Poetry is the kind of thing you have to see from the corner of your eye…. It’s like a very faint star. If you look straight at it you can’t see it, but if you look a little to one side it is there…. If you analyze it away, it’s gone. It would be like boiling a watch to find out what makes it tick. If you let your thought play, turn things this way and that, be ready for liveliness, alternatives, new views, the possibility of another world—you are in the area of poetry.” (William Stafford. Writing the Australian Crawl. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1978, p. 3)  large (1)

Teaching poetry reminds me that while we dream and write poetry in solitude, to fully engage a poem is a communal activity. (Similarly, to apprehend a dream, it helps to discuss it with someone—a friend, a therapist.) While I might sit down alone with a poem and enter into the poet’s world, with a group something magical happens. Connections I hadn’t thought of spring to life; observations that hadn’t occurred to me add a whole new dimension to the poem. (I’m reminded that something similar happens at a good poetry reading: Perhaps hearing the poem with other interested individuals triggers neurons in our brains that otherwise might not have been touched, not unlike what can happen in certain houses of worship.)

This occurred when I looked at one of Canadian poet Alden Nowlan’s poems with my class—”The Bull Moose.” In it he describes a moose that wanders out of a forest and ends up in a cow pasture. The moose’s presence attracts the farmer’s neighbors who treat it like a carnival attraction, something domesticated, though the cows that share the pasture have more sense: they back away and huddle at another end of the enclosure. In response, the game wardens have come with their rifles, and the

bull moose gathered his strength

like a scaffolded king, straightened and lifted his horns

so that even the wardens backed away as they raised

their rifles.

When he roared, people ran to their cars. All the young men leaned on their automobile horns as he toppled

(Jack David and Robert Lecker, eds. Canadian Poetry, Volume Two. Toronto: General Publishing Co. Limited, 1982. p. 129.)

My students and I talked about more obvious ways of understanding this poem, the bull moose representing wild, instinctual life that becomes trapped in civilization and patronized: We think we can control and tame it. But the moment the animal shows its true nature and majesty, we react with fear and kill it.

I then suggested that we could also view the moose as symbolizing what we do to ourselves, how we try to contain and control our own noblest aspects. However, when we begin to show how truly powerful we are, we kill those parts. The game warden/censor in our psyche rushes in and shoots this powerful potential before it gets out of control. The moose also can represent poems themselves that we don’t allow into our lives because they can be as splendid and wild as this bull moose, as tame and as mysterious, as difficult to control and as frightening. But why frightening? Why on earth might a poem be frightening?

One student observed, “They’re too deep.” This response captures, I think, much of what we fear in poetry: It carries us past safe waters; there’s no lifeguard on duty; we can get in over our heads quickly, taken out to sea. We can discover new territories in ourselves—uncharted, savage, uninhabitable.

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”!

Language’s Mystery And Its Relationship to Writers

5d9cf373-e31c-400e-9fe0-1655625ab9b2My husband and I got into a discussion of poetry and our different approaches to it. His training is in new criticism. Mine embraces more contemporary work, though I’m eclectic and like many different styles, including John Ashbery’s method of disjointed narrative. My husband recognizes I’m onto something that Melville was alluding to in Moby Dick—the gap between language and what it tries to depict…how language organizes and creates our way of seeing.

After this conversation, we looked at some poems I had written recently, and he was reading them differently than previously. This time he was able to grasp what I was doing. We talked of how our training can shut us down, put blinders on us. He said, “Joseph Brodsky believes language has a life outside of us and uses the writer.”

I agree. I think there’s truth to the statement “in the beginning was the word.” Language is absolutely mysterious in its relationship to humans and the things it touches.

I also see a relationship between impressionism, some kinds of abstract paintings, and the poetry I write. It tends to mainly suggest something. Give only enough information/detail to set the readers’ imaginations working. I don’t want everything spelled out. I want mystery in my poems (and my prose)—new worlds.

I’m reminded of this quote: “Mark Rothko, painting his stripes in Greece, was asked: ‘Why don’t you paint our temples.’ He replied: ‘Everything I paint is a temple.’” I’d like to think that everything I write is one.

There seems some evidence for the idea that we are changed by the things we create—actually shaped by them. Ralph Ellison shares it. He says the novels we write create us as much as we create them. How mysterious language is and its relationship to writers.

Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty: A Mixed Bag

I have mixed feelings after just completing Ann Patchett’s memoir about her friendship with Lucy Grealy, a poet/memoirist/essayist who died at 39 from what appeared to be a drug overdose: Truth and Beauty: A Friendship. Grealy was diagnosed at age nine with a rare form of cancer that is often fatal. It caused the doctors to remove her jawbone. During her remaining years, she went through 38 surgeries. Various doctors attempted to restore her jaw and implant lower teeth (which she didn’t have) so she could chew properly. As it was, she was limited to eating only very soft food.

On the one hand, Patchett does a great job of resurrecting Grealy in this book, an attempt, I’m sure, to keep her friend close by, even though she was dead. Patchett had saved most of Grealy’s letters over the years, and she intersperses them throughout the narrative, giving readers a flavor of Grealy’s thinking and writing. Patchett also captures the intensity of their friendship—they really seemed more like sisters than good friends—from the time they became roommates at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

In spite of being disfigured from her many surgeries, Grealy seems to have had considerable charisma and loved being among people and partying. She was a flamboyant social animal who lusted after men, sex, and life. Patchett appears to have been more subdued and grounded, offering stability to her friend that she didn’t have herself. It appears Patchett even was something of a mother figure, especially in the sections where she describes carrying the 100 lb Grealy from taxi to apartment after her various hospitalizations.

While I’m impressed with Grealy’s heroic response to her terrible fate and with Patchett’s apparent commitment to her friend, I also am interested in the writing life that’s captured here. Both had residencies at prestigious places, such as the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Yaddo, and Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. They shared their struggles for recognition and success, each achieving fame in her own way, and they were a central part of the NY literary scene. So it’s a book well suited to other writers.

However, Patchett’s memoir makes it sound as if Grealy’s friends were her only family, and we rarely hear any mention of her actual family’s response to her. As a result, Patchett comes across as equally heroic as Grealy in her devotion to her friend. But I wanted to know more about how Grealy’s situation impacted Pachett emotionally, but there’s very little self-reflection here. I also am puzzled by the title Truth and Beauty, both very abstract words that tend to idealize this relationship and seem far from the nitty gritty reality of it.

There seems something cancerous at the core of this friendship Patchett describes that hasn’t quite been diagnosed or resolved, neither by the book nor by Patchett herself.

 

 

 

 

 

The Mystery of Language

I see a relationship between impressionism, some kinds of abstract paintings, and the poetry I want to write—of just suggesting something. Giving only enough information/detail to set the readers’ imagination working. I don’t want everything spelled out. I want mystery in my poems (and my prose)—new worlds.

I love this Rothko quote: “Mark Rothko, painting his stripes in Greece, was asked: ‘Why don’t you paint our temples.’ He replied: ‘Everything I paint is a temple.’”

I’d like to think that everything I write is one. There seems some evidence for the idea that we are changed by the things we create—actually shaped by them. Ralph Ellison shares this idea. He says the novels we write create us as much as we create them.

My husband and I got into a discussion of poetry and our different approaches to it, his training being in new criticism, mine in more contemporary work. He recognizes that I’m onto something Melville was alluding to in Moby Dick—the gap between language and what it tries to depict…how language organizes and creates our way of seeing.

After this conversation, we looked at some poems I had written recently, and he was reading them differently. This time he was able to grasp what I was doing. We talked of how our training can shut us down, put blinders on us. He said, “Joseph Brodsky believes language has a life outside of us and uses the writer.

I agree. I think it’s true that in the beginning was the word. Language is absolutely mysterious in its relationship to humans and the things it touches.

 

 

A Message for All Writers!

I came across this Charles Simic poem and believe it’s speaking to us writers. Of course, I’m sure it has multiple meanings. What do you think?
 
The White Labyrinth
 
There is one waiting for you,
On every blank sheet of paper.
So, beware of the monster
Guarding it who’ll be invisible
As he comes charging at you,
Armed as you are only with a pen.
And watch out for that girl
Who’ll come to your aid
With her quick mind and a ball of head,
And lead you by the nose
Out of one maze into another.

Poetry and Perception

My poems reflect my continuing interest in perception and how we try to capture fleeting moments with language. I think the art that comes closest to what I’m trying to do in poetry is photography—the exploration of things in the world (and in ourselves) from various angles. The attempt to penetrate surfaces by using the very surfaces themselves.

James Hillman, in Revisioning Psychology, has helped me to understand my process. He says, “By soul I mean, first of all a perspective rather than a substance, a viewpoint toward things rather than a thing in itself. This perspective is reflective; it mediates events and makes differences between ourselves and everything that happens. Between us and events, between the doer and the deed, there is a reflective moment—and soul-making means differentiating this middle ground”

The middle ground is what intrigues me when I’m writing poetry. I’m trying to get into my poems the way we actually perceive the world, inner and outer, from the soul’s perspective, how the two collide and collude in the brain, the poem a reflection of that activity. Charles Olson and Denise Levertov were after the shape of the inner voice—they tried to capture how that sounded on the page. Others try to recreate the external world in traditional lyrics, or narratives, or some combination of the two.

I want the dimension in-between, where both come together; it’s a more accurate rendering of how we perceive. It seems only art and dreams can begin to duplicate that world for us.