The Poetry of Dreams

Solveig Kjellberg-Motton

Once I walked through the halls of a station

Someone called your name

In the streets, I heard children laughing

They all sound the same

‘In a Station’ by Richard Manuel (The Band)

Rhyme is a mystery – on the one hand it makes us feel that there is some inevitability (and therefore wisdom?) to the words we are reading, the fact that they rhyme seems to reinforce the truth of what they communicate. But then on the other hand we might be suspicious of rhyme – if the poet had thought of a different rhyme might the meaning of the poem or song have been completely different? The reader is left in an uncomfortable balance between random chance and inevitable truth. Now lets turn to dreams – I might dream that I’m in a cathedral and I eat an apple and the ceiling comes crashing down. This might allude to the fall of man – it’s an imposing and weighty dream – might make me think that unconsciously I believe I am doing something wrong. Does it make this dream any less true, then, if I remember that I ate an apple yesterday just before a shelf fell down on top of me? There are two layers of association here, just as with rhyme in a poem: one which is superficial, or circumstantial – the fact that ‘name’ rhymes with ‘same’, and that I now associate apples with things falling on me. But in a dream, and (hopefully) in any good poem, there is another layer: that hearing ‘your’ name called in a station is perhaps the antidote to the ‘sameness’ of the laughter in the street: that between ‘name’ and ‘same’ lies a universe of alienation and familiarity.

Anyway, the significance of all this may be slight, but it might tell us something about what poetry is, or why humans are driven to compose it. Maybe the reason we set these limits on our expression (in the shape of rhyme, or meter, etc) is to try to give an outsider voice to our most private sentiments – to be able to convey what is most personal, most subjective, but with an impression of the other left on this expression. To feel less lonely, we impose rules on our means of self expression, which (not coincidentally) perhaps mirror the rules, or the structure, that dreams follow. Perhaps the rules of poetry take us just a step further into sharing the unsharable than any rules of language. Grammar imposes rules and limitations on language which allow us to communicate more accurately, and with more variety, than we can without it, and perhaps poetic conventions such as rhyme are a grammar which takes us into the language of the unconscious.

Isn’t everybody dreaming

Then the voice I hear is real

Out of all the idle scheming

Can’t we have something to feel

Richard Manuel hopes and begs for something to be real. What is real? Is he saying ‘everybody is dreaming aren’t they – then the voice I hear is real’ or is he saying ‘not everybody is dreaming – then the voice I hear is real’? The difference is terrible – but is made somewhat futile by the last line ‘Can’t we have something to feel’, rhyming ‘real’ with ‘feel’: maybe rather than ask permission for ‘something to feel’ in this dream world, it is the feeling itself that makes it real. Perhaps the ‘idle scheming’ of the conscious mind, and the conscious world, is the unreality, and dreaming, the engagement of the unconscious, is what makes it all real. Nearly four hundred years earlier, Edmund Spenser wrote

When I awoke, and found her place devoyd,

And nought but pressed gras, where she had lyen,

I sorrowed all so much, as earst I joyd,

And washed all her place with watry eyen.

In these lines, Arthur has just woken from his dream of the Faerie Queene, which comes near the start of the poem and starts the quest: importantly it is the first and only time we meet the Faerie Queene, and it is (only?) in a dream. Spenser certainly doesn’t equivocate – ‘the voice I hear is real’ and the meaningfulness of the next 1000 pages of poetry depends to some degree on the truth of this encounter, and what ‘truth’ in this situation means. It is certainly not a comfortable foundation for the quest, the ‘painefull pilgrimage’ to be built upon.

Is the spot of ‘pressed gras’ that Arthur wakes up promise the same thing that Richard Manuel is searching for when he says ‘Can’t we have something to feel?’. That whether we are dreaming or not, and to whatever extent we are seeing a ‘real’ world, it is feeling and the impressions experience makes on us, that assures us that something is real. In other words, both Spenser and Manuel assert subjectivity, the very thing that makes us so uncertain of ‘realness’, as the one piece of evidence we have that life is real.

But what does all this have to do with the structural, compositional similarity of poetry and dreams? All I have shown is two instances, centuries apart, of poetry speaking about dreams, and the proof we have when we wake up from them, that they are still relevant. But this isn’t unrelated to the subject of this article. Poetry (more than prose narrative, I would argue) resembles dreams in that the extent to which it is literal, offering a narrative, it is fictional. But the fibres of its composition, even in such a narrative poem as ‘The Faerie Queene’, are not made out of narrative, and are not confined to the fictional world. When Spenser writes

From that day forth I lov’d that face divine;

From that day forth I cast in carefull mind

To seeke her out with labour, and long tyne,

And never vow to rest, till her I find,

Nine monthes I seeke in vaine yet ni’ll that vowe unbind.

he has created a relationship between the woman in the dream and the love for that ‘face divine’ which goes beyond the individual, literal experience. The narrative continuity has been broken by Arthur waking from the dream, and the significance of the line ‘From that day forth I lov’d that face divine’ doesn’t lie in the face but in the dreamer, and by extension the reader, because we are put into a kind of dream when we read the poem, being led by the rhyme and the meter from thought to thought, without the grammatical discipline that prose, and consciousness, imposes.

Illustration by Florence Stirrup. Quotation from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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