Poetry from a Dream: Making Sense Through Art and Creative Analysis

It is a subject which has, by all reckoning, gone largely unexamined: our nightly dreams and how their analysis or recognition may go into making poetry and other art, as well as give us a better picture of ourselves. But, while many have expostulated upon “dreams,” a la ambitions or aspirations, very few have really made a definitive, authoritative study on this subject. It is the express purpose of this study to remedy that in as substantial a manner as possible.

Any “definitive” study notwithstanding, the long human record of the connection between the dreaming mind and art speaks for itself. The Aboriginal people of Australia made petroglyphs of dream-like, otherworldly figures thousands of years ago – a time they call “Dreamtime”. Indigenous peoples around the globe during this same timeframe have made dream-like art, and have inscribed hieroglyphics and other writings that seem to suggest some kind of “digesting” of dreamed visions. But this is yet another broken bridge between the man of eons past and today’s modern human, who generally hasn’t the time for such whimsicalities as dream interpretation – let alone putting their dreams into verse form. This is a true shame. Because, if ever a species needed intensive (and creative) dream analysis – we are it. But the very push and aims of modern life obviate such empowering things as self-knowledge – otherwise its paradigm of complete exploitation of humanity, the earth, and our natural resources wouldn’t be able to rage on unchecked, unquestioned, unabated. But, I digress.

Poets and artists have a special channel we’re tuned into; we get to drink from the fount of self-knowledge already by being able to create art from the relatively mundane (and less so) aspects of our lives. It seems a most obvious, natural (and preternatural) link – dreams and poetry – though there exists in the artistic record many more visual representations than written ones, of the dreaming brain and its art-making capacity. So, the question then becomes – Why isn’t there more poetry directly hewn from the dreaming mind?

Poe, Coleridge, and Baudelaire proffered their fantastical and phantasmagoric dream imagery. John Berryman compiled his magnum opus The Dream Songs over a decade-long period (perhaps the best representative collection of quotidian, journal-like verse taken from dreams). Jack Kerouac wrote the passages in his Book of Dreams upon immediately awakening, and sometimes in a not-fully-awake state with his dreams still fresh in his head, as he says in the Preface to the Book, “When I woke up from my sleep I just lay there looking at the pictures that were fading slowly like in a movie fadeout into the recesses of my subconscious mind”. The metaphysical and Romantic poets wrote from or about dreams (though with Epic themes dressing them up with high drama, thus losing the more personal aspect). Langston Hughes’ two poems, “Dreams,” and “A Dream Deferred” come up repeatedly when searching for “dream-themed” poems, yet these deal more, again, with “keeping the dream alive,” meaning aspirations, not about our physical, REM-dreaming mind.

So, let us ask, then: What does creating poetry from our dreams do for us – both writer and reader alike? The answer can only be therapy for the writer, and a fuller, more intriguingly personalized picture painted for the reader. Perhaps there will be an element of therapy for the reader, too, if they are receptive and tuned-in enough. Creating poetry from one’s dreams must, then, be seen as the ultimate form of therapeutic analysis of one’s inner, higher, and symbolic self.

Lynn Emanuel writes in this vein directly from a dream in “Dream in Which I Meet Myself”:

Even the butter’s a block of sleazy light. I see that first, as though I am a dreary guest come to a dreary supper. On her table, its scrubbed deal trim and lonely as a cot, is food for one, and everything we’ve ever hated: a plate of pallid grays and whites is succotash and chops are those dark shapes glaring up at us. Are you going to eat this? I want to ask; she’s at the stove dishing up, wearing that apron black and stiff as burned bacon, reserved for maids and waitresses. The dream tells us: She is still a servant. Even here. So she has to clean our plate. It’s horrible to watch. She pokes the bits of stuff into her mouth. The roll’s glued shut like a little box with all that sticky butter. Is this all living gets you? The room, a gun stuck in your back? Don’t move, It says. She’s at the bureau lining up bobby pins. Worried and fed up I wander to the window with its strict bang of blind. My eyes fidget and scratch. And then I see myself: I am this dream’s dog. I want out.

There is a potent ambiguity here: is the author meeting a future self, modeled on a mother-figure? Who is the “her” in “her table”? Is the author seeing a detached, dissociated self – an ”other” she cannot relate to, which in the end she understands must be either herself or a reflection thereof? This is a poignant example of approaching one’s self in dream versification and scrying by syntactical crystal ball just who and what we may be – and why.

Here is another example of dream-based poetry, utilizing specific imagery from my own REM sleep, over two nights in July of this year:

Through the Chaopticon


The chaos of my brain dreams the wildest things;

It is rare if I can make hide or hair

Of the Vaudevillian panoply in my brain stirring:

The recurring mega-malls and false hometown lairs;

And last night – scavenger-hunt golfing

On an indoor course in hospital-complex,

A struggle with younger brother to share

Time, meaning, life, but thrown from leisurely

Care, to run through future antiseptic corridors

Split apart in some Logan’s Run-Brave New World

Casual nightmare, errand-running fugue,

Logic-bare. “We left our clubs against the wall

On the course…we must get back at once lest

Thieves get there” was my cry, but material

Things fell away, and the “course” became

A far greater game than waking life could say.


Dream of green eyes changing to blue

The more as thoughts of love would rule;

Then a flash, and up beyond they flew

To put eyes in the sun for you.

Here, the first section, with its filial and situational specificity contrasts greatly with part two and its more symbolic, compressed expression of dream imagery and pathos. The poem can be seen as a deliberate dichotomy in this vein, concerning the range of possibilities in poetic dream versifying.

And, there are a number of ways one can go about approaching “mining” one’s dreams for poetic and artistic material. There is, say, the purely rhetorical-analytical, utilizing no purely somnolently-inspired tropes for one’s poetic construct, and instead writing a la “What is real?” or “What is my dream saying, or presenting to me?”; there is the “direct image transfer” method, i.e. taking an Imagistic or aesthetic  approach, and describing only what was seen by the mind’s eye; there is the “visceral-effective” approach as well, which would consider only the feelings or emotions provoked by the dream. Leave it to the poet-dreamer to add whatever level of self-analysis s/he deems necessary for the poem in each of these approaches.

And, what do, say, Coleridge’s poems tell us about the dreams and visions he experienced – as well as about their habitually self-medicating author prone to soliciting Morpheus as an oracle (other than pointing out his addictive personality)? Let us take Kubla Khan as a seminal example of a poet writing from a dream or somnolent vision (however edulcorated by imbibing “anodyne” substance). The first several lines from his 1797 celebration of the Mongol ruler’s summer pleasure palace built in the 13th century are thusly rendered:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree :

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground

With walls and towers were girdled round:

And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,

Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;

And here were forests ancient as the hills,

Enfolding sunny spots of greenery

Here, Coleridge expounds on a halcyon desire to reach (or at least wonder at in versification of) a certain Valhalla, or Elysium Fields, though presumably without the inconvenience of crossing the Styx first. Mixing this desire for a Shangri-La while inscribing his own cave walls with the glyphs and tropes of earthly perfection, this is not so much self-analysis from the deep REM dreaming brain than opium visions moving the poet’s rapt, intoxicated head and hand. Nevertheless, there is a kernel of self-analysis contained within this (and many other of) Coleridge’s works. It’s not hard to imagine the poet imagining himself as the Khan, or even as his successor, roaming endless Xanadu-hewn landscapes as a welcome alternative to the growing ecological threat of an industrialized England.

An excerpt from a treatise called Tibetan Dream Yoga says, Dreams are a significant part of our life. They are as real and unreal as life itself. Dreams are extremely personal – and transpersonal, too. Our dreams are a reflection of ourselves: in dreams, no matter how many characters appear, we meet ourselves. Dreams are mirrors to our soul. They can help us to better understand ourselves, our world, and the nature of reality. Dreams introduce us to other dimensions of experience. Here, time and space are much more liquid and plastic; they can be shaped and reshaped almost at will. Dreams hint of other worlds, other lives. They are a glimpse of our afterlife. Everyone dreams, although not all dreams are remembered equally. Fifty-six percent of Americans have had a lucid dream – that is, a dream in which one is aware that one is dreaming. Twenty-one percent say they have a lucid dream once a month or more. Meditators report vividly clear, self-aware dreams weekly and even more often.

From another part of the same work: The Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu dreamed he was a butterfly. Upon awakening, he wondered whether he was a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man. Chuang Tzu’s musings highlight a fundamental truth: life is like a dream. But he was not the first, surely, to have philosophized upon the meaning of their dreams, though his dream of being a butterfly is an obvious symbol of transformation – something with which all poets and artists are intimately familiar when changing visions and symbols into palpable and accessible art forms, as they sense themselves profoundly transformed.

John Berryman, 1965 Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Dream Songs examined himself ruthlessly in verse, in the poetic character of one Henry, a beleaguered soul addled by too much drink and transgression who tries on many disguises both in dreams and waking life. Berryman “hides” in the character of Henry in order to reveal himself to the world, naked and in a drunken howl of protest, soothsaying and disgust, e.g. in Dream Song 132:

A Small Dream

It was only a small dream of the Golden World,
now you trot off to bed. I’ll turn the machine off,
you’ve danced & trickt us enough.
Unintelligible whines & imprecations, hurled
from the second floor, fail to impress your mother
and I am the only other

and I say go to bed! We’ll meet tomorrow,
acres of threats dissolve into a smile,
you’ll be the Little Baby
again, while I pursue my path of sorrow
& bodies, bodies, to be carried a mile
& dropt. Maybe

if frozen slush will represent the soul
which is to [be] represented in the hereafter
I ask for a decree
dooming my bitter enemies to laughter
advanced against them. If the dream was small
it was my dream also, Henry’s.

The answered riddle of the Sphinx, “Know Thyself” cannot be better enacted than by the recognition and analysis of the play-acting of our dreaming mind. Granted, dreams are nebulous and oft impenetrable territory, and, like meditation, require a dogged discipline in order to fully reap their rewards. It is my strong contention that dream analysis should be taught in schools early on, so that we may be more fully self-realized people, and at the very least encouraged to do so, to counteract environments that end up divorcing us from our highest selves. It almost seems a taboo idea (especially in the western world), this far-flung notion of deeply probing one’s self in order to understand our true essences. Or, perhaps the western world has, or institutions within said world, have been deliberately created (or, gradually devised) so as to have our true natures hidden from us. It certainly has seemed to allow the imperialistic powers that be to have much more power wielded over us. If knowledge is power, then ignorance of our core and true selves is a terrific amount of power transferred – to those who don’t share our best interests and exploit that unawareness at every turn.

But, once again, I digress.

Our dreams exist to make sure we know who we are by showing us our true selves. They are also here, by way of adjunct effect, to prompt our creative impulse in a kind of redirect loop. There is no intrinsic difference, then, between the nightly dreaming mind that is preternaturally expressive and our waking poetic (or painterly, sculpting, crafting, etc.) hand. It is simply that we are in a waking state as opposed to unguarded, nocturnal seeing through the mid-brain’s observatory lens into the higher realms.

And, how do we know we are reading the result of the author’s or painter’s dreams, directly? Does it matter that much? Are specifics on this point less important than the alchemy involved in creating a vision of self which others may wonder at and become provoked by, and know both the artist (and themselves) by? C.S. Lewis said that we can mistake dreams for visions, but never visions for dreams (or perhaps it was the other way around?). One is oracular – a visitation – and one stems from our drowsing mind playfully and gregariously seeking to make sense of the world – and our being in it.

Poetry and art exist, then, in part, as a creative-analytical vehicle by which to comprehend our higher selves’ purposes and revelatory expressions. This has been borne out throughout recorded history. Supernal examples can be found in religious and Renaissance art; Romantic and metaphysical poetry; the cave paintings of Lascaux and Alta Mira, as well as those of indigenous peoples around the world; perhaps even the monuments built by emperors and kings, a la the Great Pyramids. Kubla Khan himself doubtless acted upon his certainly magnanimous and motivating dreams, and so perhaps Xanadu was itself created as a work of art from a dream – thereby speaking across centuries to another ephemeral dreamer who re-inscribes the works of fellow enraptured souls caught on this airy canvas trying to figure out where we are and should be, but at the very least celebrating the beauty of the setting as we seek ultimate understanding of just who we are.