Fitful dreams for me are rare. Most assume a kind of simple wish-fulfillment that might make Freud wonder if I had a superego at all — I’m either playing baseball or getting laid. No analysis necessary. So when a dream comes that has some kind of negative emotion attached to it, I pay attention.
Occasionally, dreams will be built from a certain kind of obsession. The earliest example I can think of was when I was about 12 years old. I’d rented The Secret of Mana from the our local supermarket — the first time they’d started renting out video games along with the VHS tapes; how exciting! It was the weekend, a three day rental, and I played non-stop, except for bathroom breaks. I ate Tyson Chicken Patties while I played. Sunday night I was up until 2am and fell asleep with the controller in my hand. (This was also the year I basically had no parents.) The fever dream that ensued put me inside the game itself, my hands turning into blocky 16-bit graphics in front of my face. It lasted eons; I couldn’t find a way out. It also made me sick enough to stay home from school the next day and keep playing, chilled and fevered, the tips of my little thumbs rubbed raw.
The other night I had a dream that felt similar, but about poetry. I has giving a reading at a cafe that was also, somehow, a school classroom. Burnt espresso and fluorescent lights. In reading a specific poem, “Cutlery,” I struggled through an array of interruptions — fire drills, a fight outside, dinner being served. Each time the audience encouraged me to start over from the beginning, which I did, growing increasingly frustrated.
The whole time, at a small metal desk at the back of the room, Woody Allen was hitting on my girlfriend. Squinting through the lights I could see that self-effacing humor was his shtick. He’d say something and adjust his glasses, she’d touch his arm and say, Oh no, Woody… He’d spill coffee on himself, then slip in it. In his pocket a pen exploded.
Like the video dream, I couldn’t leave. I had to finish my poem, but the dream wouldn’t let me, the poem ultimately turning into a Mobius strip with the penultimate line reading into the first.
Finally I woke up cold and sweaty and confused. Why Woody Allen? I haven’t really liked any of his movies since Annie Hall, but I haven’t disliked any either. I don’t follow celebrity gossip and only know about that adoption/affair “scandal” in passing, and don’t really care.
And then I realized — Woody Allen was standing in for Noam Chomsky. Before going to bed I mentioned to Megan that Chomsky is starting to get on my nerves, and she couldn’t believe it. “How can you not like Noam Chomsky?” (If anyone cares to know, ask and maybe I’ll explain in the comments.)
What interests me here are two things. First, this relationship between Allen and Chomsky is one I’d never thought of directly, but obviously my subconscious has, and the similarities are likewise obvious — old Jewish intellectuals, and they even look a bit alike. I think this is maybe a poor example, but still a useful example, of how poetry operates. A poem, like a dream, highlights certain relationships that have been lurking beneath the surface of consciousness. Those relationships have always been there, but it’s that process of pulling it up from the muck that elicits the “Aha!” experience of a good poem. Perhaps it’s even the physicality of those neurons linking — “fire together, wire together” — that we enjoy. “Aha, that wasn’t Woody, it was Noam!”
But of course a good poem isn’t that easy. I might find this Woody/Noam relationship surprising, and it might be imbued with emotion within the context of myself and my dream — but none of you reading this care. If a poem wants an audience, if it wants to be read again and again and still be enjoyed, it needs to have a universal Aha. A fresh, insightful relationship pulled up not from the individual muck of the subconscious, but the inexhaustible detritus of the collective unconscious. The two figures in question must be universally disparate before they click perfectly together. That’s what makes good poems so hard to find, but that’s also what makes them so worth seeking.
At least that’s what I’m thinking about as I type this.
The other thing that interests me is the appearance of poetry itself. It occurs to me now how rarely that happens. Why is that? I spend more time around poetry than around anything else. If I love it so much, why does poetry only appear as an anxious fever-dream? Why not wish-fulfillment? I should be dreaming flying strips of magnetic poetry once a week, a cascade of words like water, like baseballs into a well-oiled mitt. What gives?
Does anyone out there dream poetry? Are you at a reading, all the lines whitewashed from your book, and you can’t remember what word comes next? Have you ever written a great poem in a dream, and tried frantically to remember it after you woke? Did you? Was it any good? I’m curious.