Dreaming and poetry

After starting as a Yeats ephebe, John Berryman  (1914–1972) became a wild man in his own voice in his Dream Songs.

Following another prompt in Matthew Zapruder’s book Why Poetry, I’d like to explore a bit the connection between dream and poetry, as it applies to a couple of modern poets and myself, to the practice of conjuring it up from the depths.

I have a poet friend who calls me a mole poet. He sees me making subterranean tunnels with my words, evidently. And in truth I like the idea of a mole, a metaphorical mole at any rate, with its star-shaped snout in the loam. (What poem am I forgetting to remember that has that image of the  mole’s star-shaped nose? Now my neighbors, some of my neighbors, in the excellent exurban development where I live, have moles if not poetry, which is to say they have literal and problematic moles in their yards that plow up their lawns from below, but what I’m talking about here is real moles in imaginary gardens, the way Marianne Moore in her much revised and many-versioned poem  “Poetry” talks about toads, positing in an early version that real poets create “for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”)

And now, thanks in good measure to Zapruder’s prompt, I see what my poet-friend might be getting at. There is something in my lines that comes up from below, some subterranean or chthonic thing, some leak between down there and up here where we are said to be pleased to live. (Even Arkansas, where I have been pleased to live, in retirement, the last ten years or so, though it proclaims itself “the natural state,” is not necessarily the leaky state or known for the vatic fumes coming up from below. I have hiked all around this beautiful natural state and not seen yet one sybil squatting on her tripod amidst the fumes from the underworld and foretelling one damned thing, even something as natural as watch it, buddy, or you’ll break your leg on that rock!). 

But hold on a minute, please. I’d like to quote Zapruder here, at least the first time he brings up (as from below) this idea of poetry as dream. He is talking here about how he came up with the idea of the book and how he meant to explain poetry to a reluctant and busy up-in-the-head audience:

… I knew the main idea would be that poetry does something different than all other forms of writing and speech, something essential, something we need.

I would demonstrate this by writing about old poems, and also contemporary ones. I would discuss the mechanisms of poems: form, and rhyme, and metaphor, and symbols. I would reveal that what is strange about poetry—its dream logic, its interest in the slipperiness and material qualities of language, its associative daydreaming movement—is not some deliberate obfuscation, or an obstacle to communication, but essential to the very way poetry makes meaning.

Excellent and exciting prompts, no? Poetry “does something different than all other forms of writing and speech”! And if it’s so different, how can we expect to read it, or “appreciate” it, without knowing what that “something different” is and how it achieves poetry’s essential qualities that are essential to living in this upper world?

Hart Crane, some time in the 1920s.

Poetry’s strange “dream logic,” which Zapruder does not define here, brings up for me a couple of immediate associations, perhaps daydreamy associations, from my study of poetry, the cases of two poets I have read and written about and enjoyed, Hart Crane (1899–1932) and John Berryman (1914–1972), both of them visionaries, you might say, and stylists, and both of them alcoholics and suicides. (Crane wrote the long poem The Bridge and jumped from the bridge of a ship sailing back from Mexico where he had been living to the United States. Berryman wrote The Dream Songs and jumped from a bridge over the Mississippi River connecting the east and west banks of the University of Minnesota, which I attended as an undergraduate.)

How about these dream-logic lines from Crane’s “Voyages, II”:

—And yet this great wink of eternity,
Of rimless floods, unfettered leewardings,
Samite sheeted and processioned where
Her undinal vast belly moonward bends,
Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love …

In part I of Voyages (1924), he cites kids frolicking on the beach, but in II his vision moves outward, beyond the safety of the land, beyond the conventionally knowable. These are wonderful lines about the sea, how it winks, teasing  and beckoning us toward eternity where, willy-nilly, we will go some day. It goes beyond all bounds we know (“rimless”), whether logical or perceptual, and catches up the mystical musings of Melville and Moby-Dick (the lovely image of “unfettered leewardings”). No, the sea is a queen, covered with precious cloth (samite = “a heavy silk fabric, sometimes interwoven with gold, worn in the Middle Ages,” dictionary.com) and pregnant with mysterious meaning (“undinal,” from undine, a female water spirit). She laughs, or laps, “the wrapt inflections of our love” (Crane was in love with a sailor and dedicated Voyages to him).

Crane called his dream logic “the logic of metaphor” (about which I wrote a Ph.D. dissertation how many eons ago), which he defended to dubious editors like Harriet Monroe when he submitted to Poetry magazine his lyric “At Melville’s Tomb.”

But enough for now. You see how wholly unlike Crane’s language is from everyday language. It’s precious, it’s dreamy, it’s as unlikely to occur in business speech as cocktail chitchat. (Well, more unlikely in business!) It’s love-poem language, and so much beyond the roses-are-red bromides of greeting cards and everyday consciousness that it’s not funny. Not funny, no, but could be stunning. Give in, it whispers. Go with the dream flow. Let yourself be swept away, fall in love, fall out of the world of conventional logical meaning and thought.

John Berryman, my 2nd exhibit of dream language here, began his poetic career as a conventional imitator of the Big Poets of his time, namely, W. B. Yeats and W. H. Auden, two Brits then at the apex of the mid-20th century poetry game. But he figured, all by his lonely, as all good poets eventually do, that his own voice was something else. He wrote a longish tribute poem called Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956) and then, starting in 1964 the Dream Songs, 18 line poems in 3 stanzas. Here’s the beginning of No. 8:

The weather was fine. They took away his teeth,
white & helpful; bothered his backhand;
halved his green hair.
They blew out his loves, his interests. ‘Underneath’
(they called in iron voices), ‘understand,
is nothing. So there.’

Such quick colloquial phrases! Such ironic juxtapositions! Is what’s happening here something that happens in the real world? Fine weather and then the teeth removed? Backhand? Is this tennis, or the back of a hand used to strike? Green hair of a young man? Surely, JB was no punk before his time! Like birthday candles, “loves” and “interests” are blown out at death, and death is “‘Underneath,'” as this poem too, in its insistent dreamy logic, takes us underneath the obvious, the everyday. We seem to sway, reluctantly, could be, in a mortuary environment. We’re made to look, however horrible or horribly funny, at the corpse. (More than Crane, Berryman was haunted by the idea of suicide from a young age; when JB was just 12, his father, like Hemingway’s father, shot himself, and hung like an albatross around the son’s neck —sorry about the mixed metaphor! — until the son too pulled the trigger or jumped.)

Finally, let me offer, immodestly and logically enough, my own example. From my second book of poetry, released October 2021, consider this poem:

Hot Thai Dinner chez Zeck

Kelly comes over and chews some shrooms,
holding them in his mouth as long as possible,
like a lover the first time he kisses a woman
he’s been wanting forever or a smack of caviar.
Holly eats the hot Thai take-out and fire pours
from her head, a petite bronze bodhisattva
exhaling Thai food who wants nothing to do
with Thai food. Kelly and I are laughing like
two baboons chewing the shrooms, what do
we want with food at a time like this? Jen’s
dish is way hot too, the way she was when
we just met, I could hardly get in the door
without whipping it out and we fell moaning
to the floor while upstairs her parents sat
grazing on Bonanza.

I make no particular claim for the worth of this poem or its value vis-à-vis others being written today. But the logic of the progression of lines and images suggests dream or associative logic more than everyday, conventional logic. Now, it may be true that shroom lovers or potheads  or alcoholics, for that matter, associate like this more easily than most people most of the time. Most people most of the time don’t jump like this from one image or idea to the next.

There’s the simile in line 3, comparing the chewing of magic mushrooms to the kissing of a long-desired woman. (Oral pleasures, baby!) There’s the comparison in line 6 of the petite Holly to a bodhisattva, a figure of enlightenment or exception (she’s not chewing shrooms, apparently, but hot Thai food). There are the two baboons that Kelly and the poet become when chewing shrooms. And, finally, there’s the hot dish Jen eats, and the poet remembers how, way back when, when he and Jen were newly met and not yet wed, they fell at each other hungrily while the parents, upstairs in the logic room, are grazing on the convention moral logic of Bonanza on TV.

Well, I tend to free-associate like this every day, in speech as well as poetry; it’s my everyday logic, if not others’.  A habit of mind that stands me apart at times, where well I should be, as the habit makes some people uncomfortable. It also makes for a lot of free-association joking, and I’m able to entertain people this way and coax them out of the stuffy environment of work and duty.

Logic and duty, then, on one hand. Poetry and jokes and dreams, on the other. Zivili! as we used to toast each other in Serbia, where I taught one year way back when. Long and happy life!