Running Blind

I am a dreamer. I dream all the time (both while awake, so it seems, and asleep). My sleep dreams are vivid, in color, and I have observed a couple of things about dreaming that I haven’t scientifically proven but believe are true. The first is that the fewer creative outlets I have while awake the more I dream.  The second is I have more dreams when I sleep on the left side of my head as opposed to the right side.

Here is a dream-like photograph I took of a window in my house. I took it while I was supposed to be writing. You can click on it to see it better.

Books by the Window

Sometimes I wake myself up from laughing really hard in a dream.  These dreams are rarely funny when you tell them to someone, but one I think is funny to hear is one that my daughter had. One night she sat up in her sleep at 3:00 a.m. and said to her sister, “Want to know another funny thing about a hot dog?” Then, after asking, “Am I making sense?” she lay back down and resumed sleeping in silence.

I pay attention to my dreams and journal them and interpret them and look up the symbolism of certain things: colors, places, animals, that sort of thing. I have many recurring dreams that usually have to do with not being in control: being in cars or other modes of transportation with no one in the driver’s seat, flying without the aid of anything, or sometimes inside a contraption like an elevator as Charlie in the Great Glass Elevator or in a ship that’s left the water and that I now have to quickly learn to steer high above the ocean. I also have recurring dreams that involve the houses of my childhood – I moved 11 times by the time I was 14. Perhaps that’s why I have to be dragged out if my husband wants to see a movie. I usually just want to stay home and dream. You will see a couple of other recurring themes in today’s poem.

POEM:
Running Blind

Last night I dreamed first in words,
great passages that flashed before me,
too far away to read, but how I strained
to size up, take in those paragraphs,

floating by and blurry
with thick black letters all in CAPS
that began each section, not unlike
some movies we all have seen,

but with messages more urgent,
more important. They broke
apart and floated into space
beyond my grasp. Later, as before

in dreams, I was completely
blind, unable to open my eyes
at all although I was fast awake
in my dream, and tried prying

my eyelids open with markless
fingertips. Even with my eyelids
sealed, I insisted in walking around
carrying my computer and books,

evidence I had once seen. Somehow
I knew the desert stretched far ahead
of me, empty except a finish line
in the distance. I’d just learned

how to run forward in my dreams
and took off, sprinting, not needing
to worry about obstacles. The world
was too barren to provide any.

And now from high above I watched
my sister watching me far ahead of her
in desert dust, a change, progress even,
from previous dreams of running

into the wind, eyes open, but barely able
to swim through air. In those oppressive
traps, I’d turn around, not missing
a step, run backwards, my neck

twisted to see behind me,
which is ahead of me,
and run until I have enough
momentum then flip around

facing forward until pushed back
by the wind again. The only way
to get ahead was by going backwards:
I relived the race over and over

on a pink-oval-spongy track,
sometimes with other runners
in lanes on either side of me,
sometimes alone.

This has happened all my life.
Running in the desert was the second
time I ran forward in a dream –
the first time a couple of weeks ago

when I chased around a young man
with a soccer ball. Robert Main –
do you remember him?
Or he became Robert after I awoke.

I never caught him but could block him
running forwards, sideways and in every
direction a person is supposed to run,
including backwards while facing frontwards.

This first time running in the right direction
was not elating, but the relief of reaching
a long-time goal permeated my body
when I awoke. In the desert, I looked

neither left nor right. I looked for no one,
saw nothing. The only thing to do was run.
The only direction, straight ahead.
The only way, blind.

ELEMENT:
“Subconscious Intelligence”

“….We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

Shakespeare, The Tempest, IV, I 156-58

Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux have a wonderful book you might be interested in if you are interested in poetry and haven’t read it already: The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry. In their chapter, “Stop Making Sense: Dreams and Experiments,” they write, “Centuries before the surrealists or their immediate predecessors, people of all cultures placed a high importance on dreams and visions as a means to spiritual knowledge. Throughout the ages, people have enacted rituals that involved ingesting hallucinogenic plants, fasting, sweating, self-flagellation, and other practices with the aim of contacting levels of awareness unavailable to the everyday self.”

While I’m not in to hallucinogens or whacking myself on the back, I have come to this point, as I would think most people have, through exercise or going the day without eating if I’m busy or focused on a particular project, or by dreaming. In the first two instances, I believe the body goes into over-drive and is able to push the mind further. This was the basis for my poem, “Follow-Up to Breathing,” an early version of which is posted on this blog and that I wrote after a difficult yet enjoyable snowshoe trek in the Rockies. More often though, I try to pay attention to what’s going on in my dreams. We just can’t function in reality like we do in dreams, with the juxtaposition of images, the passing back and forth between past, present, and future, the unexpected visits from people you haven’t thought about in years.

In The Creative Process, Reflections on Inventions in the Arts and Sciences, Morton Prince’s essay, “Subconscious Intelligence Underlying Dreams,” explores writing poetry as being the same process as dreaming, that is “the same process expresses the same ideas in verbal symbolism as a substitution for the hallucinatory symbolism” (359). Immediately writing down what occurs in a dream produces a different effect than thinking about that dream later and committing it to script. Morton Prince calls it “a subconscious intelligence” (361).  Poets want to go there, so much so that at times we do dangerous things to arrive at the destination.

“A subconscious intelligence” is why poems are at times confusing and ungraspable (even to the poet). Poets pull ideas and images from their subconscious intelligence (what some might call “The Muse”) and weave those into the reader’s consciousness through the use of written words. Even though it may be beyond the reader’s ability to totally understand, the experience of exploring someone else’s “subconscious intelligence,” the poem can still be enjoyable. This is what I believe is happening in James Wright’s poems as explained in QB’s blog, “Poet by Poet.” Through rhythm and the sounds of words (both of which involve repetition, and the incantation of repetition is a topic to discuss in another post), through just enough conscious intelligence we can hang on to the poem, believe in it, even enjoy it although we may not understand it.

Which brings me to another point that is found in the book by the Estate of Louis Untermeyer, The Pursuit of Poetry: A Guide to Its Understanding and Appreciation with an Explanation of its Forms and a Dictionary of Poetic Terms. In the chapter, “The Ambiguities of Poetry,” it states, “Associations, private and often chaotic, originate in the welter of the unconscious and attain clarity only after they have been directed by the conscious mind. Coleridge described the process as ‘the streamy nature of association which thinking curbs and rudders.’” The text goes on to give the opening lines of Tennyson’s poem, “Tithonus” and explains “the reader, wooed by the lovely sounds, accepts the assemblage of unrelated details. He forgets, as Tennyson probably forgot, that the poet is portraying the king of Troy’s brother who was turned into a grasshopper…It is the unreasonable combination of music and imagery which, in its very vagueness, enchants him.” And us.

As a poet, I want to be understood, sure, yet I also want to be mysterious and wallow in that realm that almost makes sense. I don’t want to be understood when only the rules of consciousness apply.

Leaf Shadows

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
Dream and Imagination in Shakespeare – an article by Jerome Mandel published by Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University.

Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime

Four Dream Poems:
The Song in the Dream – by Saskia Hamilton
I Might Have Dreamed This – by Kirsten Dierking
Dream of the Evil Servant – by Reetika Vazirani
Dream Variations – by Langston Hughes

To the right is another dream-like photo I took while hiking the Vermont Long Trail. I like it because the leaves are green on the rock. They are shadows, but there is green moss or lichen on the rock so the shadows appear green.

Running In The Woods

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If I showed you this poem:

The Runner

On a flat road runs the well-train’d runner,
He is lean and sinewy with muscular legs,
He is thinly clothed, he leans forward as he runs,
With lightly closed fists and arms partially rais’d.

would you guess that it was written in 1867 by Walt Whitman?  Whitman describes the runner exactly as we still see him or her today, the body, the clothes, the stance. Whitman is one of my favorite poets as is Tim Seibles, whom I met and worked with at the USM Stonecoast MFA program. I had the honor of hearing Seibles read his poem, “Renegades,” from his book Buffalo Head Solos on Bowdoin campus a few years ago.  This poem about running is, of course, not about running. As with all good poems, much more lies beneath the surface.

 

POEM:
Running in the Woods

Pulled into trees, lifting
knees, feet rebound
off rotting logs, my feet,
thump, slip in and out
of animal holes, homes.
Don’t see spider webs
grab at me, mask my
face with sticky lace;
I am not afraid,
cannot be afraid
running through the woods.
Faster now, the earth
starts spinning under-
neath me; I am leaping,
dodging, skimming mush-
rooms that glow white
in the underbrush, shine
red in the black earth,
even purple between
the ferns. Suddenly
I spook a grouse, my heart
thumps to its thrumming
wings and my feet speed
up, echo the beat;
the bird is gone. Can’t
be afraid. Listen.
It’s just the wind creaking
trees, clicking sapling
trunks together. I jump,
run, jump the forest’s
lumpy blanket, buried
stumps, decaying timber.
Sticks snatch clothes,
scratch legs, draw blood that I
won’t see until I’m home.
I trip as I look up.
Vines tangle, snake
around. I slip on leaves
catch myself with calloused
hands, scramble up
ridges, now slower, so
think: What if I
meet a moose, six feet
high at the shoulder?
I see its scat all over,
leap every pellet-
filled pile of it.
Run. What if I
meet a bear, fat,
scratching, waiting, ready
for winter weather? I see its
claw marks climb the beech
trees. Run. I cannot
be afraid when the sun
dips, stoops too low,
too low to help me through
darkened woods. I’ve
mistook that ridge before,
it’s not the last this side
of home. I have another
hill to climb, another
mile, another valley
to go before I’m home.
I’m not afraid. I run.

ELEMENT:
Repetition

Poetry is all about repetition: repetition of sound, word, line, meter, content.

The repetition of beginning sounds in words (alliteration), vowel sounds (assonance), and end sounds (rhyme) makes a poem sing.  Sound repetition lets you know what words to invite into the poem. After all, shouldn’t you always invite your relatives into the house? (Okay, maybe I shouldn’t use that analogy). But what I mean is an “o” sound as in “home” invites in another “o” word such as “alone” into the poem.  “Home alone” sounds a heck of a lot better than “home by myself.”

I love repetition in poems and songs, but other than the sound repetition, I find it difficult to incorporate successfully. Repetition of words only works if done enough and not overdone. Repetition is good at medium-rare. Too much and the meaning’s burnt, not enough and it’s undetectable, inedible, indigestible.

Meter is the repetition of a particular pattern of stressed and non-stressed syllables. While I can hear iambs and trochees, anapests, and dactyls in many of poems I read, it’s still a challenge to get the meter “right” in my own poetry.  I have to work at it, and hopefully I have the intended trochaic trimeter pattern in “Running In The Woods.” (After having finished this poem and rereading the chapter on trochees in The Exaltation of Forms, I was reminded that trochee comes from the Greek word “to run.” Of course this poem has to be in trochaic form!). I have to acknowledge Charles Martin here, who must have asked a hundred times in the workshop I had with him, “What is the prosodic convention of this poem?” I cannot start a poem now without hearing him say this, which was his intent, no doubt.

A great example, in my opinion, of perfect sound, word, line, and meter repetition is in Robert Burns’ poem “Song Composed in August.” I first heard this poem as a song many years ago on an album by Scottish singer and song-writer Dick Gaughan. I searched for the lyrics on line and learned it was a Robbie Burns poem written in 1783. During my recent trip to Scotland, I decided I’d memorize the 40-line poem while touring the country, and wrote each stanza until I had it memorized then moved on to the next. I hadn’t intended to learn so much about repetition in such an intimate way. By memorizing the poem, however, I saw the patterns of words, rhyme, and meter that I would have otherwise missed.

Which brings me to another point of repetition: repetition of content. It was Andre Gide who said, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”  I love this. It gives me free rein (free reign?) to say whatever I want to say, since we’re all just saying the same thing everyone else has already said. I read this quote most recently in the book, Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon. He discusses in a quick-light-cartoonish-way how to steal others material and make it your own. Repetition with originality.

 

 

Erica Vega, up and coming poet extraordinaire, gave an excellent presentation during our last residency at Stonecoast, which was titled “Cycling: The Influence of Another’s Fire.” During her presentation, Vega discussed that the “essence of inspiration is influence” and what we create is based upon who we choose to read, watch, and listen to. We repeat the work of others’ with our own twist. (Case in point: can you pick up elements of Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” at the end of my poem above? It surprised me even, but there you have the dark woods, the additional mile to go at the end. I happen to love Frost’s work ). One of the ways in which we can learn and be inspired, Vega asserted, is through writing down the work of someone else, exactly, as Hunter S. Thompson did with the Great Gatsby. As Vega did with Salinger’s short story “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.” As I did with Burn’s poem. In writing down someone else’s work, I am not writing to copy it, but writing to learn, learn techniques, tone, vocabulary, sentence construction, mastery.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
Teaching the Art of Poetry by Baron Wormser and David Cappella. Great chapter on repetition  in this book!
Quick Meter Reference Guide – iamb, trochee, anapest, dactyl, and spondee,
An Exaltation of Forms, Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art, edited by Annie Finch and Katherine Varnes
Sinnerman, traditional spiritual sung by Nina Simone. Great example of the power of repetition.