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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing June 2023
Poetry and Dreams, guest editorial by Jane Frank.
I always dreamed of being a writer. In the solid, stable, predictable provincial town where I grew up, it felt as if I was always waiting for something to happen. There was a wide river that moved slowly through the centre of my world, yellow-green parks lining the banks where banyan trees grew side by side with gums, the broad streets with deep verandahed shade. The town was fringed by cane fields and forestry plantations. Daydreaming and writing poetry, I found, were ways to not only navigate daily life, but to reimagine it more boldly. I wrote poetry in A3 scrapbooks, illustrating the opposite page with drawings in coloured pencil. A dreamy pastel light of possibility shone through the west-facing windows in the afternoon as I sat cross-legged for hours at the coffee table on the yellow shag-pile carpet. Some of the poems from those years are quite fantastical.
My favourite Emily Dickinson poem—I Started Early, Took My Dog—reads as a marvelous daydream in which a young woman takes a morning stroll on the beach with her dog and imagines the sea as a house occupied by mermaids in the basement and frigate ships on the upper floors, while her shoes become oysters filled with pearls. As the poem intensifies, the mystical power of the sea takes on human characteristics, and we understand that the sea, while welcoming, can also be intoxicating and potentially destructive. This heightened experience of awakening is contrasted, at the end of the poem, with the no-nonsense reality of the town. Of course, there are many readings of this poem and the sea’s vastness hints at the depths of the unconscious beneath the surface, but fundamentally, the magnetism of escape, adventure and temptation are key ideas. I definitely relate.
Dream poems are peppered throughout history, where they often held considerable weight. In ancient times, dreams were desirable because people believed there was a close link between dreaming and the divine. The ancient Egyptians practiced dream incubation, employing dream guides who lived in dream temples. These dream whisperers were known as The Masters of Secret Things. The aim was to protect or influence the future by supernatural means, and the ancient Egyptians regarded sleep as a stage of consciousness in which meeting with a god or ghost bearing some kind of message from beyond, was possible. Dreams were thought of as acts of sight: visions.
The Egyptian Dream Book (1297-1213 BC) was found in an ancient workers’ village, Deir el-Medina, in the Valley of the Kings. Each page of the papyrus starts with a vertical column of hieratic signs which translates as ‘If a man [sic] sees himself in a dream’. In each following horizontal line, a dream is described with a diagnosis of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and an interpretation. Good dreams are listed first, followed by bad ones that are written in red, signifying bad omens. More than 100 different types of dreams detailing almost eighty distinct emotions and everyday activities are noted in this book.
Dreams are, of course, embedded in one of the world’s oldest literary works, The Epic of Gilgamesh. An ancient epic poem from Mesopotamia, it tells of the adventures of an ancient Mesopotamian king who resides in a mythological empire of gods, fantastic beasts and portents. Several dream sequences include strange symbolic images: meteors falling from heaven, an axe representing Enkido’s role as battle companion, a bird-man in a dream of the underworld where the dead appear cloaked in feathers. The avian emphasis reflects a deeply-rooted symbolic association of birds with the souls of the dead, also present in imagery and stories from Hindu and Egyptian mythology. This epic poem reflects the ancient people’s understandings of the divine and the afterlife.
This ancient thinking that dreams arrived from outside the dreamer’s mind—from gods or spirits—abruptly altered at the end of the nineteenth century when Sigmund Freud proposed that dreams are the work of the unconscious mind, an expression of repressed desires or conflicts. The study of dreaming has continued to flourish ever since within the fields of psychology and neuroscience. The connection between poetry and dreaming is a strong one.
Poets are often called dreamers: throughout history, they have distilled their dreams. This is now backed by scientists who assert that creative people have a greater capacity for accessing and harnessing dream experiences. Experts have established a relationship between dream recall, creativity and openness to experience. When we dream, entering REM sleep, we forge immeasurable numbers of connections between recent and more distant experiences. The process of successfully connecting these abstract and disparate experiences forms the basis of our human capacity to be creative.
Poems as dreamscapes draw me to them, so I enjoyed a recent series of conversations with award-winning Australian poet Anna Jacobson for an article about her poetic process for TEXT journal. Jacobson’s work—most recently in her collection Amnesia Findings (University of Queensland Press 2019)— interweaves visions and memories, mining dreams for the purposes of writing and healing. She refers to some poems as “dream diaries” explaining the short and condensed poems that dreams bring to her. Her chapbook The Last Postman (Vagabond Press 2018) consists of a series of unusual poetic letters delivered by a girl to characters on a train that allow intimate glimpses into the lives of everyday characters, incorporating themes of the domestic, yearning, hope and “a hint of magical realism”. Jacobson uses the epistolary form of a letter, so “the poem, through these two lenses, seems the perfect medium to capture dreams.”
On waking, Jacobson writes down any images she can remember from dreams; words, numbers or simply a feeling that lingers. Other times, dreamscapes are created strategically when the poet takes an extended metaphor and “runs with it until it seems dreamlike”. A dreamlike effect is created when she is able to push images and behaviours to the extreme. She regards dreams as a kind of magic that can infiltrate her writing, help her untangle and discover life’s mysteries. Her poems, rather than being about inventing imaginary beings or worlds, are about uncovering the mystery of the relationship between herself and the world.
And there is such mystery about the process of creation. As Alice Oswald says, “Poems, like dreams, have a visible subject and an invisible one. The invisible one is the one you can’t choose, the one that writes itself.” Similarly, the surrealist poet John Ashbery, when interviewed for the Paris Review, compared the writer’s mind to an underground stream where it is possible to “let down one’s bucket and bring the poem back up.” Some poets tell of poems arriving fully formed, and others speak of imagery that arrives from a place beyond conscious knowing. Others are carried along at the poem’s bidding, line by line, unsure exactly how the poem will, itself, decide to end. For me, it is about reaching a flow state where magic is more likely to happen!
I can still vividly recall the first time, in my teens, that I read Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s hallucinatory poem of 1797, ‘Kubla Khan’. Despite learning the poem was written under the influence of opium, I remember being astounded at the power of the imagery describing the Chinese Emperor’s summer palace in Xanadu. The poet’s exotic imagining channeled pure imagination in a way I hadn’t encountered before. I was reminded of this a couple of years ago when teaching a popular culture course where students examined the films of David Lynch, and I became interested in his theories about tapping into endless creativity. I’ll close with this poem from my new collection Ghosts Struggle to Swim (Calanthe Press, 2023) that references Lynch’s ideas about accessing endless creative inspiration, mainly through use of transcendental meditation. Keep dreaming, poets!
The Huge Abstract Fish
after David Lynch
I tell him I’ve tried meditation
but they only seem to swim to me
the huge abstract fish
There are others, smaller,
in a peaceful way:
the striated surgeonfish
the golden damsel fish
the spotted cod that eats from my hand
I remember He said that in an ocean
of pure consciousness
there is a happy unboundedness
The ocellus markings on sleek bodies
are eyes in the dark
bait still dangles in fragments
Close your eyes He said
feel the bliss, and I do:
ideas unfold like origami
I see their shadows
but I am too close to the beds
and rock shelves
of other minds
When I surface
there is a rugged and forlorn coastline:
eroded cliff faces that drop directly
to the sea
a long line of others waiting
© Jane Frank
Jane Frank is an award-winning Brisbane poet and academic, originally from Maryborough in the Fraser Coast region of Queensland. She has previously published two chapbooks of poetry—most recently Wide River (Calanthe Press 2020)—and Ghosts Struggle to Swim (Calanthe Press 2023) is her first full-length collection.
Her poems have been widely published in journals and anthologies in both Australia and internationally including Antipodes, Australian Poetry Journal, Westerly, Cordite, Takahē, Meniscus, Shearsman, Poetry Ireland Review, The Ekphrastic Review, StylusLit, Heroines: An Anthology of Short Fiction and Poetry (Neo Perennial Press, 2022), Poetry for the Planet (Litoria Press, 2021), The Incompleteness Book II (Recent Work Press, 2021), The Newcastle Poetry Prize Anthology (Hunter Writers Centre, 2021) and Hope: 2022 ACU Prize for Poetry Anthology (2022). She has a PhD from Griffith University and previous qualifications in both art history and arts and cultural management. Her monograph Regenerating Regional Culture: A Study of the International Book Town Movement was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2017. She teaches creative and professional writing and is reviews editor at StylusLit literary journal. Read more of her work at https://www.facebook.com/JaneFrankPoet/
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Here is a link if you wanted to hyperlink the Anna Jacobson article: