|Let dreaming whippets lie...|
...the best thing a dream
can do is remind you
it's not true
and the distressed lady
carrying her mutilated liver in a handbag
will not die,
not because you've saved her or failed her
as you rummaged frantically through her entrails,
but because she does not exist.
His poem deals with that state between sleeping and waking, where everything seems half-true and
...to truly wake up is to know the reason
you cannot grasp that rope underwater
is there is no rope, no water,
only grasping -
'Grasping' is an apt word to describe dreams: we've all known what it's like to wake up with a sense of something half-remembered, the sense of having emerged from a world we'd like to get back to if we could, but the dream's slipping away faster than we can remember its details. Dreams recollected in poems are constructions and they often capture the nature of dreaming better than the world of the individual dream itself.
Of course, that acknowledged, grand interpreter of dreams, Sigmund Freud had much to say about what creative writing and daydreaming have in common. Michael Donaghy makes an arch nod to the significance of dream interpretation in therapy with his poem 'Analysand' which begins:
I've had an important dream. But that can wait.
I want to talk about Ephraim Herrero
And the cobalt-blue tattoo of Mexico
That graced his arm above the wrist.
Dreams for poets are often points of departure and there's often something easy, something liberating about bringing dreams into writing: the strange logic of the dream seems to permit a certain freedom. Irving Massey (2003) has written at length about the nature of language in dreams in his book The Neural Imagination.
Massey tentatively suggests that dream language is a product of the left-hemisphere with its vigilant, logical linguistic approach (for a much less simplistic account of this, see previous posts on Iain McGilchrist or, better still, read his book) 'resting' for the night. As such, freed from these categorising tendencies "language in dreams is not required to be responsible, it does not have to follow the rules." When left hemipshere control is relaxed, language is looser, more associative and more musical. Massey likens this to a kind of 'private language' and suggests that the way we use words the rest of the time is a product of the intrusion of others into our mental life. As such "dreams...have a way of jogging us into the uncomfortable awareness that thought and word may be incompatible." Words in everyday discourse tell us something about the thought that gave rise to them, but they are not direct representations of that thought. Therefore "in dreams, we achieve a coherence that consciousness cannot hope to imitate."
This put me in mind of Ignacio Matte-Blanco's concept of the 'indivisible world', an unconscious understanding that exists in us that all things in the world are really one, which exists in parallel to our conscious tendency to form categories. It might be speculated that this is part of the reason we find metaphor so appealling; in forging strange, new links between separate things it takes us back to the indivisible world (Don Paterson has written at more length and in more interesting ways about this elsewhere).
Massey's argument is attractive, not least because he goes on to suggest that the way poets use language in their poems mimics the way language operates in dreams - poetry, he believes is a kind of 'learned relaxation' in which the ordinary communicative functions of language may not always be dominant. To me, this neglects the extent to which poetry is construction as well as inspiration. Massey's argument is seductive but still a bit simplistic: the idea that the left hemisphere is selectively 'switched off' in sleep would need to be refined to make it convincing.
All the same, there's a sense of the inevitable, the unforced about language in dreams. I once had the strange experience of falling asleep and waking up with an entire (short) poem in my head. I didn't try to make sense of it, but wrote it down as it was:
I watched the anorexic patient
in a room denied by light.
She was staring at a portrait
of a dancer by Degas,
hungrily taking in the legs
slim as white candlesticks,
the gather of the waist,
caught in the alchemy of her desire
imagining a look could be enough:
the picture turning to a mirror
and her arching into it
like a dancer lifted up
and handed through the frame
from dark to dark.
I haven't a clue what that means. How much of the poem was really 'dreamed' and how much quickly constructed as I woke up, I'm not sure, but it was certainly thought-provoking. None of which gets us any closer to understanding the mysterious way language operates in dreams, but it's interesting that my poem was very visual, as poets' replications of dreams often are too. Let's go back to Michael Donaghy's 'Analysand', who leaves us with a visual sequence so sharp it almost nicks us:
Which brings me to the dream, if we have time.
I'm wading across a freezing river at night
Dressed in a suit and tie. A searchlight
Catches me mid-stream. I try to speak.
But someone steps between me and the beam.
The stars come out as if for an eclipse.
Slowly, he raises his finger to his lips.
I wake before he makes the tearing sound.