Using Dreams in Poetry/Prose

I’ve been having some strange dreams lately. One was where my dad had been shot in the neck. Blood was flowing through an open hole the size of a pencil eraser. He tried to talk, so he put his finger over the hole, but still couldn’t really get out anything. He was starting to suffocate on his own blood.

Another one involved toenails the same color as a school bus.

A poem?


Dreams are some of the most terrible devices to use in fiction and poetry. We all have weird, wonderful dreams that can reveal something lovely and wonderful (or inane) about us. Imagine if in Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” it said, “He dreamed the bullet smashed his skull and ploughed through his brain and exited behind his right ear..” vs. “The bullet smashed Anders’s skull and ploughed through his brain and exited behind his right ear…

Imagine: My father has been shot. The bullet pierced through his trachea and, though I can’t see it, I imagine the blood and matter on the couch pillow his head leans on is the color of the pomegranates he helped me pick as a child. He struggles to tell me something, but can’t. What does he want to tell me? He loves me? He regrets doing ______? Clean out the lint filter?

As soon as I begin something with “I dreamed” or “In a dream” or “I imagine(d),” it automatically loses its power. We have no control over our dreams (unless you’ve mastered doing so), and because of that, we don’t really need them to create whatever emotional tension we want in a story. Dreams can definitely be triggering situations, but I need to cut out those lines that clearly define it as a “dream.”

I make my dreams “real” in the landscape of my work, or I try to take whatever feeling I got from the dream and apply that to a realistic situation. In that dream with my father, I felt panic, sadness, regrets. What other scenarios could make those same feelings arise?

Similar with “I imagine.” “I imagine he cheats on me” doesn’t have the same power as “He cheats on me.” Even if it’s clear from the narrative that the speaker is imagining this betrayal, by cutting “I imagine,” the emotion is clearer. The imagining has become more than just a “fantasy,” but something the speaker can react to viscerally. Writing can make jumps. We don’t have to “clue our reader in” by saying, “I dream my husband is a banana.”  We can go full-force with “my husband IS a banana.”

Poetry, much more than prose, is about emotional truth, not physical truth. Physical truth: I had a dream. Emotional truth: Pain, sadness, regrets. The emotional truth is always the more interesting and the more revealing.

13 thoughts on “Using Dreams in Poetry/Prose

  1. But isn’t it new and interesting language that leads you to any sort of emotional truth? I mean, if you go into a poem knowing the emotional truth, is there any possibility of that poem conveying the discovery of the same?

    In dreams then, the strange juxtapositions of image, the disjointed narrative, don’t these seem like opportunities to follow language in a different direction, to break patterns in narrative poetry, to see something that might challenge and lead the perceiving mind (i.e. the thinking/writing mind) toward a less apparent, more surprising, and, perhaps, more honest truth?

    I’d be interested to know what you think about this. (This is not to say that there’s not a whole heap of shitty dream poetry…)

    1. I agree, totally.

      I really don’t believe I can go into any poem thinking I know the “emotional truth.” Part of it, for me, is getting triggered somehow (which could be by a dream or a feeling from the dream), and then following that through, and then boiling away the unnecessary details that broach on this “physical truth” vs. “emotional truth” aspect. Like, if in a poem, I write that I walked down this certain street with this certain friend of mine and that certain friend of mine said, “Hey, you’re a romantic” and that made me think of cherubs and blood. Maybe the emotional truth that arises is something that comes out of that cherub and blood moment. If I keep the friend in there asking me that question, that’s just holding onto the physical instead of the emotional. The friend doesn’t do anything. They don’t even come back in the poem. They just helped trigger me to this later cool stuff that I want to hang onto.

      I think dreams are great triggering situations, and I can write “In a dream,____” in my first draft. But as soon as I get done and give it time and then go back to revise it, I will probably need to cut that part. As soon as I read “In a dream,” I lose interest. I read a ton of things in The Pinch slush pile that use that device. It’s fine to use to write, but not fine to include in a more polished draft. Usually those poems have a lot more power when they can be “real.”

      I’m all about breaking and challenging things. I’m also all about letting a poem go where it needs to go and then cutting out the crap that doesn’t resonate with the emotional thrust of the poem. Bensko calls it, “Throwing out the baby and keeping the bath water.” Maybe what comes out of writing the poem is better than what triggered us to write it or what we’re the most attached to.

  2. I mean, I think it’s undeniable that we cut the garbage that doesn’t actually seem to bear on the thrust of the poem (or that we aspire to, anyway); I’m just not sure that the acknowledgement of the dream is necessarily a throwaway. You suggest that it is because “We have no control over our dreams…, and because of that, we don’t really need them to create whatever emotional tension we want in a story” but, fundamentally, the action of poetry in the mind, the event of poetry, is an object/landscape creating a distinct connection to something (an emotional truth, if you want) in the mind that is then discovered. How, then, is the action of poetry is the physical world different from the action of poetry in dreams? How does the acknowledgment of the poem/image as dream-image detract from its immediate humanness when it is an immediate, human action? Is acknowledging the dream truly less disruptive to the ability of a reader to empathize than the sort of surrealism that you’re positing above?
    Further, does the physical detail (the vehicle for whatever empathetic response one hopes to evoke from the reader) subordinate to the emotional one?

    1. My only argument is that using the frames “In a dream,” “I dreamed,” “I imagined,” are simply unnecessary. Also ending with “It was a dream” is a lame punchline. It takes away from the immediacy of the experience, and since it is imaginings or dreamings undercuts since the reader knows, from the outset, it’s not real. You can choose to include that in your own work, but I won’t include it in mine, nor will I teach my students to do that. Even surrealism is still a realism.

      Physical detail does subordinate to the emotional one. Using things like organs or tree branches as objective correlatives further the emotional purpose of the poem. On the other hand, physical details such as who was there, etc. don’t matter unless you make them matter. I’m trying to write with a much greater sense of place, but the details of that place must matter toward the emotions of my poem or the juxtapositions I’m trying to make.

  3. I’m really upset because somehow my comment got deleted… but I wanted to also pose a different perspective than what you present here. I feel like you present a very narrow exploration of how dreams are used in writing that is critically unsound. Assuming that all work that begins, “In my dream…”, lacks power seems to me problematic. Also presuming that emotional tension is the desired effect seems off to me. Using dreams in the manner you suggest is certainly a wonderful tactic in writing, but it’s not the only one, and those who don’t omit the acknowledgement that something is a dream in the work does not automatically devalue that work, as you seem to suggest. I find your case for “I imagine” to be problematic as well because “I imagine he cheats on me” and “he cheats on me” have two different meanings. “I imagine he cheats on me” might come from someone paranoid about their relationship, where as “he cheats on me” has a very different placement in “reality.” You also say, “The imagining has become more than just a ‘fantasy,’ but something the speaker can react to viscerally.” What is wrong with acknowledging something is a fantasy? And how is it that one can’t react to fantasy in a visceral way? I think you’re conflating concepts/ideas here. Writing can certainly make jumps and we don’t need to hold our readers’ hands, they can be trusted. However, the use of the dream/imagination/fantasy trope does not have to hold such narrow effects as you seem to be stating here. I’m also really curious about your distaste for physical “truth” versus emotional “truth.” Why do you privilege emotion over physicality? It makes me wonder how you write about the body in your work. And finally, I agree with some of jaduck’s sentiments.

    1. I don’t think using “I dream” devalues a whole work. It is simply more powerful in that line to make it a reality.

      In poetry, “he cheats on me” and “I imagine he cheats on me” can have the same meaning. We can sense a speaker’s paranoia from the narrative: “He cheats on me. I catch it in the flashes of his eyes, the way he cuts his meat.” That pretty much conveys a speaker who is a little off. The “I imagine” part could easily be cut. People can react to fantasies, definitely, but I believe qualifying something as such makes it less immediate and also a little less interesting.

      The way I see physical truth is trying to make poetry into creative nonfiction. CNF mentions the time, who was there, the color of who was there’s tie. Unless these things add up to a greater whole, they’re unneeded. Poetry isn’t CNF, so it shouldn’t be about getting the details of the situation right; It should be about getting the emotion right. Maybe I write a poem that ends up being about my mom, but it started with a real situation that happened with her. Maybe the physical truth is that we went to the store and she bought 37 shirts and complained the whole time about her rheumatoid arthritis. It might be better for my poem that we went to the opera, sat in the nose bleeds, she brought 30 tissues in her purse and complained to me about the seats, the fact that I bought them too late, etc. If I stick to the “physical truth,” I may be missing out some musicality (thirty might sound nicer than 37) or the opportunity to change things around to build on the tension. Physical truth, as I see it, is about sticking too much to the details, which border on CNF, and refusing to play around with the details to build on the emotion or whatever tension may be in the relationship.

      1. Although I respect your position, I still disagree. What do you mean by “unless they add up to a greater whole, they are unneeded”? Poetry may not be CNF, but, and perhaps this is a product of my education, there doesn’t HAVE to be a distinction between the two genres. Saying poetry is this, and CNF is that, is again, a really narrow outlook on writing in my opinion. Perhaps I think this because of my undergrad and grad degrees in CW–one fairly traditional, but the other a program that encourages genre blurring and experimentation. In the scope of my program at CalArts, I’m considered a pretty traditional poet, however, the book I am writing is a memoir written as poetry, so take that as you will. I am certainly no stickler for absolute accuracy of depicting situations in poems, sure you can say it was 30 instead of 37 because it might sound better, you can say the river smelled like pennies even if it really smelled like fish. Whatever you want to do to enhance the landscape, I’m cool with. What you seem to be saying though, firstly, is that “truth” is very clear cut, and secondly, that physical truth (imagined, exaggerated or accurate) has no place in poetry, and there I think you are incorrect. Mostly in that you think they only belong in CNF. Why can’t we use the tactics of other genres within our own to enhance or get at a particular subject? I’m not sure which poets you read, but I’d say I’ve read a great many that use what you would categorize as only a CNF tactic. I don’t mean to be negatively argumentative. But dialogues on poetry are important and necessary.

      2. Interesting. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

        Bill Lavender is writing a memoir in verse form called Memory Wing. An excerpt from it was published in The Pinch earlier this year. He still follows the traditional aspects of memoir, but puts in a strict poetic form. He publishes it as CNF and calls it a “memoir,” despite its poetic form.

  4. So I think I should apologize if I sounded particularly contentious; it took me until just now to understand exactly what you meant by physical truth v. emotional truth (i.e. that you’re talking about building a symbol system that supports the discovery of the poem and removing that which is irrelevant). I agree with that (so far as we agree, for the moment, that the aim of a poem is to achieve narrative meaning).

    Where I become uncomfortable really must be a difference in aesthetic; I find that I must work (since we’re trading poetry aphorisms) from Plumly’s notion that we must “make from not up”. I can certainly get behind omitting details, letting go of particular “triggering” mechanisms (as you call them), but changing the poem too much, changing characters, locales, specifically to reinforce ideas (rather than allowing them to dictate/complicate ideas) seems, from my position, to miss the point in some ways.

    I think it’s just me, my aesthetic, but I don’t understand how you can engage the particulars of an experience you’ve never had (I use the “you” to signify “one,” not “you” proper); it seems to me that there’s a difference between imagination and illusion ( I think that’s the distinction Stevens makes in The Necessary Angel, anyhow) and that too willfully manipulating the physical details for effect creates illusive “place;” that is, a place that lacks definition, that is of the mind rather than the eye (and therefore loses the impact of human experience). Without the “emotional truth” being firmly rooted to details that are convincingly particular/strange/human, how can it be empathetic? And, further, how can it be a valuable use of the poet’s time to not deal in real details? What’s the reward if not understanding (and the obvious re-enacting/re-signifying) of experience (whether it be narrative or language-based)?

    I don’t mean to sound accusatory; please take no offense. I think you have an interesting idea, and I think I’m testing my own ideas against it.

    1. I try to think of it in the way Eugenides talked about MiddleSex. Obviously, he couldn’t physically relate in anyway to a character that began as a girl and then later changes into a boy. He said he wanted to write the book, but he couldn’t figure out how to get into the character’s head and make it convincing, so he focused on the feelings, which he could relate to.

      It’s also hard for us to talk about this without examples. I don’t write abstract poetry, nor poetry that isn’t rooted in a place. When I mention “real” and “unreal” details, I’m merely using the term from Hugo’s Triggering Town mentioned by Peggy below. The “real” detail would be that the grain elevator is yellow, but for the sake of the poem, it would sound better black, etc. All of my poems are narrative and set in real places, just not real to me (aka not autobiography). I apply many aspects of fiction writing to my poetry. I usually think up a weird premise (which could be triggered by a dream), and then try to see if I can come up with some human relationship to go along with the premise. The weird premise goes on the periphery to the human relationship. For example, I could write a poem about a daughter watching her father die after being shot. What I would be “making from” would be my own relationship with my father and how I could apply that to this imagined scenario.

  5. Again, I’m thinking of Richard Hugo’s “The Triggering Town” here. He was all for changing details:

    “The poet’s relation to the triggering subject should never be as strong as (must be weaker than) his relation to his words. The words should not serve the subject. The subject should serve the words. This may mean violating the facts. For example, if the poem needs the word “black” at some point and the grain elevator is yellow, the grain elevator may have to be black in the poem. You owe reality nothing and the truth about your feelings everything.”

    I agree about changing some details, but I personally have trouble changing too much. I’m not sure why it feels so wrong to change details. I’m certainly not writing an autobiography.

    Zoe, your profile says you’re 22. Is that a physical truth? I’m a bit surprised you’d be writing a memoir, but maybe you’ve had a really interesting life.

    1. I have no idea why my profile says I am 22. I am indeed 25. I’m writing a collection of poems, they happen to be memoiristic in that they express a coming of age narrative. One that is rooted in my life but that takes “truth telling” as a loose requirement.

      1. Ah, you must have found my blogger account from 3 years ago. I don’t even know the password for that anymore, or else I’d have deleted it.

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