When it comes to dreams nothing sounds more like dream-stomping than looking at dreams through a “neuro-biological” lens posited in 1977 by a couple of dream stompers at Harvard that dreams are simply byproducts of brain processes during sleep, simply flotsam and jetsam of brain chemical reactions. Here’s an example of their thinking: “dreaming sleep is physiologically determined and shaped by a brain stem neuronal mechanism that can be modeled physiologically and mathematically”
No I don’t thinks so. Human experience cannot be reduced to mathematical models of chemical reactions in our grey matter. And especially dreams. Or let’s even accept that’s possible, they shouldn’t be. It’s the mystery of things that allows us to value them.
And that mystery of dreams is what makes them so precious to humans. Poets know that though Harvard sleep doctors don’t seem to know it. A fool’s errand you are on dream doctors or, not surprisingly, what they like to call themselves, oneirologists. Which of course sounds much less dreamy and less mysterious though perhaps more inexplicable.
Poets often evoke the weird, the sense of dream, sometimes reported from dreams and often not. The modernist use of white space, the repetition, the images, the sounds, the rhythm, all the various literary devices available to poets can all operate as dream material does. But this mode of evocation goes way back before modernism to the beginnings of language.
A Romanticist example, Coleridge’s Kubla Kahn came out of an opium induced dream, the alternate title for the poem being “Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment.” But can anyone doubt the power of this dream material such as the lines that end the poem:
Or try this contemporary one, First Poem, from Robert Hass’s latest collection, again a mind that doesn’t lend itself to mathematical modelling, thank goodness. Some sample lines that come from pure dreamscape not flotsam of memories being tucked away by the brain.
So poems and dream scopes are companions. The Surrealistmovement was all about this, building off the new theories of self coming out of psychology and philosophy at the start of the 20th century. That movement had profound effects on our culture, the surreal now part of how we live. Geico commercialsperhaps one of the most obvious and pervasive example in today’s culture.
This video essay “Dream” is the prelude to the video poem
A Slough in Eugene, a poem full of the surreal, which never references dreams directly but evokes the filming of dreaming and the video that accompanies was structured to provide a feeling of dream.