Lucy Mercer writes for the Poetry School blog ahead of Divine Messengers, her weekend workshop on the literary use of dreams and the unconscious.
Dreams! What interests me most about dreams is that they present worlds that are different but adjacent – and sometimes overlapping – with ours: imaginary inter-worlds, what the philosopher Henry Corbin thought of as the mundus imaginalis.
These are worlds we spend at least half our lives in, even if we do not remember being in them most of the time. Historically, dreams, the imaginary, and what we now think of as the unconscious have been thought as having transcendental or divine connections. Corbin for example, drew on Islamic theosophers to consider the mundus imaginalis as a real but unmappable place that could also be accessed by imaginative consciousness and the imagination. Perhaps discarding the transcendental aspect, I think this idea of entering an unmappable place is a good way to approach writing a poem.
So whatever they are, dreams (and ideas about dreams) are a rich resource for poets to draw upon. But how? We often think of ideas and images as separate things, but if we consider ideas as images (a technique used by psychoanalysts) it is perhaps not surprising that it is difficult to describe dream images or transcribe them in writing: images proper are not static or permanent, they are not seen by different viewers in the same way, and they are often not strictly visual but multisensory. If dream images are mediated ideas though, they can tell us things that we might not have known or realised when we are fully awake – or at least, many writers, artists and psychoanalysts have thought so. Especially, and paradoxically, seemingly banal dreams and experiences.
Writing about dreams and visions then – to use them as a literary device – is perhaps a question of how to write about images. This course will be taking this concept as a starting point, and turning to rhetorical devices commonly used by poets to suggest likeness or similarity to a thing by describing a part of it: metonymy, allegory, synecdoche. By treating ideas as images, in poetry they become ‘speaking pictures’. In particular we will be looking at personification, allegory and prosopopeia — meaning to confer a mask or a face upon an object: for example, personified ideas, angels, speaking objects, imaginary or absent figures.
One of my favourite texts we’ll be looking at is Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499), or ‘The Strife of Love in a Dream’, that presents surreal dreamscapes – in text and image – of imaginary ruins and invented hieroglyphs populated by allegorical and mythic figures that tell the dreamer, Poliphilo, different things as he pursues an impossible quest.
In terms of what we’ll be doing, the course will comprise a full-on day of reading poetry and theory followed by a day of practice and writing. On Saturday, we will be reading and discussing medieval to contemporary poems to see how different poets have incorporated speaking figures and objects within dream poems, and how this has changed across time, from Hildegard of Bingen to Alice Notley.
We’ll discuss different psychoanalytic approaches to dreams and the imagination by Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Jacques Lacan to get different ideas of how we might interpret and incorporate dreams within our poems. In addition to Corbin, we’ll also look at a range of poststructuralist philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes to think about relations of representation to world. We will in particular think about, when reading poems, the limits of what personified figures might be able to say to a dreamer within a text: often, they are involved in a constrained and silenced form of dialogue – and may too, constrain and silence texts themselves.
On Sunday after a night of sleep, we will do writing experiments throughout the day. As Blake said, ‘As the true method of knowledge is experiment, the true faculty of knowing must be the faculty which experiences.’
We’ll take a bus ride to the National Gallery – (light passing through bus windows is at the perfect wavelength to induce a hypnagogic state) – to look at pictures of angels and narrative friezes of allegorical figures for inspiration. As well as integrating pictures, we’ll watch bits of films and listen to Terry Riley and La Monte Young’s experimental dream music while writing. We might go to the nearby Surrey Quays shopping centre to look at strange objects. It’ll be fun! And if it’s not fun, it’ll be weird, which of course dreams are.
Open your poems to the perceptive power of dreams on Divine Messengers, 8 and 9 June, with Lucy Mercer.