Electric Dreams

Composing Poetry in Lucid Dreams

George Gillespie 

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Gillespie, George (2004 October). Composing Poetry in Lucid Dreams. Electric Dreams 11(10).

My first poems to be published in a national periodical in India appeared in Imprint in June, 1978, although they were written years earlier. I had written poetry all my life and read a lot of poetry and about poetry. I had begun having lucid dreams (dreams in which I know I am dreaming) spontaneously in 1975, and in 1978 I began a series of experiments in trying to create poetry while dreaming lucidly. All the following text, except for what is in brackets, comes directly from my dream journal. I include only the occasions when I remembered, while dreaming, to do the poetry experiment. All dreams occurred in the city of Hyderabad in South India.

November 9, 1978. In the next known dreams I should make some experiments on receiving poetry from the unconscious. [Before I heard of the term "lucid dream," I had called such dreams "known dreams" in my journal.] This would mean to become quiet as much as possible and receptive and let a poem come if it will, as I would do when awake. This sounds difficult since when awake, only when the environment is amenable and I am in the proper mood and feel a poem may come would I attempt it. When a dream becomes known it would probably not at all be a proper calm environment suitable for being receptive to poetry. Yet I must try it for what I may learn.

I would not plan to erase the dream environment unless it were too disturbing. I would not try to speak, but let poetry come internally. Two lines would be sufficient to be both poetry and not too much to remember when I wake up.

December 3. When I realized that the quantity of cake that I was eating from my hand was growing, I realized I was dreaming. I resisted continuing with the dream story. I looked around and saw that I was walking along a path in the snowy woods. I stepped over to lean against a tree in order to relax to wait for poetry to come to me, but I woke up.

December 23. I walked toward the verandah of the building, holding a child in my arms. The child apparently saw himself, and as I lay him down, I said, "He can see himself, as in a dream." Then I realized I was dreaming. I remembered about the poetry and relaxed against one of the columns of the verandah. For a moment I waited and then concentrated on what may come. I thought of two lines of poetry, which I noticed did not rhyme, but which could have prepared for later rhymes. I woke up and wrote down what I could remember. It was:

"When in the night the waking dreams I extol I hear the . . ."

There could be a mistake in there. It came to me as poetry comes to me. I see these words as similar to what comes to me when I compose poetry, but not as something which I would bother to write down. As an example, if I had been awake, I would quickly have replaced the word "extol." I don't believe I have ever used the expression "waking dreams," but I see it as a real poetic possibility [perhaps for lucid dreams]. The rhythm is pleasant enough to retain. I have no idea what the meaning of the second line was to be. But then, I do not always know what the meaning is when I accept a line. I conclude that receiving poetry might be as possible while dreaming as while awake. It might perchance be easier. This was better than I expected.

December 31. I was dancing with a woman in a very musical dream, when I realized I was dreaming. Although I was intensely interested in dancing, I made myself stop. I leaned against a wall for a firm relaxing and looked in a new direction. While I thought of poetry, I noticed a woman leaning against a pole at a distance, smiling at me.

I kept my eyes open and felt the poetry come, without any effort. [In a lucid dream, I usually kept my eyes open in order not to lose the visual image.] It was no different from when I do the same when awake. A first line came, but I was not satisfied with it and changed it perhaps by one word. Letting that be, I added a second line which rhymed. I was satisfied with it, at least as an initial composition and thought I should wake up to write it down. It began to disappear, but I woke up and wrote it down.:

"Once the strange and overcoming night
Brought me ______ and to the light."

I could not remember it exactly. I knew that the two lines had the same rhythm. I wrote it quickly knowing that it might not be entirely correct. After writing, I felt it probably should have been:

"Once the strange and overcoming night
[three beats] and brought me to the light."

It was a presentable poetic thought, the idea even being in harmony with the poem of December 23. When I composed this time and the last time, I did not think of what subject I would compose on. I just accepted what came, judging it as it came. I had feared that it would not be easy to suddenly drop everything and think poetry. Yet both times some suitable lines came without any trouble.

Last night's lines were acceptably beautiful, without clichÚ, and original. Rhyming and other sound structures were acceptable. They are not very clever rhymes, but appropriate. The word "brought" adds consonance. Poetic obliqueness is there. The word "overcoming" has multiple effect. "Night" and "light" are frequent concepts in my waking poetry.

January 6, 1979. I saw a green towel hanging gracefully away from the wall towards me rather than down. But I also felt that I was standing on the wall, rather than on the floor. I was confused, but it made me realize I was dreaming. I felt shaky and disoriented. I thought that the only way to make myself comfortable was to sit on the towel that draped outward, which I did, feeling insecure. I got only one line of "poetry," which came with a bit of force:

"When under the world the basements congeal . . ."

I then woke up.

This line must be related to my disorientation in the dream and the feeling that what was below my feet was quite insecure. Although subjectwise, this "poem" was different from the earlier ones, it was again about my dream situation. I will choose a subject for the next poem to be about, to see whether I can direct the poetry a little more and get it away from the dream context. I will still let it flow and not force it, but I will begin it by thinking about horses, a subject I do not write poems about.

[Another important element of this dream was the fact that the towel I had seen in the dream was the actual towel hanging above my sleeping head from the structure used for holding up my mosquito net. This fact seems not directly related to the poetry experiment.]

January 17. It was a dream, almost entirely forgotten, of former times. In the thick green grass, I saw a power lawn mower. It was such an anachronism, that I realized I was dreaming. I remembered the poetry experiment. I moved forward and thought, "The Delhi tree . . ." I had no time to develop or change the words. I woke up.

February 24. Snow lay all around as I walked up the street, uphill. Why did I have no books, if I was going to school? I must have come from home, but I could not remember any home. So I realized I was dreaming. I thought of poetry and knew that it was to be about horses. I composed "black horse, white horse . . ." It was two complete lines of poetry. However, I went on, forgetting that I was dreaming and forgetting most of what I composed.

After further dreaming, I came out of a cellar and thought that that was a roundabout way to go. Thereupon I again realized I was dreaming. I remembered that I had earlier done the poem about the black horse and the white horse. The tall grain that I was walking through was distracting me, and I wanted to walk out of it a little so that it wouldn't scrape me. I saw two deer nearby eating. I began my poem, "Horsy, horsy," but I woke up.

When I woke up, all I could think of supposedly from the first poetry work was "Black horse, white horse, racing and chasing." However, "racing and chasing" was from Scott's "Lochinvar" which we were discussing when I taught my English class yesterday, and it may not have appeared in the dream. I had been reading Jung recently, and the "black" and "white," showing opposites and wholeness, got me thinking then, while awake, of my poetry experiments and of black horses and white horses. I then figured that I might have prejudiced my dream experiment [by thinking about this ahead of time]. Which apparently I did. Because the black and white horses came from aforethought, they did not come from the ongoing dream itself, as had happened in earlier dreams. Two deer. Substitute for the horses? Then "Horsy, horsy." How awful.

April 2. I had discovered the house hidden behind other houses, and upstairs in a large room, a few of us gathered together. A large black panther came bounding into the room near the men. The woman with the baby stood off to the side. Oh, that again. I realized that as wild animals had appeared in recent dreaming, so again this was a dream. I thought I'd let it be for now, then if the panther were to jump at anyone, I'd just stop it. Before I could do anything, the panther attacked the woman with the baby, and they disappeared behind the door. Oh well, I decided, it doesn't matter.

I asked a man about the history of a certain house in view. Then I remembered about the poetry experiment. I turned from him, and he said, I think, something about watching my step. Thinking about the panther and about the idea that the panther may represent my passions, I composed:

"The panther's black and greyish skin
Wraps tight around me as I jump within."

The composition came rather quickly. I recognized that the panther was myself. However, all the wording and the implications of the lines was not thought through. I didn't like the word "greyish," especially the "ish" part, which was necessary for the rhythm.

The area I saw was rather dark. So I turned around hoping to find more light, so that I may not lose the dream environment. I found a small area of light, and as I further worked on my composition, the light increased, and I was no longer concerned about losing the dream. I remembered about the horse (actually, horses) and that they should be black and white. I changed the poem to:

"The horse's black and whitish skin
Wraps tight around me as I jump within."

I thought that I should then wake up, to write down the words. So I woke myself up, remembered the lines and wrote them down.

Later, when I was near the edge of a cliff, I realized again that I was dreaming. I believed there was a city below the cliff. I remembered that I had done the poetry experiment. I ran to the cliff and flew over the edge. In a half attempt at poetry, I flew singing over and over, "I went flying over the city," to the tune of "The bear went over the mountain." I was actually flying over a large railway yard, with a few trains and lots of tracks. I did not wake up right away and soon forgot that I was dreaming.

April 3. [analysis continued] While I would not have left the lines as they are, the horse poem shows characteristics of poetry --rhymes, repetitions of sound, a workable rhythm, and a thought that was quite poetic. The key thought of the horse's skin enclosing me and of the horse's jumping being my jumping [inspired by the panther] was not thought through. It was the unconscious that expressed it. I consider that I have successfully composed two lines of verse within the dream. The poem would need more lines plus the usual polishing up, and I don't usually depend on end rhymes [rhymes at the end of lines]. While I remembered to write about horses, the lines I composed deal with the dream itself, beginning with the panther and working from there.

I have produced and remembered seven fragments of poetry from dreams--four of one line or more and three of only part of a line. In all cases but one, I either did not have time to complete two lines or completing them, I forgot parts. The three short fragments (Delhi tree; black horse, white horse; horsy, horsy) are difficult to judge because of their brevity, except that the last is undoubtedly bad.

It is better to judge only the longer pieces for the success of the experiment. Of these four, I remembered only one two-liner completely. Each of the four showed the characteristics of poetry, although each would need further work done on it. Each was about the dream situation itself, in spite of my being able in one to compose on a predetermined subject. Each showed possible influence from my writing while awake. Composing poetry while dreaming was easier than I expected it to be, except for the real difficulties of time being limited, the experiment ending abruptly, my inability to write the words down, the tendency to forget what I composed, and not being able to make a final judgment of the lines while dreaming.

April 16. The fact that my poetry in dreams concerned itself with the dream itself is probably explained by the fact that the dream is already expressing my unconscious thoughts. The unconscious does not appear to have two separate layers of thought ready to express themselves at the same time, one in poetry and one in dream.