Alice Notley on Writing from Dreams

“We are constantly remaking the world from the inside out.”

An excerpt from the following first appeared in Lit Hub’s The Craft of Writing newsletter—sign up here.


I’ve been using dream materials in my poems since I first began writing poetry in the late sixties. I’ve taken words, images, narratives, parts of narratives from my own dreams and repeated them, transformed them, commented on, and sung them. I did this instinctively in the beginning, without a theory and not particularly out of literary precedent, though there is plenty of that. Partly, it was clear to me that my dreaming self was better at some aspects of poetry writing than I, awake, was—my dreams would often surprise me when “I” couldn’t.

In the early nineties, after having worked for a couple of years on the writing of The Descent of Alette, which draws to a large extent on dreams and on poetic techniques related to dreaming, I wrote an essay called “What Can Be Learned from Dreams,” published in SCARLET in 1991. This essay posits “Dream” as a place or function in me I’m divided from, a place or function that knows things I don’t know awake, and is often the better, more imaginative maker.

The essay discusses, briefly, the plasticity and the symbolic multiplicity of dreams, and the relationship between dream and myth; and it reflects on the part a sensitivity to one’s dreams might play in making one’s way through the egoism and manipulation of oneself and others abounding in daily life (after all, you’re also the pathetic creature you are in your dreams.) At this point, I began to write down my dreams every morning—I had done this once before for a couple of months, but my practice had generally been to write down only what was truly striking or mysterious. In the writing of Alette, I allowed myself to use anything I remembered from a dream no matter how humble or o’-the-wall seeming, but I wasn’t recording my dreams on a daily basis, I was more remembering them each day.

Between sometime in the early nineties and now, 2008, I have written down all my dreams I can remember each morning. I haven’t tried to write well, only to get down what I retain; and I have omitted a few dreams on the grounds that they’re just too personal in a scatological or other way and I don’t want them read—I don’t know what’s going to happen to my dream notebooks when I die: they aren’t very interesting in themselves, but I might not get around to destroying them. I’m now rather fatigued with the recording of dreams and may give up the practice in this daily manner, though I doubt that I will ever stop using dreams as material. What I’d like to ascertain at this point is whether I’ve learned anything further from my dreams, whether I can articulate what I know beyond my previous essay.

First, I will state as a fact that dreams can be premonitory or telepathic: they can predict the future and receive information at a distance from the dreamer. They don’t do these things in a way that can be easily evaluated, and they don’t always do these things clearly, but they do do them. Many people recognize this truth but don’t know what to do about it; I scarcely know what to do about it, I usually incorporate dreams into my poems rather than speculate on how dreaming works.

If you’re interested in a more scientifically explanatory tractate involving the curvature of time, a multi-dimensional universe, and other such comforting terminology (now dated, of course), along with a study of precognitive dreams, I suggest you consult An Experiment with Timeby J. W. Dunne (Faber and Faber Limited, 1927). I’m not interested in proving something, I’m interested in meditating on what I know; and I now feel confident enough to say that dreams are predictive and mind-sharing.

Dreams make you be somewhere where you apparently aren’t, render you a character in a story that isn’t yours and that you believe.

Thus, in my dreams, I’ve been forewarned that people will die, told that I am seriously ill, or that a friend is having heart surgery thousands of miles away (about which I know nothing in my waking life). I’ve dreamed that someone is discussing her uncle, while she is in fact doing this, many rooms and one floor away in a thick-walled house; dreamed that my husband’s letter of rejection for a Guggenheim is about to arrive in the mail (it did, the morning of the dream); dreamed that the antibiotics I’m taking aren’t working and the symptoms only appear to be under control (that was true too). These are randomly recalled examples. And I have anecdotal evidence of the same sorts of dreams from other people. This is one part of what dreams do: communicate literal information of a more or quite less pressing nature.

But just as interestingly, dreams make you be somewhere where you apparently aren’t, render you a character in a story that isn’t yours and that you believe, in fact destroy your identity except for the most central core of the “I,” since you are that self, the unnamed only I that remembers the dream. Daily detail melts, I remain. Dreams also meditate, they think while you’re asleep, they ruminate in story and symbol form and go pretty deep doing that.

They pun in the ways Freud said they do, and are parable-like in the way the Bible indicates: they can be “interpreted,” but that’s only one interpretation, isn’t it? And some things that appear not to be sexual may be sexual—but on the other hand, sex isn’t always sex, it’s rebirth, for example (see the ending of Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings—not a dream, but so dreamlike); and the dreams aren’t always about you the dreamer, as the ancients knew but Freud didn’t appear to.

Sometimes, one gets through a personal crisis by sleeping and dreaming a lot: dreams instruct and heal. I consciously use dreams that way. I also sometimes try to dream oracularly, asking myself, the dreamer, a question before I fall asleep, to see what answer I’ll receive in a dream.

So, when I decided to write this essay and began taking notes, I thought to try to dream about what dreams are. I wrote down in my dream notebook (on January 3rd, 2008): “TRY TO ASK DREAM ABOUT WHAT IT IS,” and then fell asleep and had a series of dreams. In the first dream, I was walking in Place des Vosges, in Paris, with Karen Weiser, who said, “I don’t have the cream.” In the second dream, I heard the singing of the word “Deposuit,” exactly as in a certain Bach choral piece—the Magnificat?—by a baritone voice, with much ornamentation. For the third dream, I will quote from my notebook: “With an Asian tribe—the Guarami—in mts. They want me to show them which rocks (?) are wedding rings; this one already is, I say. It’s a large curved rock with a finger attached. The tribesman takes it eagerly.” There was a subsequent dream that seems more personal and that I won’t recount except to say it contained the name “Healey”—the name of a friend, whose appearance always signifies healing.

Some quick interpreting. Place des Vosges contains old, arcaded buildings, I was walking in a secluded place with someone who was “wiser,” probably stood for Dream and nonetheless didn’t have the answer, but who managed to make a rhyme with the important, initiating word, “dream”: dream/cream. “Deposuit,” in Latin, is from “deponere,” to lay down, to put down, to deposit. From those two dreams, I get a sense that a word, or words, is, are, deposited and ornamented in a dream, as “deposuit” is so elaborated on in the singing of Bach’s work.

I woke up thinking that a dream is like an illuminated manuscript, in which words and letters are enlarged, made calligraphic, highlighted, painted, with stories and symbolic figures in the margins. I find the wedding ring dream harder to talk about. At some point, we became wedded to waking consciousness, perhaps; and our choice is embedded (see how I’ve rhymed, unconsciously, “wedded” and “embedded”) in rock and flesh, the whole finger. In waking consciousness, we get a real, motile body, a stable one; in dreams we get a mind, though we also get an unstable, but often realistic, body. In the dream notebook, that morning, I also wrote: “Is dream an archaic way of thinking? Is it a memory of a way of being before time was sorted out? Do I have this memory?” I think the answer is dream is an ongoing, major component of existence.

I grew up in the Mohave desert, in a town that overlaps with the Mohave Indian Reservation. The Mohaves, in a way that seems similar to the thinking of certain Australian Aborigines, believe that everything important was first dreamed in order to be. I am now going to quote from the preface and introduction to Tales from the Mohaves (University of Oklahoma Press, 1970), by Herman Grey, a Mohave from my native area:

The Mohave clings to his belief in dreams as a basis for everyday life. Not only all shamanistic power, but all myths, songs, bravery, fortune in battle, and good fortune in gambling derive from dreams. Every special event is dreamed. Knowledge is not a thing to be learned, a Mohave will say, but something to be acquired by each person through his dreaming.

All Shamans say that they received their power from Mastamho, when he was put here on this earth. So deep are these convictions that, when old age comes, a Mohave can seldom distinguish between the dreams he has been told by an uncle or brother and what he has himself experienced. The Mohave learns as much from other people as from his own experience. Conscious learning seems to him nearly impossible, and he is convinced he has dreamed for the first time, or has dreamed repetitiously, the things which all Mohaves know in common. . . .

A man may give his song or story to his son or to some other close relative when he feels himself near to death or concludes that the person in question wishes to learn the story or song. Only one man may sing or tell a sequence of songs and stories, and thus the myths are inherited within the family and clan. A storyteller begins from a timeless source, with the statement that the story came to him from his uncle or brother and now belongs to him.

Dreams, then, are the foundation of Mohave life. Dreams are always stated as if they had been cast in mythological molds. . . .

A dream might be an actual nocturnal one, or it might be a continued thought or a flash of insight which gave a further comprehension and contemplation of the man’s hopes and perceptions. Dreams might give foresight of some obstacle to the achievement of an end and might also reveal the means of overcoming the obstruction. Many times a dream foretold a coming event, such as the outcome of a raid or the fate of a warrior.

What strikes me here is first the intersection of all categories: shamanism, dream, myth, story, knowledge—these seem to coincide and then differentiate, but never become totally distinct from each other. Dreaming and waking obviously aren’t so different from each other either, in the Mohave world. One has a sense that time and consciousness are perceived as fluid, not compartmentalized into asleep/awake, past, present, and future. It’s not that one is always in now—the Now that can be so fashionable, philosophically, to talk about—but the past is an important concept too, and the past goes on in an important way, and the future is accessible.

Of course, I’m also interested in the sense that Dreams Know. I believe I’ve read elsewhere that when there’s an important invention (or when there was—I don’t know if Mohaves are as obsessed with dreams as they once were, as traditional), the invention must be incorporated into the tribe’s dreams. It has to have been known about from the beginning, so it must have been dreamed about before. Somehow, the innovation gets put into dream form and then one says, “Yes I always knew about that, or we did.” Of course, that’s what it feels like anyway: who can imagine life before cars? Was there always going to be a car? (See the cars shown in the TV cartoon The Flintstones—the previsionable automobile.)

I didn’t know these facts about the Mohaves while I was growing up alongside them. I’ve found these things out later, as I’ve developed my own thought and discovered that it resembles theirs. Isn’t that strange? The Mohave Desert is vast with space and one fills it with thoughts and dreams—or I did; I acquired certain habits of thought from growing up in this landscape. I came to wonder if so-called reality weren’t malleable, creatable, long before I knew about the philosophy of the Mohaves or of the Australian Aborigines, who also inhabit a desert.

It seems logical to me to quote a Mohave as an authority on dreams. Grey knows what it is to believe one’s dreams, to use them, and to have dream-like flashes of inspiration (as a poet does.) And reality must have seemed flexible when you lived in a desert and didn’t build things much: when you and those you were with were in a state of invention all the time. Imagine an early tribal existence in a desert. There’s just the few of you, and you can say what is, what made it, and what it means. You’re the poets of what you know. It’s when people erect a lot of buildings and crowd together in large numbers that everyone has to agree on a version of reality that grounds the buildings dryly and makes it possible for those from different backgrounds, or even cultures, to communicate blandly.

However, if you take certain drugs, you will notice that the texture of wood and brick is in motion—though the buildings don’t fall—that people’s faces melt, and that nothing is as secure as you thought it was. As when you dream, things fall apart, and the laws of science are violated. Occasionally, when you dream, an animal talks to you. Many Native American peoples posit an early time when humans and animals talked to each other and shared characteristics more blatantly, when time wasn’t as fixed as now, and you could make things happen by “magic.” (For a lovely, modern sci-fi take on this possibility, see Ursula K. Le Guin’s book, Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences.)

Furthermore, many people could tell you they have had dreams that have changed their lives. I have a long list of such dreams. They become mythic; they “happened” for real, to the extent that they have changed me. I count them as part of my knowledge and use them for guidance. Here is my retelling of an important dream, from the preface to my book, Reason and Other Women:

In 1997, after I had been informed that Allen Ginsberg had died, I became afraid for him in death. I wanted—because he was my friend—to be sure that in death he was safe. I dreamed that night that my stepdaughter Kate, who is deceased and in dreams is often my messenger from the world of the dead, came for me, in a rich dark blue skirt and sweater, to take me to the “second world.” I gathered that this second world was an afterlife with an active artistic component, for there was a professor there who was trying to achieve an intense enough red for the second world’s mosaics. Then, my name became Ellen Goodman (yes like the columnist), so I knew that I was Allen, the good man, and I waited in a small apartment to die. To die being to lose the power of one’s vocal cords, no longer to speak… A knock at the door as “they” came for me, I approached the door knowing I had used my vocal apparatus for the last time and would now learn to communicate telepathically; then I woke up. Allen was safe; for I understood there was an expansiveness beyond that of the voice. And I could now write with authority, of the first and second worlds, and the colors blue and red. The soul must be red. And Kate, the messenger was dressed in blue, for reason: as reason is the working through of “messages,” or is perhaps the voyage of the messenger.

This dream enabled me to write my book, providing a sense of a double world and, also, a color symbolism, plus a notion of telepathy: in Reason and Other Women, I overtly expect the reader to get what I’m saying via a sort of telepathy—the reader must go with the rhythms and odd usages of my mind as I present it, in order to know further things, attain a new state of consciousness with its own materials and details, coaxed from dreams and words.

You might well say that that is what poetry is—an art form based on telepathy, a sending of complex messages through an almost immaterial presentation (a few words on a page?); or, you might say, that all communication is like that. And isn’t it? Aren’t we always communicating telepathically? So much of what we tell each other is told via air: to talk about “cues” and “body language” is to be perfectly limited: it’s in the very air between us, everything we know and try to say to each other. We read each other’s minds all the time.

Anyway, the dream presented these ideas to me, as well as the knowledge that Allen was whole and well, and that it would be good, probably, not to have to use one’s vocal cords anymore: there was a bigger, better language, if you want to call it that. The dream remains important to me: it’s part of who I am and what I know; it’s part of my relationship with Allen and with everyone else. For me, it is a work of great beauty in itself, though it terrifies me as well. The opening of the door at the end was a vast moment, to step into infinity without being able to speak, never again to write poetry.

As no science explains adequately how dreams work, no one can explain how a poem works.

If dreams are telepathic or precognitive or knowledge-imparting or otherwise “extraordinary,” then do they exist to fill those functions, or are those functions a byproduct of dreams? Or, more likely, are dreams and those functions part of a similar flexible fabric we keep trying to push away from our world of clear-cut surfaces? Dreams are certainly a part of our condition of being alive. But how do they work? Why do we accept the fact of dreaming, as we accept walking and talking, without ever asking ourselves how, physically, we can be in another place, identity, and story, while we lie in bed sleeping?

We accept dreams but do not accept premonition. Do we have to accept dreams? Or did we? For sometimes it seems as if we are always creating who we are, selecting which of our abilities we want and pretending not to have others. We opt for dreaming—some scientists would say “select for it”—but do we have to dream? We’re always dreaming, perhaps. Some people think an unconscious part of us dreams while we’re awake—and I have personal experience of this. There is a wall in ourselves between sleeping and waking that dissolves at night, but we’re always dreaming; and a part of one is always awake. The dreamer is awake in the dream.

How are we able to experience dreams at night as a physical reality, as we do? This seems to me to be a much stickier problem than the fact of premonition and telepathy in dreams. I mean, if you accept dreams in all their impossibility, you might as well accept something like premonition. Why does it seem acceptable to you that you can dream you’re married to someone you’ve never seen in waking life (you realize when you wake up)—in fact, a mean drunk—in an apartment you’ve never been in? “Oh, yes, that’s normal for dreams,” you say. How is that normal?

Somehow our senses are working, but what are they stimulated by? Where did this guy come from? He and the apartment were rock-solid and he was, absolutely, my husband. The dream was scary and intense. I incorporated it into a poem (that I’ve never published) twenty-seven years ago. It still upsets me to think about the dream. I can interpret it, if I want to, but I can’t explain the physical reality of the tall thin man with slick almost pompadourish red hair and the apartment with its twilit psychic emptiness, and I can’t explain the fact that I was that story. I wasn’t myself, but I was.

As no science explains adequately how dreams work, no one can explain how a poem works. Where is a dream, sure, but where is a poem? I believe somewhat in Williams’ formulation that a poem is a machine made out of words, but, finally, the poem isn’t where the words are. The poem is somewhere between the words and the reader, or it is the words taken into the reader, who exists within the general society and its history. You enter the poem when you open to its page or remember it, having memorized it, but it is a much larger world than the page. It is transformed when you say it out loud; and it changes from reading to reading—you, the reader, change it, for one thing, as you change—or is it that it changes for you? If you are reading a poem by Catullus, you are in no way the same as an ancient Roman reading it: you are not that person—that kind of person, though it is that poem, as those words.

But even if you know Latin, you don’t “speak Latin,” and you haven’t much feeling for what it was like to be a Roman. A poem, like a dream, has an odd relation to time: it is in time, like a poem by Catullus, but it is timeless, as an object made out of words. A dream lasts a moment but endures as a memory might: but it didn’t really happen. A memory can be backed-up, but no outside observer can find the particulars of a dream in time and space (evidence of REM or whatever isn’t evidence of what happened in your dream). A poem didn’t or doesn’t happen, it’s a still group of words on a page; and a story doesn’t really happen either. We say that dreams, poems, and stories occur in the imagination, or the psyche, or whatever word we’re using right now, to invent another entity that doesn’t concretely exist to put them in. But doesn’t the “real world” exist in some collective category like that? All we do is dream; we live in poems and stories we invent.

I’m interested in how caught up I can be in a daily comic strip in the newspaper, given four meager frames a day, of “unreal” actions perpetrated by line drawings who speak in balloons. For the last couple of years, reading Doonesbury on a daily basis in the International Herald Tribune, I have felt completely involved in the strip whenever the character B.D., whose leg was shot o’ in Iraq, enters this amazingly sketchy, involving world. Recently another character, Toggle, has been shot up—shot in the head—has aphasia, and has been transferred from Iraq to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, where B.D. is visiting him. I was recently in New York, and reading the comics one morning I said to Jess Fiorini, “It looks like Toggle is finally about to make it to Walter Reed.” “Oh, yes,” she replied seriously, “I saw that.” Toggle is probably more real to me than Barack Obama or John McCain are; I am commenting on my imagination, not on them.

I read, on a daily basis, Doonesbury, reruns of Peanuts, and Calvin and Hobbes, and sometimes Dilbert. The world of Peanuts is worth reentering many times—it grows more beautiful as time passes, the drawing always seems more interesting and the situations more poetic: it has become literary and artistic, in time, though I suppose it always was—but these qualities are becoming more evident. I miss the comic strips of my earliest childhood, though. I remember being entirely caught up in Dick Tracy during the saga of the angel girl whose name I can no longer remember; I can still see her radioactive angel-winged hair. None of this ever happened.

We are constantly remaking the world from the inside out.

Suppose you admit that the world, physical reality, going on from day to day, is, in some long-term way, plastic, malleable. You can conceive of existence as a field you are involved in shaping. You can think of yourself as almost totally shaping it on your own or reshaping it; refusing to accept the names people give to its shape automatically transforms it straight o’. We are dreaming together, but we are dreaming separately too. Some of us are writing poems, and sometimes the poems are dreamlike.

For example, there has been a school of poetry, Surrealism, inspired by the apparent mechanics of dreams, that contributed single words to the culture—“surreal,” “surrealistic”—and also furnished a way of viewing the overall story we may be in: “This war is surreal.” For a very long time in Western civilization, there existed a literary form, sometimes called a dream vision, sometimes called an apocalypse, in which a lady appeared to a protagonist in dire circumstance and urged him or her not to give in to despair, and instead to grow strong and conquer fear and doubt.

The vision of the lady, from Boethius, through Dante, Christine de Pizan, and Chaucer, and more recently in poets like D.G. Rossetti and T.S. Eliot—that’s almost two thousand years of these visions—is a powerful poetic event, still. The dream is as real as the words that describe it, as when the three ladies appear to Christine, in La Cité des Dames, who is despairing at the misogyny of the world and wondering if the female sex is indeed the inferior one:

Lost in these painful thoughts, my head bowed in shame, my eyes full of tears, my hand supporting my cheek and my elbow on the pommel of my chair’s armrest, I suddenly saw a ray of light descending onto my lap as if it were the sun. And as I was sitting in a dark place where the sun could not shine at this hour, I was startled as if awakened from sleep. And as I lifted my head to see where this light was coming from, I saw standing before me three crowned ladies of great nobility. The light coming from their bright faces illuminated me and the whole room. Now, no one would ask whether I was surprised, given that my doors were closed, and nevertheless they had come here. Wondering whether some phantom had come to tempt me, in my fright I made the sign of the cross on my forehead.

Then the first of the three began to address me as follows: “Dear daughter, do not be afraid, for we have not come to bother or to trouble you but rather to comfort you, having taken pity on your distress, and to move you out of the ignorance that blinds your own intelligence so that you reject what you know for certain and believe what you do not know, see, and recognize except through a variety of strange opinions.”

In a typical dream vision, the lady or ladies tell the seer or dreamer that she or he must not believe the world, or give in, mentally, to its brute force by acceding to abjection, that there is an evident truth that she knows for herself and that will now be proven to her, by Lady Reason, or Dame Philosophy, or whoever. The dream is right, you see, and the world is wrong; the poem knows, and the lady will now impart its highest knowledge. When I read this kind of work, I am always startled when the lady appears, I find her as beautiful as the writer does, and I believe in her reality absolutely, though she is most often “an allegorical figure.” That’s what we call her: Reason is not real, it’s an “abstraction.”

In fact, Reason is as real as Lady Reason is, as real as the vision of her arising from the words on the page; she is real at that moment, the writer is real, and I am not there, the only one present who is real, the one who will remember that last moment when she appeared to me, when I identified with the protagonist. In fact, there seems to me to be nothing truer in this world and these times than Christine’s despair at the world’s misogyny six hundred or so years ago; nor anything as true as Lady Reason’s defense of women.

We are constantly remaking the world from the inside out. As I say at the end of The Descent of Alette: ‘“I will change the” “forms in dreams” … / “Starting” / “from dreams,” “from dreams we” “can change,” “will change…”’ If we can be clear that reality is changeable, we can change it; and we can understand better both what our dreams are and what poetry can do for us. Dreams remind us that we can shape the world, that it doesn’t fit into the categories we tend to make for it: we think and observe with our dreams and communicate with unconscious others, moving about in a time and space whose walls are down. Poetry is our conscious attempt to reshape the world, which is, as Philip Whalen says, “by nature wicked.” We make it and remake it over and over. It’s practically all we’re doing; I mean, poetry is practically all that we’re doing.


New Weathers

Excerpted from New Weathers: Poetics from the Naropa Archive, edited by Anne Waldman and Emma Gomis, published by Nightboat Books.

Alice Notley
Alice Notley
Alice Notley has published over forty books of poetry, including (most recently) Benediction, Negativity’s Kiss, and Certain Magical Acts. She has received many awards including the Academy of American Poets’ Lenore Marshall Prize, the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Award, the Griffin International Prize, two NEA Grants, the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Poetry, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. She lives and writes in Paris, France.

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