A Dreamku Primer
Writing Haiku-Like Poems About Your Night Dreams
by Roswila [aka Patricia Kelly]
Intro - 1: Writing Dreamku as Dreamwork - 2: Elements of the Haiku Form used in Dreamku - 3: How to Write Dreamku - Conclusion
"...a quick way to the heart of a dream, that presents the images in a dream-like form....I'm gaining insights from [writing dreamku] as well as enjoying, it, and that's a lovely combination."
Mary Pat, in email correspondence
Collaged cover of dreamku notebook by Roswila
I am a long-time dream worker and haiku enthusiast. I've written free verse based on my night dreams for a very long time. In more recent years, I have been writing dream-based haiku. Although I have not been fully comfortable that my dream haiku honor the haiku form, I have still felt compelled to keep writing them. Mostly because they have been a very effective and inspiring dream work tool, but also because I want to become more adept at honoring the haiku form. Then, a few months ago, it occurred to me that what I am actually doing is developing a new form, rooted in the haiku tradition. I am now terming what I write "dreamku."
I write dreamku primarily to explore and understand my dreams. However, writers who are not focused on dream work as I am, can use it simply to draw inspiration from their night dreams. In addition, the economy and subtleties of this haiku-like form offer many opportunities to experiment with and learn about evocation and suggestion, among other aspects of writing. In short, in addition to being a dream work tool, dreamku can help writers tap their dreams for poetry prompts, as well as stretch and develop their craft. I hasten to add that writing dreamku is, above all, an enjoyable and satisfying pursuit.
To use dreamku for dream work or to tap your dreams for writing prompts, I assume the keeping of a dream journal. If you wish to write dreamku specifically for dream work, a dream journal is essential as well for recording your insights. Also for the purposes of doing dream work I assume some experience with dream exploration. (I will specifically address how dream insights can occur in writing dreamku in a separate future post. ) Please note: If you are not interested in using dreamku to gain dream insights, but simply to find poetry prompts in your dreams, you need only try writing as suggested in parts Two and Three of this primer (and keep a dream journal, of course). By the way, these two gifts that writing dreamku offers – obtaining dream insights or inspiration for poetry – are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They aren't for me.
Part One: Writing Dreamku as Dream Work
Writing dreamku is part of a welcome change in how I relate to my dreams. Instead of chasing after every dream, as I've done for many, many years, and then analyzing each at length and in great detail (often consulting the I Ching, The Tarot, the Runes, etc., as well), I let my intuition tell me when and how to respond to them. The vast majority of the time I now feel urged to write a dreamku. A woman who recently began writing dreamku says she, too, finds it changes the approach to dream work in a way that she both likes and is comfortable with. I do still very occasionally feel a need to journal at length about a dream or go to The Tarot to explore it. But these approaches are now exceptions; writing dreamku being by far my preferred response to dreams. However, I imagine the prevalence of dreamku as a way to work with one's dreams will vary for each dream worker, especially for those who do not write poetry as a primary creative pursuit as I do.
Over time, I am finding that dreamku occasionally act as a vastly condensed form of dream record. Usually I feel the need to record an entire dream in my journal. However, sometimes I have the urge to completely forego recording the full dream and go straight to writing dreamku. When I am so moved, writing dreamku serves just as well as recording a complete dream, are more fun to write, and take less time. Quite understandably, this happens mostly with shorter dreams.
I also find that the focus on one moment in a dream that writing dreamku requires can sometimes be enlightening with respect to the total dream. As if any one of the many moments within a dream may serve as a doorway to it's heart, if we are fully present to it. It is much like the insight that can come when writing a title for a dream (as some dream workers do for ease of reference).
Not all dreamku I have written yield important or pointed meanings for the original dream moment or full dream. Some simply remain moments I enjoyed working with in writing the dreamku or found amusing when I dreamed them. Others remain compelling, puzzling dream moments that have not given up any of their mysteries, and that is wonderful also. However, many of the dreamku I write yield an insight during the writing process. And although these insights are not always apparent in the resultant dreamku, they tend to continue to echo there for me.
Part Two: Writing Haiku-Like Poems About Your Night Dreams
Collaged cover of dreamku notebook by Roswila
Elements of the Haiku Form Used in Dreamku
A friend once said that she was quite puzzled by most of my dreamku, since they are so different from regular haiku. I understand her puzzlement, in that they are not fully haiku. However, what any of my dreamku asks is for the reader to take on the dream moment as if it were her own. To see what it feels like, or what thoughts it generates. That is, a dreamku offers a moment to try on, to get inside of. And that, to my mind, is no different ultimately from what a regular haiku invites us to do.
What I say below about the Japanese haiku form is most of what I have learned over the years. I hasten to add that I am always learning about the subtleties of haiku and that I am only addressing here the haiku elements I try to honor in dreamku (i.e., those that seem to work with night dreams). These aspects of haiku are listed in approximate descending order of importance.
(1) TO BE OR NOT TO BE 3 LINES OF 5/7/5 SYLLABLES
I infrequently write dreamku in the commonly known three lines of 5/7/5 syllables. Japanese is polysyllabic, therefore, there are fewer words in a Japanese haiku of 17 syllables, than in a 17 syllable English haiku. To approximate the "feel" of a classic Japanese haiku in English, then, fewer syllables are required. However, if you have not written haiku or dreamku before, writing for a while in 3 lines of 5/7/5 syllables can be an excellent exercise to absorb the shape and feel of the form. One friend writes wonderful dreamku exclusively in this style. It is ultimately a matter of personal preference whether one sticks to the 5/7/5 convention or modifies it. But please, no matter how many lines or syllables you use, remember that words like "the" and "a" are needed in haiku or dreamku. I.e., don't drop them out for the sake of saving a syllable. A sample dreamku of mine in 12 syllables:
fear makes the tiger
Some modern haiku are one line of nine or so syllables. I am quite drawn to one line haiku or dreamku. They echo haiku written in Japanese ideograms, only those are in single vertical lines. Here's a one line dreamku:
exposed....her green-skinned wicked witch
However, when writing dreamku, I always feel guided by three lines of 5/7/5, rarely exceeding that syllable count (per line, and total) and almost always writing in three lines. I believe this is because it gives me a mental net in which to initially catch the often illusive or intractable dream moment. But maybe it's just a simple matter of long habit from the very early years when I was first trying to write haiku. :-)
(2) COMPARE AND/OR CONTRAST
There is a comparison or contrast between two things in a haiku or dreakmu, or one thing comes out of or results from the other. One of my dreamku that illustrates contrast:
a terrace ofThis one shows one element resulting from the other:
dried grape vines
your bright smile
baby owlsWhen I first wrote haiku about dreams, I tried contrasting or comparing the dream to my waking from it. This proved to be mostly very limiting and quite awkward, but it does work occasionally, as in this dreamku:
hatch behind the couch
what to feed them
waking to spring rain
(3) NOT A COMPLETE SENTENCE
A haiku or dreamku is not one complete sentence broken into three lines. It's usually (though not always) one two line sentence, preceded or capped by a sentence fragment. Sometimes it's three sentences or fragments, or two fragments and one sentence or, as mentioned above, only one line. In the case of one line haiku or dreamku, they still do not consist of one complete sentence. One line haiku or dreamku have two sections which can run together or be separated by blank spaces, dashes, or ellipses – e.g. the above one line dreamku under (1) . But neither haiku nor dreamku are ever one complete sentence. (Though the translations of some haiku into English do read that way.)
(4) SEASON WORD
"Kigo" in Japanese is a word indicating the season in which a haiku is set. I do not always use a season word in regular haiku, and extremely rarely in dreamku. It can be rather awkward and artificial, I find, to include a kigo in a dreamku. To my understanding, what a kigo brings to a haiku is a broader context or connectedness. In the case of a dreamku, the word "dream," or the awareness that the poem is about a dream since it's a dreamku, accomplishes that same purpose. I think I even read somewhere that the word "dream" could be considered a kigo. The dreamku above under aspect (2) is one of the few I've written that references a season (technically, "spring" is a "ki" – season name – but it serves the same purpose as a kigo). But maybe you'll be more successful in using kigo in dreamku than I have been. :-)
(5) BE HERE NOW
Write in the present tense. Being in the present moment is traditional in haiku and is often good in any sort of poetry, but especially with dreamku. We tend to be suggestible creatures (even those of us who like to think we aren't :-D), so when we write or read something in the present tense we begin to experience it, to bring more of ourselves to it, which can only add to the effectiveness of our writing and to our enjoyment of the poem.
(6) "I" AND "ME" ARE WELCOME
There's a belief by some that self is not appropriately expressed in haiku, that the "I" or "me" should not be apparent in the poem. This "zen" approach does contribute to a great deal of wonderful haiku. However, it's not the only way haiku is written, and it is definitely not the only way I work with dreamku. Here's a recent dreamku of mine in which I use "I":
I sing shylyIn our discussion of this issue of "I/Me" in haiku, a friend revised this to read:
it might as well be spring
it might as well be spring
His version illustrates how not using "I/Me" affects a haiku or dreamku. It "universalizes" the poem, leaving more room for the reader to relate to it. It also allows the reader to focus on what is happening and not on who is doing it. (I really like his version, by the way. As I said to him, I wish I could claim it as my own and as a haiku.) I agree with the point he then made that dreamku need to use "I/Me" more frequently than haiku, as who is the doer often needs to be clearer. This is quite true in my experience since dreamku tend to be surreal or have unusual or impossible juxtapositions. Therefore, there's a smaller common base between writer and reader than in haiku, so that less can be inferred or assumed by a reader. Though the source dream for my above dreamku was only minimally surreal, it was not clear whose or even what heart was attentive, simply that there was heart attention. Therefore, using "I" creates a clearer separation between the specific singer and the unknown heart. In short, "I/Me" can often be more necessary in dreamku than in haiku, as dreamku tend to require more specificity in order to carry the dream moment.
(7) SHOW, DON'T TELL
Leave things unsaid in both haiku and dreamku, i.e., evoke or suggest. Set the scene and let the reader experience it for herself and come to her own conclusions. Though I generally try not to, I do write dreamku that have teaching orientations or points that may be rather apparent. (Some dream moments are so clearly "teachers.") But in my more "pointed" dreamku I still do my best to leave wiggle room for the reader. Put another way, dreamku are best when they don't nail a scene down with meaning, but open it up to exploration. One easy trap – that I fall into, again and again – is to write one line that explains or makes the point of the rest of the haiku or dreamku. Trust your reader. You (and I) don't have to lay it out for them completely. And they may even go fascinating places with it you (and I) did not expect. A dreamku of mine that suggests:
dream shardIt's this "show, don't tell" aspect of both haiku and dreamku that makes expression (as opposed to evocation or suggestion) of emotion a challenge. Emotions are responses to a situation and especially when overtly described are a "telling." But emotions are also often the heart of a dream moment. Therefore, I find that in writing dreamku I'm consistently taking on that challenge of emotional expressiveness.
for what's been buried
(8) IT ONLY TAKES A MOMENT
Haiku and dreamku rarely tell entire stories, though sometimes one can be deduced from the "showing, not telling." Haiku and dreamku are almost always about where we stand on the shifting sands between the past and future: the present moment. In dreamku, that means it's about one moment within a full dream. It is hard for me to describe how I determine what one moment is in a dream. One guideline is "less is more." Another, if you find you have too many words to fit the form and can't reasonably whittle them down, you may be trying to write about too big a piece of the dream. On the other hand, less in dreamku can be inferred or assumed by a reader since dreams are often surreal or have unusual or impossible juxtapositions. Therefore, the dreamku may need to include more from the dream than you might initially intend in order to evoke that dream moment for a reader. I suggest you just start writing dreamku and you will develop a sense of what one moment consists of within any particular dream. The folk I know who are currently writing dreamku have been able to do this, apparently rather readily. (Please note that I say here and elsewhere "evoke" the moment for a reader, not "make it clear." Dreamku are not so much open to being clearly understood, as to being experienced and associated to, much like their source dreams and haiku.)
(9) NOT ONLY NATURE, NOR SO SERIOUS
Neither haiku nor dreamku are written exclusively about nature, especially dreamku. Nor is either form humorless or inhospitable to whimsy. Here's a silly dreamku of mine. I laughed even in the dream, for all the pricking of the thorns:
For an illustrated prose
treatment of a similar dream
see Icarian Pain--Ed.
I finally fly(10) NO SIMILES
but get caught up in thorn trees
a dark shadow(11) PLAY WITH WORDS
invades the soldier's skull
the war at home
rust colored bugs crawl(12) CAPITALIZATION; PUNCTUATION; GERUNDS; ALLITERATION, ETC.
from the phone recharger base
(13) NO TITLES...
...except when two or more haiku or dreamku are meant to be read together.
Part Three: How to Write Dreamku
These "how to's" are listed in the approximate order you might use them.
(1) READ HAIKU AND WHATEVER DREAMKU YOU CAN FIND: to absorb what these forms are about. Try
(2) ONE DREAM MOMENT PER DREAMKU
Keep your focus narrowed to one moment per dreamku. Once in a great while I've found it possible to write a dreamku about an entire long dream, but generally speaking, trying to do so only produced a forced and extremely busy dreamku. Select one moment of the dream you find particularly impactful, intriguing, amusing, or puzzling, or even repellant. I've also just closed my eyes, wiggled my forefinger around above my dream notes page, then plunked it down, and written about the moment I wound up pointing to. Whatever gets you writing about the dream! You can always write subsequent dreamku on other moments of that same dream.
(3) JUMP RIGHT IN, THE WATER'S FINE
No pre-thinking or analysis; just start organizing words describing the dream moment you've picked into the dreamku form. The rest (i.e. what to highlight, how best to describe what, what to drop or add, order of lines, spontaneous insight into the dream, etc.) will flow from that process. Occasionally, I feel drawn to write a dreamku on a moment from an old dream I've already analyzed at great length. That can be an intriguing process, too. A few times it has revealed new ways to understand the dream moment or even the full dream.
(4) NO DUMPING ALLOWED
Don't toss out a dreamku that doesn't seem to be working. I've found that with dreamku they often benefit from steeping for a while, even more so than other sorts of poems I write. E.g., I'll enter a questionable dreamku in my little notebook and weeks, even months later I will suddenly see what it needs to work. And even if it never works as a dreamku, you have it as part of the source dream's record.
(5) INTENSITY PERMITTED
There is a long established "haiku spirit" that is understated and inviting, that makes the expression of emotional intensity in haiku quite a challenge, to say the least, but also helps create that wonderful unforced and frequently very subtle haiku sensibility. I do not think emotional intensity should be avoided altogether in haiku and especially not in dreamku, as emotions can so often be an integral part, even the heart of dream moments. That said, I have found that it is not easy to do within dreamku. Intense words and emotions do tend to overwhelm both the haiku and the dreamku form, to come across as overblown even when most sincerely stated. However, don't be afraid to try expressing intense emotion, but do carefully read over your intensely emotional dreamku for their possible impact. It may mean you will need to dial back the emotion a bit in order to make it more workable within the dreamku form. So that the form can effectively carry what the dream moment is offering. Of all the aspects of the developing dreamku form, this is the one I wrestle with most. In fact, I can imagine that folk who are knowledgeable about haiku wince when they read some of my more intense dreamku. Though I do think I am gradually learning how to be emotionally expressive in a dreamku in a way that does not sink the poem, nor dilute or do injustice to the dream moment itself. Here's a dreamku of mine about intense emotion:
she dances on the rocks to
reduce them to sand
In an early version I used the word "grind" instead of "reduce." I liked the echo of the "gr" in grief, but felt the word "grind" itself made the dreamku too harsh, too heavy. That in effect it ground the dreamku down along with the rocks.
(6) DROPPING FROM AND ADDING TO THE DREAM MOMENT
Don't hesitate to drop parts of the dream moment as you write the dreamku or, conversely, to be descriptive about the dream moment in a way the dream may not have been as long as it "rings true." When we start to write a dreamku we are usually entering an intuitive (even sometimes dream-like) frame of mine, and whatever deletions or additions suggest themselves will almost certainly be quite appropriate. Also I believe a dreamku need not be a literal transcript of the dream moment to be true to the dream. Arguably, any experience that is not the actual moment as it is being experienced is memory and, therefore, subject to change in our minds. But even so, stay as close as possible to that dream moment, and know that it may still require tweaking for its life to shine through. Generally speaking, dream moments seem to require paring down in dreamku writing, far more often than amplification.
(7) DATE AND RECORD ALL DREAMKU IN A JOURNAL
I keep my dreamku in a different notebook from my dream journal, but you will determine what arrangement works best for you. I do strongly recommend, though, that you date your dreamku the same date as the source dream, no matter when you actually write the dreamku. I've found I occasionally want to read the entire dream from which a dreamku came and that way I can find it in my dream journal.
Don't be afraid to experiment with the dreamku form. But do first become familiar with it's parameters by writing in it for a while. When you do experiment, try not to go so far afield that the dreamku has no roots in the basic haiku form. I've tried writing a few dreamku series – based on one full dream or a series of dreams – in which there is a progression or some sort of link from one dreamku to the next. I also usually write each dreamku in a series so that it could stand alone. (In fact, some of my series consist of "singletons" that I only put together under a title later when I saw that they related to each other.) Below is a series that also illustrates how I've tried working with emotional intensity. The overall feel of the series is emotionally dark (dreamku two and five are more explicitly so, and the rest implicitly).
For a nonhaiku poem
on a similar dream
For a wide range of
FIVE DUSTY SHARDSHere's another very experimental series in which I work with repetition, and with having each dreamku depend on the previous – as opposed to being able to stand alone. These departures from my own ideas of what the dreamku form is about were prompted by the content of the dreams. Also, the last dreamku in the series has a definite point to it, which I mostly try to avoid. But it was one of those dream moments that spoke its point – I "heard" the words – and it pulled the previous dream moments together, so I decided to quote it.
(based on dreams of 12/21/06)
he admits to
the young girl threatens
to call the police
the famous man
signs his photo for the girl
I track the lost girl
by her noisy shoes
the girl rounds on me
with a knife in each hand
For a wide range of
prose, poem and graphic
treatments of such
see Dream Advice
and Oracular Dreams --Ed.
(from dreams in March & early April 2007)
her troubled son
is now in my lap
his friend's illness
we don't have to follow
along in these lines
she wears sparkly hose
on her huge legs
my friend casually drinks
they collage the inside
of a glass vase
it's all art
The "pointed" dreamku that ends the above series is a good place to close. If I believe that I can hold on to anything in life it is to the understanding that we create our responses to the present moment. That said, I invite you to create some dreamku and share them. Sharing can be very affirming, encouraging, and inspiring in any sort of writing effort, but especially when you are working in a form new to you. It can also be intriguing to hear of others' associations to your dreamku. In several instances, the similarities between my dreamku moments and an email friend's were delightful surprises. One friend said that she had learned something new about her dreamku just by choosing some to share with me by email. You can always email me your dreamku, comments, or questions or post them in a comment on my site at
I will be delighted to respond.
Roswila argues that the stranger the dream content, the clearer and more specific the language must be for a dreamku to work; you may need anchors (pronouns, locators) you might well omit from a haiku. This is vital for dream prose, too. Even in my raw dream accounts I write as plainly as I can--reporting, not literature. My feelings are among the facts to report, but poetry mustn't eclipse the facts. LATER, I may trim, play with style, add similes and metaphors for color and feeling. But observation comes first. Poem or prose, short or long, a hazy dream narrative loses the reader--and, often, the dreamer. You can't learn from what you've ignored. That's what haiku's about, after all: noticing.
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