A poem based on recurrent and shared dreams, spring 1974, by John Hollander
In a poem of the spring of 1974... called "The Train" I worked some of the landscape from recurring dreams of my own and of my wife of twenty years from whom I was just then separated; it was as if perhaps to augment imagination's power over events it could only represent.
"The Train" concerns two fictional dreamers, lying beside each other in bed, dreaming overlapping--or, in the mythology of the poem, interpenetrating--dreams. Actual dreams of transportation systems, missed connections and of a particular, unique dream which had in fact recently been " shared" by two sleepers in bed together--these composed the scenery of various episodes in the poem, which were connected by continuing glimpses of a train--the train of the poem's thought--making its way through a larger landscape. Sometimes, in a tunnel, it became the actual sexual penetration of one of the sleepers by the other, and similarly one dream "inside" another one. That railroad ties are called "sleepers" provides another mode of connection between the metaphoric train and the dreamers in and around the poem.
I don't think that I could have managed "The Train" (a poem which I prize highly) without having come to terms with the meta-relation, as it were, of three relations between dream and text:
The dreamers lie like sections
Was it that the train had lain
Sleepers lie under the rails.
Which same came running: the great
The other recalled her own
Then the tenderly retired engine, the
This roadbed is at the right
He wakens. They recall
Neither have they heard the past, wherein huge, black
Passing beyond their window into darkness,
Cast there like unwise dice, their numbers covered
And not those twin cousins of slumber, tunnel
The roadbed rumpled, the clear and distinct cars
Like the awakened dreamers, who rise now in
Trailing off into far distance, the train of
The Fair: The New York World's Fair of 1939-40. Buttons saying I Have Seen the Future were distributed there.
"The Train" originally appeared in the periodical Canto; it's in John Hollander's collection Blue Wine (© Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979; reprinted here with permission). Hollander's commentary is mostly from Night Errands: How Poets Use Dreams (ed. Roderick Townley, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998) with a few emailed additions.
"Actual dreams of transportation systems, missed connections and of a particular, unique dream which had in fact recently been 'shared' by two sleepers in bed together--these composed the scenery of various episodes of the poem..."Careful wording! Even coy. "Two sleepers" could be anyone, and such ambiguity is deliberate. Did John experience a shared dream firsthand, here a final sharing with his wife as they parted, or with someone new? From this wording, the shared dream could even have been told him by friends.
I've had shared dreams with friends and lovers, so I know the phenomenon is real; I even told a double dream as twin poems, Coffins; but this is the only other poem I've found on such experiences. And what an intricate one! I wish I knew how the original shared dream compares with the poem's images; is it the man's passing notice of a poster in the station, reflecting the woman's dream of a freeway-maze? Or is that a mere intro to the real thing: parallel dreams recalling the World's Fair?
I asked John to let me include this piece because it demonstrates both strengths a dream-artist (of any medium) must aim for:
Both are hardly news for artists. The Romantics' notion of "negative capability"--the courage and clarity to walk into the fog around what's known--contains both. But I find most dream-artists focus on half of my formulation! Strong content, weak technique--or vice versa. Hollander cultivates both; The Train seems a powerful example of this two-handed approach.
But John himself has a still more complex tripartite view of dream-poetry:
"three relations between dream and text: (1) allusion to actual dreams of one's own, (2) narrative fictions of dreaming in the text, and (3) the condition of poetry (or genre of poem, if one must, or intensity of poetic force) which allows a poetic text, no matter how carefully contrived and constructed, to escape from the hand of the poets's wit, and partake of the unwitting poesis of dream work."
Maybe the narrower view of dreams as mere raw material arose from Freud's obsessive symbolism and his doubts about ESP. Shamans in other cultures treat dreams more literally--as real experiences which can (like any life-experience) be symbolic, but also can provide literal warnings useful to the dreamer and to the wider community. A third eye! That's close to Yeats's view--the dream's both real and symbolic. But then I'd call him a self-taught shaman; like Blake.
In creation-fever, something extraordinary does happen; but the same thing as dreaming? "Poems are neither nightdream nor day-dream." I just don't know. What do you think?
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