"To Change the World" and "Kubla Khan" by Coleridge; dream-poetry issues in a workshop for writers and teachers
Poetic Words and Images from Dreams
1. Welcome to this Tuesday Workshop for Writers and Teachers where we discuss issues relevant to the processes of writing and teaching basic language skills as we read from the wonderful resources of English, American, and world literature.
2. As regular attendees know, we often describe the background of a particular piece of writing in order to focus attention on the general problem among writers of finding the proper sources and motivations required for the writing something worthwhile.
3. Here today, however, we will confront the undisputed fact that some of our best writing seems to rise up out of nowhere in particular, and in fact, defies full explanation, as if in a complex, undecipherable dream, which often leaves us with a first-class problem of what to do with it.
4. Almost every writer, whether a neophyte with a laptop, or a seasoned pro with years of experience going back to longhand, will agree that verbal images sometimes gush forth that make little sense, but sound too good to throw away, and so we sit there and try to make some sense out of them.
The Case of My Dream Poem
5. That situation describes some words that came to me in the middle of one night last year, Sunday night May 1-2, 2011, when I happened to be sleeping alone in the living room, so I had (a) the opportunity (no one to disturb), (b) the motive (self-expression), and (c) the means (a handy pad of note paper) to write down the following lines which still reside handwritten in my filing cabinet:
Tonight I dreamed that you and I
were striving, driving through the sky
to meet and greet the Golden Czar
returning from a distant star.
6. Wow! The next morning when I read those lines to my wife, she responded with sentiments you would expect from any skeptical wife, "What the heck is that all about?!"
7. I had to admit to her, I didn't have the slightest idea!
8. But "you and I" rhymed so well with "through the sky," while "Golden Czar" rhymed even better with "distant star"!
9. And surely "striving, driving" juxtaposed with "through the sky" made assonance too good to ignore, not to speak of going to "meet and greet" the return of an obviously magnificent dignitary.
10. How could any aspiring writer discard such imagery? Isn't that what inspiration is supposed to be all about?
11. I felt the inspired words must have some deeper meaning it was my job to dig out and express.
The Coleridge Case of Kubla Khan
12. I remembered the case of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) who lost his train of thought forever when interrupted while writing "Kubla Khan: Or, A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment" (1798), 54 lines beginning with the memorable rhymes,
"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea."
13. Virtually every anthology of English poetry includes this poem as a sublime example of the English Romantic period, but it still remains unfinished to this day.
14. I couldn't help looking up the story to see if I could discover how and why did this inability to finish occurred.
15. Coleridge himself wrote this third-person account of himself in six long sentences for the poem's first publication in 1816 (as reprinted in The Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge, Oxford University Press, 1912, pp. 295-97).
16. "The following fragment is here published at the request of a poet of great and deserved celebrity [Lord Byron], and as far as the Author's own opinions are concerned, rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the ground of any supposed poetic merits.
17. "In the summer of the year 1797 [actually 1798], the Author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farm-house between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne has been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading the following sentence . . . 'Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. . . .'
18. "The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort.
19. "On awaking he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved.
20. "At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after [sic] restoration of the latter!"
21. "Yet from the still surviving recollections in his mind, the Author has frequently purposed to finish for himself what had been originally, as it were, given to him. Σαμερον αδιoν ασω [Greek from Theocritus, meaning roughly, "Today, devilish, is distracting, disabling"]: but the to-morrow is yet to come."
Finishing My Dream Poem
22. Yes, I thought, I must not let the "devilish today" that stymied Coleridge from finishing "Kubla Khan" keep me from finishing my dream poem, for tomorrow may never come.
23. Finding the meaning of one's effortless inspiration often requires tedious, time-consuming perspiration, but in this case it was a piece of cake.
24. Daytime inspiration did not balk at giving me the 16 more lines I needed to finish what started with the original four.
25. So with eager hope, on May 20, 2011, I submitted the 20 lines as "Fragments of a Dream," along with several other short poems, for publication in The New Yorker magazine. All too soon came the routine email reply (which they must get awfully tired of sending out), to the effect, that we are unable to use your poetry, but thank you for thinking of The New Yorker.
26. To be perfectly honest, I have not wasted one more moment thinking of them since that day, largely because in June, I discovered HubPages, and by July I published the poem for the whole world to read as "A Dream of Driving through the Sky."
27. After 17 months as a hub, however, the world had still not discovered it, and it had, in fact, achieved the lowest rating of any of my 50 or so hub offerings, a 46, I believe.
28. So what to do about it? I renamed the poem "Fragments of a Dream" on page 8 of my booklet American Sonnets and Other Poems (privately printed, April 2012), but still (Nov. 27, 2012) no response to what I continue to believe is the basis for a worthy poem.
29. Still a work in progress, I now think the vague title, with its subtle ironic meaning for the author, bores and loses most everyone else, so I decided to move the essence of the summary conclusion up into the title as an experiment in title tinkering not only to improve reader response and search-engine pickup, but to bring the poem explicitly into harmony with my continuing invitation for others to join me in the search for a "philosophy of personal creation and world citizenship" accessible to all people everywhere.
20. So with the addition of this Tuesday Workshop for Writers and Teachers, I continue to submit the poem for public reading, criticism, and suggestions, while hoping the discussion at least brings into focus the issues surrounding dream-inspired poetry. Please let me know what you think.
To Change the World . . .
Begins Afresh with You and Me
Last night I dreamed that you and I
were striving, driving through the sky
to meet and greet the Golden Czar
returning from a distant star.
The unknown road by faith we knew
went straight ahead, but out of view.
One stretch ahead we saw no light,
our hands and feet ice cold with fright.
I said to you, “Should we turn back,
or quit, or seek another track?”
But I could only hear you say,
“Hold to our worthy plan, and pray!”
The purest, wisest dream I ever had,
no one malicious, angry, sad, or bad;
a world revealed inspired with love and peace;
good will and happiness would never cease.
It changed when I awoke, but did not change
my work of helping make that dream come true.
To change the world may lie beyond my range,
but it began afresh with me and you.
May 1-2, 2011
Slight revisions to November 27, 2012
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