Mole Valley Poets, 28th September 2009
Sylvia Herbert: Dream Poetry

Sylvia introduced the theme of dream poetry with reference to the importance that dreams can play in our lives. Imagination, creativity and remembrance are all part of dreaming. Warnings came to people in dreams in the Old Testament. Milton's Paradise Lost and Dante's The Divine Comedy were inspired by dreams. Calderon de la Barea wrote of life as a dream.

Several poems were read during the evening. Charles Causley's Dream Poem gives a sense of deja vue, which often occurs in a dream. There is a description of a house not seen before yet familiar. There is haunting reference to long lost childhood and that very dreamlike sense of someone appearing just out of sight.

Matthew Sweeney's To Ash Again is a sequence where ash from an urn reforms into a reborn man who stole a bicycle, pedalled up hill, drowned in a tarn, became ash again which the urn ate. This personification of inanimate objects is very dreamlike and the whole sequence is detailed and rhythmic.

In The Voice, Thomas Hardy writes of his wife who has died unappreciated in her lifetime and yet calls to him of how she is now as when they first met. This voice is perhaps only the breeze and yet in the last stanza he hears "the wind oozing thin though the thorn" and "the woman calling".

U A Fanthorpe's Sisyphus is a very matter-of-fact telling of the classic tale in which Sisyphus is doomed to repeat over again the pushing of a stone up a hill. The reference to Camus at the beginning of the poem tells of the struggle to the heights being enough to fill a man's heart, "One must imagine Sisyphus happy". The images in the poem are down to earth, gritty and Sisyphus accepts as his vocation "to do what I cannot do". The stone with its warts and snags knows Sisyphus - "muscle, bone, cartilage and muddied skin print" as well as his surfaces, angles and levers. The hill has been studied "with watchmaker's patience". Sisyphus has forgotten the reason the gods had for setting him this task and yet does not care. He cannot afford to spend energy on emotion. He has identified completely with his task.

In The Absent by David Hendtlass there is a house whose "garden roams unchecked" and where "heaps of old journals yellow on a table". The familiar rooms are explored and all is well until, in the gloom of the bathroom, "large metal taps reach for my hands and grip" - dream turning into nightmare.

By contrast, Martyn Cheeseman's Mystical Mother is a cheerful, irreverent, poem about "My mate's Mystical Mother" who "used to live on a barge" and said "she was a medium / but she looked like an extra large". In the third stanza we learn that she "was arrested, I forget the charge". She then escaped and "the papers said; / Beware there's a medium at large." The humour and language work well together in this slightly surreal account.

Robert Frost's After Apple-Picking tells of the over-tired, dreamlike state in which a repetitive and physically tiring task can leave us. He looks at the world through the "pane of glass" skimmed from a water trough. He talks of how the arch of his instep still feels the pressure of the rung of the ladder. He talks of "the ten thousand thousand fruit to touch / cherish in hand, lift down". He anticipates that his sleep will be troubled by a continuation of the day's tasks and wonders whether the woodchuck experiences this in his long sleep.

Dreaming can be a form of escape. In Chris Tuttons's Reporting for Duty, a man dreams of the sea whereas his small son dreams of his father. When the small boy asks "what did you dream, Father?" the unhesitating reply "I always dream of you, my son" jars with the truth of the matter. Even as the father says this, he folds "the morning newspaper into a sailboat".

In My Masterpiece by Andrew Motion, in another life, the painting "Madonna in a Window" has just been completed. Scholars will be outwitted by "the compassion of the face / and unknowable frown". The real triumph however is in the view that extends behind her, where the miller and the poacher live out their miniature lives in the "blue-green hills". There is a sense of impermanence in "a perilous sun-shaft" that strikes for a second before "galleon clouds / storm in behind it".

In Leigh Hunt's poem Abou Ben Adhem, awakening from "a deep dream of peace", sees "an angel writing in a book of gold". He asks what is being written and is told "The names of all those who love the Lord". He asks if his name is there and is told "Nay, not so". Abou asked for the angel to "write me as one who loves his fellow-men". The next night the angel "came again with a great wakening light" and showed the names blest by the love of God and "lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest."

November Dream by Kathleen Raine shows both the solid world of London brick where she awakes and the woodland way where her dream held her in a world as real to her senses as the sensations she experiences on waking.

Lost Belongings by Connie Bensley shows two people in love walking in fresh snow yet with the dreamer's face in close-up "strangely unlike my own. Then the theatre seats at a play written by the lover evaporate with awakening. The dream seems to have belonged to someone else and to have been viewed by mistake.

Friends by Maya Chowdhry brings Sindy and Barbie to life, their plastic roles "Modelling / Evening gowns" upstaged by abseiling from the guttering where Barbie gets stuck and Action Man stages a rescue. Sindy gallops in to help Barbie. By the end of the poem the two friends have been transformed with shorn locks replacing long golden hair.

Self Portrait with Cropped Hair after Frida Kahl by Pascale Petit followed. The ominous "grinding of obsidian blades" and the dancing locks of hair that rise from the floor are given an extra edge of darkness with the words of an old folksong - which tells how of the lover no longer loves the beloved now that she is bald.

The Ice-Cart by Wilfred Wilson Gibson is a dream of escape to a place of ice and cold full of "big white bears" from a reality of "grimy heat" in a city office.

We can all dream. A dream can open doors and give permission to go beyond everyday existence.