Poets Online Archive

Night Errands: How Poets Use Dreams, edited by Roderick Townley, is an anthology of essays and accompanying poems by over two dozen contemporary American poets. It focuses on the messages the subconscious sends nightly to poets, and the ways such communications affect their work. The book is based on the premise that dreams and poetry are intimately related and in fact, parallel languages. Both rely on compression. juxtaposition, deep imagery, and ambiguity to create a charged atmosphere and unearth buried truths.

Freud formalized the relationship between dreaming and creative writing. He compared dreaming to writing a poem - you are trying to put all your thoughts down in the most succinct possible way, and so you translate your thoughts into concrete imagistic language. (In this analogy we see that displacement and condensation are closely connected). At other times Freud says a dream is a bit like a hieroglyphic script or a rebus, and they present the same difficulties of translation as did the Rosseta stone. (FromFreud.org) Poets from Coleridge and beyond have examined the relationship between a poem and a dream.

The model poem we used was The Song in the Dream by Saskia Hamilton was from her book As For Dream (Graywolf Press).

Select a dream you have had as the starting place. It may be helpful to focus on an single aspect of the dream (as Hamilton does) - perhaps an object, person, action or the setting.

Here we are all, by day;
by night we are hurled by dreams,
each one into a several world.
-Robert Herrick

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
Begin it. Begin it now.


The purse that held the yen
A burnished brick
Not the khaki of fatigues
But the kaki of ripe persimmon
A supple orange leather
Long abandoned
Returning now
To pay the bus fare
of a dream

Shaula Evans


It was an American dream
I dreamed in English,
ich ging in Walde
I went into the woods
and it was there the
dream started.

No one on the trail knew my name but as they do in America, they smiled as they passed. Most had cameras, hats to keep bugs and deer ticks off their faces and out of their hair. And sunglasses. Dark sunglasses so I could see no one’s eyes. So vor mich hin, it was not clear why I was headed into these woods so I just kept going – und nichts zu suchen.

As I got deeper in there were fewer people, rougher terrain, dark canopy of green overhead that blocked out much of the sun. I stopped to catch my breath at the top of a particularly steep stretch and to ponder the canyons below and beside me. There were prayers in this place. It was when I opened my eyes I saw him. He seemed to be floating somehow, his bare feet not quite touching the forest floor, a pale pile of fallen pine needles and bits of bark downed by summer storms. His eyes were clear and directly focused on mine. As if he knew my unspoken question, he called me by name and said, “You know there’s nothing to search for. And that was your purpose for going into the woods.” I had no answer for him as he faded from view. And das war mein Sinn…

Susan Stewart
note: German lines from Gefunden by Goethe



Still crumbling from a war 13 years old
I felt the press of Sunday morning crowds
In deep sinister alleys draped with laundry,
The dark stairs guard by old ladies
And Napoleonic police in slow parade.

Though warned of false watches,
I, a frightened man of twenty
Wanted to believe the confidence men
Though I knew the watch would not work.
I bought.

The watch told time for only a day.
Through life it lay in my drawer
The paint flaking to tarnished steel.
Yet it has told time well, the time of myself
Though only true twice, two moments a day.
It always told of my dream time,
A time gone without the watch.

Still I have dreams of terror and joy
Even as I threw out the time.

Edward N. Halperin


In the dream I enter
an unfamiliar room
yet nevertheless
feel at home... Relaxing
I fall asleep and begin
a dream within the dream...
about a nude looking
out at rain
when... comes the sound
of birds flying
in the next room... I'm
reminded of the movie
The Birds... and
now with her in
the next room... the nude
I want
to take a photograph...
yet stipulates that...
the violence
should be implied... I
agree with this... advance
film through a blue-glass
as she positions
compliant birds to cast
shadows... yet...
when I release the shutter...
a phone... instead... rings
in the distance... then
a machine
at half that distance picks
and a voice I should know
speaks my name...
and I want to respond but...
it strikes me funny that...
thinking of my early writing...
I can't find my voice... and
having to wake twice this
I reach
consciousness...laughing... Andrew R Cohen



I dream of Max licking my ear;
His warm breath moistening my face.
Bells awaken me. My dream is vivid as I lie abed.
My mind wanders to summer days in our cottage,
Hikes on country roads,
Swimming in the lake,
And then the speeding car, the crash,
The long recovery without recovery,
Finally death dulled by morphine.
Glad to be alive.
Oh Max.
Affectionate company is my necessity.

Ellen Kaplan


I dreamed
my father making wine
then my putting a finger into the press
to savor the the heady essence
of the spirituous must.
the singeing pain,
as the blades closed on my finger.

I dreamed
my mother’s screams following mine
my father’s sinewy arms
gathering me up,
his cries for help at the front door
because we had no phone,
then finding myself laid out
on the kitchen table,
like a rabbit readied for slaughter.
a searing light over me,
stitches piercing my flesh
in a torment greater than the first.

I dreamed
being put to bed
then hearing their
cruel words, words of reproach,
rising in volume to rage.
My mother’s sobbing defeat,
my father’s cold silence,
pounding me to tears,
the pain the hardest to endure.

I awoke
and found a scar on my finger
and on my memory, too.

Gaetana Cannavo


The veil on the hat was over my face.
The left half of my face was covered by a huge price tag that read $250.00,
the same price as the icicle earrings that hung down to my shoulders,
but I knew how to keep them from melting.
The man had a mustache
and looked like someone I knew
in high school.
The sun came out from behind the moon
and barked like a hyena.
I nodded in a mirror that smiled like the Cheshire Cat and said,
"You're twenty-six if you're a day."
The ship was leaving right behind the supermarket, but I missed the boat.
That guy from TV yelled, "You need a purple dress!"
Everyone on the planet had a bus ticket to Vegas stamped with the 23rd Psalm,
and the ground shook with something like a fever.
I hop-scotched diamonds and never blinked once.
Mary Alice was there,
but she wasn't schizophrenic anymore.
The third door on the right was bolted shut,
but I had a sledgehammer and a key.
The veil on the hat was over my face - the price tag read $250.00,
but I guessed that it belonged to someone else -
I was right.
Dreams are white lies that pass a polygraph.
Mary Alice was there, but she wasn't schizophrenic anymore.


Can you conceive of passion a yard in length? David Hume

It's the first dream that I can recall
where I am a character in the dream
rather than the camera eye-
the one watching.

I'm standing near water edge.
Waves so small they are not waves-
perhaps a lake?

I'm talking to my father.
He is the father he was
when he died, but I
am twenty years older,
the woman of the waking time.

So I am his age.

I look into the water
and see that I am naked.
No attempt to cover up,
no surprise. My hands
go to my head and brush
back my hair.

My father lifts a blanket from behind
and puts it around me-
his fingers touch my shoulders
and are so cold that I tense.

But I pull the blanket forward
and so bring him closer to me
and feel him press against my back.

I close my eyes and breathe deeply
and then I'm awake,
here, beside my mother's bed.
She is still sleeping though it is noon.

She had been telling me before this
about my father.
How he could never control his passion,
could not separate the dancer from the dance, *
why, even when he died, she could not explain
to me why she married him, or why she mourned.

Lianna Wright



Iyana, why did you show up
at my backdoor in the month of April?
The Azaleas were blooming.
Did you not realize I might be
in the bedroom loving Paul?
Is that why you called me in a dream?
I really didn't want to leave his arms,
to walk down the long hall
to check on all your rapping.
Even the Swallow knew
you had been here, Iyana.
His melody told me so.
Do you remember
the earthy scent of rain
on that humid April day?
That was when I first
felt your fading.
There's a whole new world of beginning
in this mighty flash of flowers.
Can you smell their fresh intent?
I think I like it here,
within this April moment.
Maybe I will choose
to dream here forever.
Can you imagine it, Iyana--
The Eternal Bloom
of Wild Azaleas?

Francisca Scrivano


White hallways, white doors
occasional white-haired men
sitting in dark offices.

No one belongs here
less than I do.
Not even the greenish grass

looks anything but white.
On a colonnade that isn't there,
I ask a poet about his work.

"These sandwiches are stale,"
he says. Skateboarders
have taken over the quad.

I can hear their rattling
wheels tripping anapests
under coffee ads,

golden threads unraveling
in the labyrinths
of yesterday.

R.G. Evans

So many people,
so many things to do
while they watch and criticize
her every move.
One of them is always
her recently dead husband
who leads the critique.
Time is an ever-present entity,
with deadlines constantly
referred to
by those standing around
with stop-watches
and glowering aspect.

In the morning
she forgets the details
of the night
as she sets her schedules
for her lonely day.
Nothing happens when she fails
to follow a plan,
when she doesn’t clean her plate,
when she lets the clutter

pile up around her,
as she pursues activities
for a change
based upon

Catherine M. LeGault


It was a cold day
& I was Tony Curtis
counting heads.
Two adults and
seven children waited
at the rainy church
and I said
The car's down the block
I'll swing it by to pick you up
but they must have
I could see them
in the rear-view mirror
into a lemon-scented taxi.
Shortly thereafter
I was Captain Cook
awash on Main Street
with nine stone
Easter Island heads
hydroplaning along behind.

Tommy Rowe was singing
I'm So Dizzy
to Perry Como
under the boardwalk.
Near dawn
I drifted toward the beach
where Gilligan read
a homily
on the national anthem.

Ron Lavalette


she comes to me this night
dressed as a young woman
the image of a lover, past.
i can see through her disguise
beyond the rightly painted smile
the powdered cheeks,
her perfume.
go away! i whisper,
you cannot be
yet i wish her close
as my own shallow breath that hovers now about me.
to hold her tightly within these withered arms
close to my dying heart.
''oh youth'' why did you take leave of me?
why did you not take this, my mind also?
she leans down, her hair black as the raven's wing,
touching my face.
her eyes once green i remember.
how can this be, that they now glow red
like brimstones?
it is not my sweetheart who lies waiting,
still, for me on yonder hill.
who embraces me now-
an angel she surely was,
but not an angel that now touches me
with unfeeling hands,
only death

Ray Cutshaw


I wake to hear my son
talking in his sleep,
using that raised shoulder,
placating tone he's grown
into, fending off bullies at school,
listening to another table manner
lecture at the dinner table.

"Uh huh, whatever you say,"
he mumbles, and the bed
creaks under his growing weight.

We talk in our sleep in my family,
at least, some of us do. My dreams
are reportedly vivid, something
about world wide residential railroads,
trapeze artist disasters, a silk turban
of peacock feathers sliding across
a parquet floor.

My son winces in his sleep,
wants to disappear from notice.
I lay awake, listening to him assure
someone in that flat, unconvinced voice:
"that's okay, um hum, whatever."

I want to give him a whip and a red coat
and teach him to tame tigers with a roar,
an assertive snap. His uneasy titter makes
me shift and turn in bed until night thins.

Michelle Cameron




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