‘Dreams are like Poems’:: The Radical Healing Potential of Poetry
This essay explores the radical healing potential of poetry and was prepared for the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF), Rutgers University Chapter, February 4, 2021.
A YouTube video of an earlier version is available for streaming here.
This event was co-sponsored by MFA — Muslim Feminists for the Arts, Arab Cultural Club (ACC), United Muslim Relief (UMR), Unicef Rutgers Chapter, Bengali Student Association, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Lambda Theta Alpha (LTA), Sigma Lambda Gamma (Gammas), Pencils of Promise, Ahlul Bayt Student Association (ABSA), ALPFA Rutgers New Brunswick, Rutgers Thaakat, Rutgers GlobeMed, and Answer for Cancer.
‘Dreams are like Poems’:: The Radical Healing Potential of Poetry
“By making us stop for a moment, poetry gives us an opportunity to think about ourselves as human beings on this planet and what we mean to each other.”
— Rita Dove
As a tool of cognition, poetry beats any existing form of analysis (a) because it pares down our reality to its linguistic essentials, whose interplay, be it clash or fusion, yields epiphany or revelation, and (b) because it exploits the rhythmic and euphonic properties of the language that in themselves are revelatory.”
— Joseph Brodsky
“Dreams are like poems,” writes the American poet Michael Dickman, who elucidates: “In a dream, anything is possible. You can fly, travel to foreign countries or unknown universes, experience your wildest fantasies, and face your most terrifying fears. In this way, dreams are like poems. They have their own stories to tell and their own music to sing, and they play by their own rules” (263). Dickman clarifies that “the secret to how dreams work is the word ‘Yes.’ Dreams never say no to anything, no matter how weird” (263). Dickman provides the following example: In a dream, someone could be flying, then sprout three heads, find themselves on Mars, have Mars shrink to the size of a cell phone, which then rings and speaks to the three heads. He asks, “What happens if we keep saying yes in our poems?” (264). He then suggests that two crucial outcomes might occur. First, the affirmative attitude “will free us to say some things we feel we can’t say given the rules of our actual lives and the physical world,” and second, saying yes in our poems “will sharpen our imaginations in a culture where everything seems already imagined for us” (264).
Making our poetry weirder and weirder may help us say things that might embarrass us if uttered in public, and it might also help us become more creative. However, the inextricability of one’s life from the substance of one’s dreams seems to be missing from Dickman’s phrasing. In other words, dreams do not bloom in a vacuum, nor do they occupy a space of pure imagination where anything can happen. The socio-political and psychic constraints on what is possible and impossible to say or write in a public setting also impact the content we imagine while asleep.
An early attempt to describe the nature of dreams can be found in Plato’s Republic. “Isn’t dreaming,” writes Plato, “precisely the state, whether one is asleep or awake, of taking something to be the real thing, when it is actually only a likeness?” (196–197). It is worth noting that Plato describes dreaming as a state occurring during both wakefulness and slumber. However, Plato proceeds to differentiate between what is real and what is only a likeness of that reality, and he describes a person who lacks true knowledge of the world as someone who “dreams his current life away in a state of semi-consciousness” (267). In other words, there is a real world, and there is a dream world; then there is a state of dreaming or a state of semi-consciousness, which can take place while one is asleep or awake.
In this piece, I argue that experiencing the dream world and applying its logic in poetry offers opportunities to stretch and flex our imaginations. It can help us straddle both states of semi-consciousness and keen attentiveness. However, before we deconstruct the power of dreaming and writing poetry, we must ask two questions. First, are dreams merely venues for sheer fantasy, or are they similar to our actual world in terms of what can and cannot be permitted? Second, should we write solely to enhance our imagination in a world where everything appears to be imagined for us, or is there a more pressing need to improve our capacity to think beyond prescribed material and at the deeper level of what makes us human in the first place? How we approach dreaming and poetry writing depends on how we answer these questions.
Healing Individuals: Dreams Are Virtual Spaces Where We Can Face & Reshape Our Pain
According to Sigmund Freud, dreams provide visual access to our unconscious minds. Annie Finch summarizes this idea in A Poet’s Craft: “We dream in images that evoke feelings” (127). Freud theorized that dreams both controlled and protected the anxiety associated with some of our repressed desires. Over the years, sleep researchers discovered that dreams allowed people to revisit their painful memories and create a space in which they could attempt to work through their hurt, disappointment, and unmet needs. For example, researchers identified that nightmares embodied our inability to work through repressed fears and prior pain.
This essay begins with the premise of acknowledging the ubiquitous possibility of having experienced agony or even trauma in our lives. The events of this century and the one that preceded it have been immensely devastating for our world, impacting the livelihoods of both humans and nonhumans. In my discussion about dreams and poetry I’m thus more concerned with its serious and sobering potential. In other words, I view our dreams as virtual spaces that allow us to relive and reprogram our pain, and I view poetry as another dream-like space that provides even more tools to facilitate the healing process, which lends support to the idea that dreams are like poems — in the sense that dreams are where one encounters content, and poetry is where one is able to shape and mold this visual and emotional substance. John Fox writes in Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making, “Poems distill experience into the essentials. Our personal experiences touch the common ground we share with others. [ . . . Poetry] used in this healing way helps people integrate the disparate and fragmented parts of their life. Poetic essences of sound, metaphor, image, feeling, and rhythm act as remedies that can elegantly strengthen our whole system — physical, mental, and spiritual” (3). This means that the secret to dreams and poetry is not simply saying yes to more weirdness. Rather, the secret to dreams and poetry is the underlying potential to help writers observe what can and cannot be said or imagined in their bodies, homes, societies, etc.
In other words, it is as valuable to say yes in dreams and poetry as it is to stay cognizant of the psychic zones of disturbances that lead us to say no, no, no, no.
If we practice noticing what is mentally permitted and when our psychic barriers show up, or where we find it difficult to articulate concepts in dreams and in our poetry, we could develop into more sensitive, complex, creative, and authentic individuals.
Whereas poetry is proficient at documenting fleeting moments of joy or wonderfully witty and weird thoughts, in Making Poems, Todd Davis and Erin Murphy state that if poetry were “merely about such ecstatically fleeting moments, [ . . . ] then the burgeoning floodwaters of inspiration might have drowned us in [ . . . ] an artistic drought to end all droughts.” Simply put, if our poetry comprised only of joyful observations, then the art would not have persisted as an integral aspect of humanizing humans, politicizing politics, and collectivizing individuals into communities. Poetry can certainly be about vision and inspiration. It is also important — in the context of our bodies and the communities we inhabit — to continue asking what poetry can do for us in terms of its capacity to heal.
In “How Trauma Affects Dreams,” Rob Newsom reminds us that “While science has come a long way since Freud, more recent hypotheses remain surprisingly consistent with [Freud’s] early ideas. Many neuroscientists and psychologists believe that dreams help to integrate our experiences into long-term memory, a process called Memory Consolidation. When our experiences are traumatic, dreams may reflect the body’s attempts to cope and learn from these situations.” He goes on to say that “After a traumatic experience, many people want to forget about what happened and move on. Unfortunately, trying to forget or suppress thoughts and feelings may make trauma-related nightmares more frequent.”
A specific branch of therapy has been formed around the idea that writing down nightmares and turning them into literature can help rewrite the story or feelings associated with images in a way that resolves the crisis that gave birth to them.
This is called Image Rehearsal Therapy (IRT). It should not replace the most essential part of coping with trauma which is asking for professional help from licensed doctors, counselors, and therapists trained in treating nightmares and trauma-based responses. Nonetheless, poetry-making itself is a process that inherently contains a radical healing potential, since not only does writing poems allow “us to make profound discoveries about ourselves,” but also, Fox explains, writing “even a fragment of a poem may serve as the balancing point which [our] eyes focus on in order to walk over difficult terrain. Keeping [our] eyes on that balance point can prevent [us] from falling upon rocks of despair and sadness that can afflict our daily lives” (35, 11).
In “The Power of Writing,” the therapist Elizabeth Sullivan explains that “Most of us do not think in complete sentences but in self-interrupted, looping, impressionistic cacophony” (qtd. in Tartakovsky), thus Margarita Tartakovsky — the writer who interviewed Sullivan — concludes that writing “helps us track our spinning thoughts and feelings, which can lead to key insights.” Furthermore, because writing is speaking to another consciousness, whether to a reader, or another part of one’s own self, Sullivan adds, “We come to know who we really are in the present moment,” and explains that what makes writing “therapeutic” is one’s willingness and success in “telling the truth.” This reminds me of W.H. Auden’s quote about writing truth in poetry: “A poet cannot bring us any truth without introducing into his [sic] poetry the problematic, the painful, the ordinary” (qtd. in Finch, 151).
In order to be truthful, it is not enough to focus on only one emotional tenor, or one facet of the human experience, since truth-telling requires the ability to be authentic and whole which need a certain degree of comfort with contradiction, ambiguity, and paradox.
In fact, discovering a way to express real-life paradoxical experiences in poems, is to show up authentically to the page and embrace one’s whole life.
Similarly, reading poetry — not just writing one’s own — contains healing potential. Fox writes, “Because the feeling-oriented, nonlinear logic of poetry allows for paradox and even celebrates it, familiarity with poetry will expand [one’s] range of possible emotional choices” (12). Simply put, not only will writing truthfully about one’s experience sharpen one’s interiority and capacity for articulating or naming and reshaping their pain, reading poetry will furthermore equip the poet with a broader spectrum of emotional complexity and nuance, and that in turn can help individuals respond to a diverse range of events and situations in creative ways, rather than merely resorting to a narrow-minded set of options that perpetuate, for example, cycles of abuse or violence.
Healing Communities: Poetry of Witness and “The Social”
Poetry is essential in the process of reconciliation, even at the political, social, or communal levels. In the powerful anthology of poetry Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, the American poet Carolyn Forché writes that while many poets did not survive the destructive experiences of their times and the dark places in which they lived, “their works remain with us as poetic witness” (29). Forché then differentiates between American publishers’ comprehension of “political” and “personal” as labels for poetry. For American publishers, the former refers to “a public partisanship that is considered divisive, even when necessary,” while the latter calls to mind “lyrics of love and emotional loss” (31). Forché writes:
“The distinction between the personal and the political gives the political realm too much and too little scope; at the same time, it renders the personal too important and not important enough. If we give up the dimension of the personal, we risk relinquishing one of the most powerful sites of resistance. The celebration of the personal, however, can indicate a myopia, an inability to see how larger structures of the economy and the state circumscribe, if not determine, the fragile realm of individuality.” (31)
Therefore, Forché calls for a third term, “one that can describe the space between the state and the supposedly safe havens of the personal,” and she suggests naming it “the social” (31). Like dreams, the social level should not be thought of as a pure venue for sheer choice. Because it is a place “where books are published, poems are read, and protests are disseminated,” the social can become a location of struggle and resistance, a “sphere in which claims against the political order are made in the name of justice” (31). While poetry can heal and transform our own anxieties, fears, and unmet desires at the individual level, our written and oral poems during our lifetimes and the works we leave behind can also act as witnesses to our experiences and those of others. As such, they can speak truth to power and rally communities behind unifying themes. Forché calls this kind of writing, “Poem as trace. Poem as evidence” (31).
Because this essay is concerned with healing rather than extremities and resistance, it should be emphasized that every individual’s attempt to write poetry is inherently worthwhile. Value in politics might mean highlighting some voices over others, especially if this power-balancing act is meant to rectify inequality in the social, political, and economic fields (for example, in award committees, editorial boards of journals, and other job opportunities). The power-balancing act committed by institutions and organizations, however, should not discourage anyone from utilizing and constantly stretching out their own lexicon to build an interior space in which one’s “intuitive voice may awaken and thrive” (Fox, 4).
Because “Poetic language expresses what plain language cannot,” the healing potential of poetry exists for everyone, not only for those who experienced the most pain and horrific traumas (Fox, 9).
In fact, the more that an individual learns about the world, and the more that anyone sharpens their powers of observation and empathy, the more that they will undoubtedly come across even more heinous and despicable forms of exploitation, and even more unfortunate people who suffer in terrible ways. Yet a question continues to persist in writing workshops today:
If we compare the weight of our anxieties to others’ and discover that ours cannot match or even come close to the nightmarish experiences of others, does it mean that we shouldn’t write about our pain because we‘d be ‘taking space’ from those who need it more?
Rewriting Harmful Identity Myths and Safe Spaces to ‘Just Be’
To answer this question, I turn to two other essential anthologies of poetry. The first is Hayan Charara’s Inclined to Speak: An Anthology of Arab American Poetry, and the second is Fatimah Asghar’s and Safia Elhillo’s Halal if You Hear Me: The Breakbeat Poets vol. 3. In the introduction of Inclined to Speak, Hayan Charara writes, “In an issue paper published by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, regarding the negative images of Arabs in American popular culture, the author notes that ‘Americans know a great deal about Arabs. The problem is that so much of what is known is wrong’” (xvi). Charara concludes, “The task, then, becomes to reverse the scenario.”
Why should we write? Why are our experiences inherently valuable? Why must we never compare our pain with the pain of others? And why must we attempt to express our own perspectives, thoughts, imaginings, dreams, and desires?
Because every one of our poems contains the potential of “invalidating an image that is at best misguided” (xvii). Charara states it is “dangerous” for those creating myths about others, as well as those being constituted by those myths, and thus, the task of the poet becomes erecting new ideas about identity and destroying previous ones. She writes, “we may build what we demolish. Yet in this engagement of myth-making and myth-breaking, Arab American poets open doors of possibility — quite revolutionary — that lead to the reinventing of the images of Arab American people, culture, literature, and history” (xviii).
In other words, writing poetry matters because: (1) a poem is like a dream, and dreams are interior spaces where we can heal our pain. This means that poetry contains healing potential; (2) poems are evidence and trace, or witnesses of a life that has been lived in dark times and in places where political authorities exercise tyrannical powers over what is and isn’t permitted for public sharing. Thus, it means that poetry contains political and social potential; (3) there are, already, numerous myths peddling identity that hurt both those who are constituted by them and those who actively entrench them in structures of power and domination. By writing about our individual experiences, we end up poking holes in those dangerous myths; finally, (4) we may begin to build a safe space where individuals unite over shared experiences: a place where, as Asghar reminds us, “the hijabis, the haraamis, the uncovered, the gender-nonconforming, the queer, the married, the never-married, the virgins, the non-virgins, the brown, the black, the white, the yellow — can just be. Can just be seen. Can just be heard. Can be celebrated. Can live, and make our own freedoms” (xvi).
Truth in Poetry Does not Mean Accuracy of Information
In this essay, I have touched on the topic of truth and of likeness. For writing to be therapeutic, for instance, I noted that it had to be true. Yet Plato’s Republic makes it clear that the world of dreams and the semi-conscious state of dreaming are environments of non-truth, or an experience that merely resembles the real world. If we, like Plato, differentiate between the experiences we encounter in sleep and wakefulness — which are necessary for a whole and healthy consciousness — should we also adopt Plato’s distinction of truth and nontruth — that is, should we take our dreams — which are only a likeness of the events that take place outside of the dream-world — as nontruths? Perhaps, it is better to phrase this question differently: How might we approach writing in an honest and vulnerable manner in order to heal our pain and to empower our community even though we are aware that our semi-conscious state is not a factual one, and that our poems will not aspire to measurable and verifiable information? In Against Forgetting, Forché cautions: “A poem cannot be judged by simplistic notions of ‘accuracy’ or ‘truth to life.’ It will have to be judged, as Ludwig Wittgenstein said of confessions, by its consequences, not by our ability to verify its truth. In fact, the poem might be our only evidence that an event has occurred: it exists for us as the sole trace of an occurrence.” And while, as mentioned earlier, poems of resistance and witness are vital components of the radical healing potential of poetry (since healing does not mean blinding oneself to the trauma, but working through it), there is more to the truth of poetry than mere documentation.
Poems can record our past, yes, but they can also transcend the archive.
It might be helpful, therefore, to recall the words of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who writes, “A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth,” (Abrams and Greenblatt, 794). In poetry, truth is only an image of life, and not a document that aspires to veracity and facts. For Shelley, this does not mean moralizing in the political or religious sense. In fact, he differentiates the disciplines of moral philosophy from poetry. In moral philosophy, he says, scholars hope to ascertain what is right or wrong, what is moral or immoral, what actions and desires benefit the harmonious operations of society and which ones harm the community, whereas poetry, “acts in another diviner manner. It awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand apprehended combinations of thought” (796).
In other words, poetry becomes “truthful” once it has broadened the consciousness of its writer and/or reader, not by providing information or documentation.
Shelly explains that to be moral or “good,” one “must imagine intensely and comprehensively” (796). For Shelley, this does not mean writing weirder and weirder poetry, it means rather enhancing our ability of putting ourselves “in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of [the poet’s] species must become his [sic] own.” Shelley emphasizes that “[t]he great instrument of moral good is the imagination” (796).
When we endeavor to understand perspectives that are unlike ours, or when we allow others to exist in the same space we do without feeling the need to eliminate one expression of humanity for another, we thus embody a heightened level of creativity. Imagination can furthermore facilitate our efforts of rebuilding our communities as it enables us to dream up more complex and harmonious solutions to others’ grievances, hurts, and desires. Most importantly, with heightened imagination, we will be able to respond to evil, or to danger, in ways that will not resume the cycle of violence.
As the world’s capacity to imagine alternative solutions keep shrinking, it seems to most people that the only possible solution to negative feelings is projecting similar ones onto others. i.e. “Fight fire with fire.”
Ambivalence and the Case for Love in Non-Violent Resistance
This is why the concept of “non-violent” resistance continues to lose support in our contemporary climate. In the Introduction to The Force of Non-Violence, Judith Butler writes, “an ethics of nonviolence cannot be predicated on individualism, and it must take the lead in waging a critique of individualism as the basis of ethics and politics alike. An ethics and politics of nonviolence would have to account for the way that selves are implicated in each other’s lives, bound by a set of relations that can be as destructive as they can be sustaining” (9). Expanding one’s imagination in order to see where others are coming from does not mean pretending that violence is not taking place or ignoring injustice and inequality, it means rather zooming out of the limited perspectives of the self and its pain or pleasure to adopt a broader vision that encompasses the complex network of relations that binds us to one another. In fact, Butler argues in “Political Philosophy in Freud: War, Destruction, Mania, and the Critical Faculty,” that love:
is defined by ambivalence, structured by the oscillation between love and hatred. The task appears to be finding a way to live and act with ambivalence — one where ambivalence is understood not as an impasse, but as an internal partition that calls for ethical orientation and practice. For only the ethical practice that knows its own destructive potential will have the chance to resist it. Those for whom destruction is always and only coming from the outside will never be able to acknowledge, or work with, the ethical demand imposed by non-violence (172).
It must be therefore underscored that those who suffer from a flat consciousness, a limited cognition (for example, seeing the world in only distinct — and violent — binaries), who lack humility and self-awareness of their own negative thoughts, and who fail to identify a rich — often paradoxical — spectrum of emotional register in themselves and in others — are themselves the most in need of poetry’s radical healing potential.
On the Urgency of Expanding Our Imagination
This brings us back, full circle, to our Dickman quote: “Dreams are like poems.” For Dickman, it is important to utilize dream-logic in our poetry, because doing so “will sharpen our imaginations in a culture where everything seems already imagined for us” (264). With Shelley, we understand why it is important to imagine differently, namely, that in order for us to be good — and to do good in the world — we need to be less self-centered, less narrow in our feelings, less constrained in our ability to see and feel others. Imagination allows us, says Shelley, to be good, because one way to be moral, is to tap into other people’s experiences, which poetry enables us to do.
I would like to conclude by quoting Dorothea Lasky’s essay: “The Beast: How Poetry Makes Us Human.” Lasky writes, “[A]nimals, poems, ids, and egos are all part of human consciousness” (72). When we insist that writing about our experiences (regardless of how severe or unique) challenges the myths that have been erected on the alters of identity, we can apply more pressure on these myths by going further back in time and asking not simply what is an Arab, or a Muslim, or a refugee, or a gender non-confirming being, but what does it mean to be a human in the first place, not as a way to invalidate these other forms of identification, but to expand and heighten our imagination, and to render more questionable the bloody myths that we have inherited. After all, the human, as a concept, has been produced and is maintained by the very structures that developed these other categories: i.e. Arab, Muslim, refugee, gender non-conforming being, etc. In “Nonviolence, Grievability,” Butler writes: “the human is a historically variable concept, differentially articulated in the context of inegalitarian forms of social and political power; the field of the human is constituted through basic exclusions, haunted by those figures that do not count in its tally” (59). In poetry we find a space for innovation and exploration, and it allows for diversity and creativity in examining what it means to be human. Because humans are not finished products, completely known, or separate from all the other atomic configurations that make up trees, or animals, or ghosts, or even planets, Lasky, therefore, asks, “What does poetry teach us?” and she answers: it teaches us “that poems are the electrical outlet into a humanity that has found a song to cope with its death.” And, “To cope,” says Lasky, “is to never die” (75).
Abrams, M. H., and Stephen Greenblatt. “From A Defence of Poetry, or Remarks Suggested by an Essay Entitled ‘The Four Ages of Poetry.’” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Seventh Edition. Volume 2. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2000. 790–802
Asghar, Fatimah and Safia Elhillo, eds. Halal if You Hear Me: The Breakbeat Poets vol.3. Illinois: Haymarket Books, 2019.
Butler, Judith. Introduction. The Force of Non-Violence. London: Verso, 2020. 1–25.
— -. “Political Philosophy in Freud: War, Destruction, Mania, and the Critical Faculty.” The Force of Non-Violence. London: Verso, 2020. 151–183.
Charara, Hayan, ed. Inclined to Speak: An Anthology of Arab American Poetry. Fayatteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2008. xiii-xxxiii
Davis, Todd, and Erin Murphy, editors. “Learning to Make Poems: An Introduction.” Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets. Albany: Excelsior Editions, 2010. xi-xiii
Dickman, Michael. “Dream Machine.” Open the Door: How to Excite Young People About Poetry. Edited by Dorothea Lasky, Dominic Luxford, and Jess Nathan. Illinois: Poetry Foundation, 2013. 263–266
Finch, Annie. A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2012.
Forché, Carolyn, ed. “Introduction.” Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991. 29–47
Fox, John. Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher / Putam, 1997.
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated by A. A. Brill. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1993.
Lasky, Dorothea. “The Beast: How Poetry Makes Us Human.” Animal. Seattle: Wave Books, 2019. 53–76
Newsom, Rob. “How Trauma Affects Dreams.” Sleep Foundation. October 30, 2020. Accessed January 27, 2021.
Plato. Republic. Translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford World Classics. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993. Reissued 2008.
Tartakovsky, Margarita. “The Power of Writing: 3 Types of Therapeutic Writing.” Psych Central. January 19, 2015. Accessed January 27, 2021.
Nada Faris is a writer and creative writing teacher from Kuwait. In 2018, she received an Arab Woman Award from Harper’s Bazaar Arabia for her impact on Kuwait’s creative landscape. She is an Honorary Fellow in Writing at Iowa University’s International Writing Program (IWP) Fall 2013; and an alumna of the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) April 2018: Empowering Youth Through the Performing Arts. Faris holds an MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry & Literary Translation) from Columbia University. She is, furthermore, the author of multiple international books in different genres. Her shorter works have appeared in: The Norton Anthology for Hint Fiction, Gulf Coast Journal, Indianapolis Review, Nimrod, Tribes, One Jacar, The American Journal of Poetry, and more.