Waukendremes, 2

The opposite of falling asleep while reading must be, exactly, waking up while writing. I’ve had, as most writers have, the experience of waking with a phrase or an entire poem in my head; or of remembering at the point of waking the poem one was drafting in that same head as one fell asleep. 

In several instances, I was discovering or writing in what I supposed to be an actual form, only to discover it was nothing of the sort – either a complete invention, or dependent on a trick of dream logic which rendered it unfeasible in the waking world. These instances might correspond to the medieval – or at least pre-industrial – experience of the dorveille. This word – its French mirroring the Scots of ‘wakendreme’ to such an extent one wonders if the Scots borrowed it, or if it just passed through some Cocteau-esque mirror of the Auld Alliance – describes that common phenomenon of the medieval or pastoral night, whereby people would sleep for four or so hours, wake for one or two, then sleep for another four. 

Undistorted by artificial light or the demands of the factory system, which invented eight hours sleep much as it invented regulated, centralised time (fixed time, like regular distance, was another commodity delivered by the railways), there was a space which belonged neither to the owl nor to the lark, which was not pathologised as insomnia, in which people prayed, made love, and meditated in the small dark hours – and, no doubt, composed.

Our nearest echo of it, then, is the disturbed night, and the rituals we invent to send us back into the dream; and our nearest understanding of it as a state of consciousness might be the lucid dream. That condition, of knowing while asleep that you are dreaming, has always seemed to me to correspond closely to the creative act, of making something up while believing that the thing you’re inventing has some prior rights to existence: the poem-before-the-poem, as it were.

My usual trigger to alert me that I’m dreaming lucidly rather than waking bewilderedly is when I find myself levitating. (It’s interesting that we have parallel forms for the passive conditions of being asleep and being awake, but the very active verb ‘dream’ has no exact antonym. ‘Waking” is a single act, not a continuous one, and, although we think of this state as reality, ‘realising’ won’t quite do.)

There are a number of techniques that enable levitation, but my favourite is the Imaginary Pedal: here, while walking briskly, you place one foot on the pedal of an invisible bicycle, then just forget to return it entirely to the ground – the non-existent pedal turns slightly, offers you the necessary resistance, and you’re off. Quixote taught me that, probably.

When flight becomes a matter of willpower, it’s a sign you’re beginning to wake up. At a similar point in the dream of writing, I realise I must find some way of preserving the dream text into the waking realm. Many dreams end with me trying to write a poem down on a piece of dream paper I expect to find on waking up through the magic trick of tucking it under my pillow. 

The focus on writing at these points as a willed action is illustrative of the nature of the parallel between these worlds: letters won’t stay put, words resist being fixed things. It’s like the experience one has in a thunderstorm at night: of seeing something momentarily illuminated, but without the colours it would possess in daylight – as though you are seeing the naked thing.

A couple of recent examples of such phrases: ‘Where is the sentence with the Moon-Bison which has two full stops?’ ‘The illuminated flumen is flown in’. 

One is clearly already losing the text it wishes to preserve to paradox, the other has that characteristic dream imbalance to it, whereby the music of language has slewed it away from a literal meaning: it is suggestive without it being possible to settle its sphere of reference. I was reminded of Beefheart’s naming of his band members, particularly Winged Eel Fingerling, and thought again about how lyricists like Beefheart and Barrett were in pursuit of a sliding, angled language which distilled the altered states they’d experienced.

‘The winged Elvis is of course an ancient Aztec symbol inscribed on the sunglasses of the emperors,’ I noted to myself in passing, before recalling that, earlier in the dream, I had been working on an abecedary form in which successive letters began key words in each half of the line. Now that might work. This gift, a derivation of the alliterative poem, was filed away for future use

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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