The poem “A Dream of Grace” came to me in basically the way you see it here. I was at spending the week at one of Robert Bly’s Great Mother Conferences. Robert Bly is one of the United States best poets. He is perhaps even a better translator. He is one of the people responsible for bringing Neruda, Jimenez, Machado, Rilke, Rumi, Kabir, and so many others to the attention of American intellectuals. These conferences take place in the woods, usually in Church Campgrounds or in conference centers. About one hundred people come and spend the week, take informal classes in all sorts of arts and crafts. At this conference Bly was just finishing his volume called Morning Poems.
Morning Poems is a group of poems that Bly wrote each morning when he woke up. He took this idea from William Stafford, another wonderful poet of the post WWII generation. Stafford’s idea was to wake up and notice what the first ideas that came to your mind were. You write down the first line; then you just try to follow the string of the idea wherever it takes you. You follow the line of poetry, control or determine the line of poetry. Bly did this for a year and then published the best of those 365 poems.
So I was at the conference, and I woke up with the dream that my friend had killed his wife. (As an interesting side note, John Densmore, drummer for The Doors, and his family were, for one or two nights, I think, roommates in the cabin where I was staying and where this dream occurred.) In the dream, my friend told me this and in the dream I was all panicked. But when I woke up I wrote down the lines and all of a sudden “Hey, that’s a thing I might someday like to try” popped into my head. So I went with it because it was so rude and so cruel. Then for some reason—“We harvest wisdom” came to me, and I wrote that down. Then thinking about the harvesting what came into my head was Vietnam and the rice fields that we have all seen in movies and then I thought of the floods that occur in this fields. Then my mind turned to paintings and the practice of painting over old unsuccessful paintings and trying anew. I also had in my mind the book Pentimento (which is the underlying images) by Lillian Hellman, which is where I first heard the term.
All three images—dream, rice fields, paintings—repeat the central idea of trying to get rid of the past/present but being unable to. And isn’t this an ingredient in grace? The idea that there is a place where the past no longer holds and haunts you?
So that is how the poem came to be. But you will notice that this poem is in quatrains and fairly standard, though irregular line length—changing from seven to eleven syllables, I think. What I wanted for this poem was totally opposite of what I wanted for “Late Night.” “Late Night” was open and colloquial; I wanted “A Dream of Grace” to be more tight and formal in structure. (I almost never want formal diction as that is Victorian, and not at all contemporary. If I use formal diction it is probably as a satire.)
The way I understand this is that there is a great deal of energy wanting to be expressed, and sometimes the most powerful way to do that is to pull everything in tight and close, to restrict the movement of the sentences, to kind of clip them a little early, to cut out anything that would stretch them out.
Poetry Lecture Assignment: Follow Robert Bly’s advice. Come up with a beginning line for a poem. Pretend that that line is like a piece of yarn. Pull the string of the sentence. What is next? What next? And so on until you think you have reached the end of the piece of yarn. Don’t try to create a poem, try to follow the connections of your ideas.