Poetry Classroom: Walking Through the Dream

Welcome to this month’s poetry classroom, with poet Daniel Bowman, author of A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country. We invite you to respond to the poems we’ll share here—their forms, images, sounds, meanings, surprises—ask questions of Dan and each other, and write your own poems along the way.

Walking Through the Dream of a Stranger

Now I dream that I’m the stranger
        in someone else’s dream,
that I’m walking
    through the dream of a stranger
and the stranger’s dream turns out like
    dreams I had when I was young
where I meet a girl on a hillside
    and she loves me
and takes my hand and smiles
    and I smile too
because I love her and because
    the stranger’s dream smells like
wet birch bark and crabapples
    trampled in early September.

Photo by John-Morgan, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Poem by Daniel Bowman.


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  1. says

    I like how you move this poem from the vagueness of the dream to the tangible (lovely concluding lines!), from stranger to love to knower of love. The placement of those “and” words keeps the poem moving forward, the way a dream might advance, picture to picture; yet there’s a looking back here, too, it seems to me, the man recognizing what the boy only imagined, the dream having come true.

    • says

      Thank you so much, Maureen, for getting the conversation started. I have always been fascinated with dream poems, but they are tricky to write, as the images can come under suspicion as potentially-glaring symbols. So I had this idea: what if the speaker of the poem shows up in *someone else’s* dream? Is there something archetypal in our dreams that connects us? So those were some of the things in the back of my mind as I worked through this and re-read it now.

  2. Marcy Terwilliger says

    I like dreaming when you can write about it and plan how the entire adventure will begin and end. The thought of being in a man’s dream would be yummy, does he like my long hair, my cat green eyes with golden hues? Would he like the fact he could lift me up and carry me away because I’m small? Does he like small feet and the way I laugh, love to laugh? Would he listen to my poems, really listen and tell me they are good? Dance with me on the cool spring grass at night, make all my dreams come true. Yes, the boy in love with the girl, the man in love with the woman.

    • says

      Thanks, Marcy, for this response! I find dreams in general so interesting, and the best dream poems really wonderful, so I’ve tried my hand at writing a lot of different ones. Another one, called “The Wait,” contains more of a sleepy daydream about a woman, and there’s yet another dream poem in the book where the speaker finds himself at a coffee shop hearing his childhood priest playing bassoon in a jazz quartet!

      But you are right: it’s often those ones that revolve around images of love that have the ability to be powerful. Love and creativity are interlinked here.

  3. AJ says

    I love the form of the poem and the way that it seems to flow almost like a dream. I love the idea of stepping into someone else’s dream world and experiencing what they hope, love, and desire. The dreams we have are exciting enough, but to be able to understand and be a part of someone else’s dreams would be an experience that would open up my eyes to a whole new understanding of how another person thinks and exists. Is the smells that we smell and the sights we see the same for everyone, or does everyone have their own particular twist that they put on their senses? To experience another persons dream would allow a glimpse into another persons intricate life experience.

    • says

      AJ, thanks for bringing up form–that is so important to me, but often very intuitive, and I’m sometimes at a loss to articulate why I made a certain choice in a certain poem. But the relationship between form and content always needs to be considered so carefully. (Note to everyone: do you find it difficult to talk on the level of analysis about your own poems? I do!) And thank you for mentioning the smell sense–I often under-use it in favor of visual images, but as Lorca says, “The poet is the professor of the five senses.”

      One of my goals as a poet is to become a better professor of the five senses.

  4. Tania Runyan says

    Dan, so many of your poems have this magical, dreamlike quality. Really, this poem reflects the nature of a dream–you wake up, and it is fuzzy, but you feel it and remember just a detail or two, like the wet birch and crabapples. Really wonderful.

    • says

      Thanks so much, Tania. Many of the poems in the book were written when I was in my 20s, a somewhat dreamy period for my, and my temperament in general tends to see through the lens of mystery and experience the atmospheric qualities of a thing or place before apprehending logical or reasonable meanings. But yes, one needs to return to that perennial poetic anchor–the sense images–to sell the dream work!

  5. Nate B says

    Honestly, my favorite part about this poem is the abstract stuff at the beginning. I am usually drawn in by the concrete details of a poem that make me feel something and give me a distinct sense of place–and you do that here at the end with the closing lines, and though you purposely kept the description of the hill pretty vague, I can picture the type of hill I would want to fall in love on. I like that you leave this detail open for me to kind of fill in the blanks with my own images. But my favorite part of this is not the detail, but the concept of a being a stranger in someone else’s dream. Am I the stranger, or is he? Is it my consciousness being played out in someone’s far away dream, or is it his consciousness that creates me in the dream? I really like how you played with the concept of stranger.

    • says

      Thanks, Nate, for the vote of confidence in the opening lines. I really like your comment, “I know the type of hill I would want to fall in love on.” Fabulous. That part of the poem was based on an actual dream I had, and I thought perhaps I should inhabit the space of that dream more intentionally…but my sense of the lyric poem is always to get in and get out. don’t qualify; don’t linger.

      Thanks, too, for engaging this notion: “Is it my consciousness being played out in someone’s far away dream, or is it his consciousness that creates me in the dream?” Exactly!

      I feel like I stole the idea of showing up in someone else’s dream from another writer, but I can longer remember where the thought originated. I wanted to overwhelm any conceptual idea with my own invention anyway, through both form and content. But I’m still relatively obsessed with dreamscapes and their imaginative possibilities in poetry.

  6. says

    So very simple, but so very effective. What I love about this poem is that it reminds me, in a way, of Ted Kooser’s style of writing. Not to say it is hitting the mark of a longer conceit, but in its beginning ethereal quality that lands smack into a concrete, tangible device of smell. From dreams to reality, you know? I enjoy mixing the abstract with the very real because it’s as though it helps open a space to plant something specific within our memory as the readers.

    • says

      Jack, I appreciate the mention of Kooser. I like a good bit of his work, and normally, as a writer of short lyric “deep image” poems, I think of myself as playing in a very different space from a Kooser. But sure enough, the vivid and specific dream (as John Gardner calls it) must be…inescapably particular.

      The dream stuff, I’ve been finding out over the years, only works if you give the reader–and yourself–a few handholds to grip. As a reader, I’ve always been willing to climb through some dark or fog if I believe the poet really, truly wants–needs–me along for the journey. I hope I write even my most abstract work in that same spirit.

  7. Matthew Klingstedt says

    What drives this poem for me is the movement from unknown or out of place to a feeling of comfort and belonging. The repetition of “stranger” and “dream” in the first six lines create the discomfort for the narrator and reader, and then the poem gives way to a shared dream of “a girl on a hillside”. Lines 7-11 seem to fly by in the same way a good dream falls away from memory when you wake up. It is pleasant and over too quickly. “The stranger’s dream” is reintroduced in line 12, and this time it does not have the same connotation as before. It parallels the structure of the first eleven lines by moving from something unknown to something familiar. Further, the first eleven lines end with something tangible (in a sense) with the phrase “because I love her”, and the poem itself ends with reflection on the smell of “wet birch bark and crabapples”; something concrete. With the shift inbetween six and seven that changes, but even with a second or third reading, the tone given off is such that until line 7 there is discomfort and feeling of isolation–the narrator does not belong. I am not sure when this poem was written, but it feels like the perfect spring selection (even though it mentions “September” in it) because of the shift to belonging.

    • says

      Matthew, thank you for using the words “comfort and belonging.” Dreams have such a strong disorienting quality, but I think they can sometimes root us in our best selves, as happens when you wake up from a really beautiful dream that you were almost positive was real. You don’t want to wake up, you don’t want the dream to end because it represents possibility and beauty and truth.

      Also, I love how mention that although it’s a fall poem, it has a spring feel. Traditionally, of course, spring represents rebirth and renewal–comedy as opposed to tragedy. And since this is a love poem of sorts, it certainly fits in that tradition. The mention of fruit would further bolster that feeling.

      (Side note: Funny in the academy that we begin our journeys in the fall, the time of death, rather than spring, the time of renaissance.)

  8. says

    As others have said, I like the way the poem feels like a dream—it allures, invites us into the many-layered dream world of the poem. The form of poem, especially the way lines are indented, keeps us moving.

    The switch to present tense really works for me. As Matt said, it signals a switch in mood and reflects the incarnation, present nature of a dream. The minimalist punctuation or sentence breaks also aids this.

    There were a couple word choices I am unsure of. Are the two “that’s” in the first three stanzas necessary, particularly the one in the first line? However, I love “trampled” at the end, with the accompanying sensory image. I’m left curious what the story behind the poem is.

    • says

      Diana, thanks for your insights. I LOVE that you use the word “incarnation” here. I was recently reading Andrew Rumsey’s excellent essay “Incarnation Through Poetry” (in the Jeremy Begbie-edited book BEHOLDING THE GLORY. He discusses how poetry is a perfect incarnational art form through the dimensions of “attention” (“Have you noticed?” -Mary Oliver), presence (the “pulsing reality of the world around us,” “eternity wrapped in the temporal),” and resonance (squaring with one’s experience of the world in a deep way; providing the “shock of recognition).

      On the “that’s”: all I can say is that I’m of the generation that still places “that” here it seems that it belongs. :-) But in all seriousness, I wanted to introduce the idea of being in someone else’s dream quickly but also provide a half-pause for the idea to sink in. So the “that” at the beginning of the second line, I’d hoped, would give the reader the necessary mental space to say, “Okay. I see what’s happening here” and perhaps even, “And I wonder where it’s going!” So that was my thinking.

  9. says

    Thanks, all, for your thoughts so far. Looking forward to any specific questions or if anyone would want to chat more–I’m happy to. I’m truly honored to have a poem here at TS Poetry and have this space set aside for reflection and discussion.


  10. Emily Perschbacher says

    The concept of the title was so interesting when I read it, that I paused to reflect before reading the rest of the poem. Some questions came to my mind: 1) If I found out that a stranger had been dreaming about me, how would I feel–unconcerned? flattered? skeptical? disconcerted? 2) Would I have seen this stranger once before, as a passerby? Perhaps locked eyes with each other for a moment before going separate ways? 3) Are we both strangers to each other? Or is he/she a stranger to me, and I familiar to him/her? With disgust, dread, and an eerie chill, I cringed at the thought that this stranger may match the profile of a stalker, obsessed enough to dream about his/her target.

    The first two lines “Now I dream that I’m the stranger in someone else’s dream” immediately reminds me of Inception. Though this poem lacks the aggressive, heart-wrenching intensity of the movie, it captures the essence of memory, emotion, and shared human experiences. The speaker appears to be at the mercy of a stranger’s mind and subconscious which removes all control and expectation from the speaker, but because all this happens within the speaker’s own subconscious, this entire time the speaker remains in familiar territory and, in some manner, control. It would make sense that the speaker shares similar experiences to the stranger, they originate in the same subconscious, just at different layers.

    Like others have said previously, the progression of the poem moves from abstract to concrete. As in any dream that you can remember, some details remain aloof and hazy while other details stand out. I’m not sure what to make of the last three lines, especially since it’s clarified that “the stranger’s dream smells like wet birch bark and crabapples” rather than the speaker’s dream. Does that detail stand out because that’s the one part of the dream that is unusual and unexpected? Or does it stand out because that is the strongest connection that both of them have to a memory?

    The age and gender dynamics are interesting to note as well, though not as obviously stated. Since he’s the stranger in a stranger’s dream, it’s as if he’s dreaming that he’s meeting himself–“dreams I had when I was young/ where I meet a girl on a hillside.” His age has rejuvenated, and his gender has switched. And that’s such a bizarre, foreign feeling in a dream.

  11. Bryant Sell says

    I really enjoyed reading this poem. Based off of how I interpreted it I feel like I can relate to it. How I interpreted it was that the person is reflecting on their life when they were young, and they have changed so much that they feel like they are a stranger compared to how they were when they were younger. I find it interesting because I am sure many people can relate to not only how much we have changed, but how much the world has changed as well. Thank you.

  12. Sarina Oleson says

    This poem instantly made me think of the movie “Inception” and I loved reading it! To me it seemed like the person entering into the stranger’s dream was actually entering into a his own dream from when he was a younger man. Possibly he really enjoyed a certain dream he had when he was younger, and so he dreamed that he could go back into it. The beginning of the poem began so simple with little description or emotion and then in the end there was a lot of description and detail which really made me want the poem (and the dream) to keep going further and deeper.

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