Somewhere along the way I remember reading about a Russian poet who took the practice of dreaming rather seriously. When ready to sleep, he often posted a sign on the door that read “Poet working.”
Although the Bible is chock-full of stories of divine encounters through the medium of dreams, skeptics (both non-Christians and Christians) have always sought to separate what happened to Joseph, Daniel, and Mary from our own human experiences. This is nothing new. In the third century, John Climacus, an ascetic monk, voiced his distrust of dreams; in fact, he believed they came from the devil.
All of this leads to an important question: What role can our dreams play in the work we create as poets and writers? Is there a way to pit our dreams against something else to substantiate their luminary worth?
In Chapter one of his book Strength to Love, Martin Luther King Jr. leads off with an epigram from the Gospel of Matthew: “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” King implores for us to conceptualize life at its zenith as a “creative synthesis of opposites.” That’s not an easy thing to do. It is an important stone to toss over and over though. Its application to our own practice of writing is immeasurable.
Poetry can be dissected into an infinite number of binary pairings. You have Blake and his Songs of Innocence and Experience. You have Frost using tennis imagery to divide the poetry world between those who write in formal and free verse. You have Plath drawing thin lines between her work and personal life in dramatic metaphors. It is the tension of opposites that allows for a “creative synthesis,” a moment where the pictures and words you want to communicate suddenly lock into place.
Does writing poetry have a different dimension for persons of faith? It should. When we are devoted to the emptying of ourselves and the embrace of sacred tenets, we should be aware of a new order in our art and lives. If God is at the center of Creation, and we are part of that Creation, doesn’t what we have to contribute suddenly bear testimony to something greater than what we are capable of saying or being?
For years I’ve battled in my prayer life over a single issue: human will versus divine sovereignty. At one point of this battle, I tried to let God seize all of me—my career, my art, my life—as I waited. That didn’t work out so well. I’ve also tried to take up my own initiative and “make things happen.” I’ve done literary blitzes, sending out poems to dozens of journals. I’ve applied for jobs and fellowships I wasn’t ready or qualified for all in the name of productivity. We do these things because we are writers and want to share our work, but also because we are sometimes desperate for encouragement and lack patience. At times, this Type-A brand of tunnel vision is bound to lead us to disappointment. At some point, the branch will break (Isn’t that right James Wright?).
One of my professors at my seminary draws up the conversation this way. Picture two ropes hanging from the ceiling. One rope represents “human free will” and the other represents “God’s sovereignty.” As you pull on one rope, the other simply goes slack. Only through grasping both ropes simultaneously can one ever achieve the right balance whereby real events can permeate a theology can sustain itself in an often barbaric and chaotic world. Life is to be lived in tensions, not polarities.
In the middle of a long, western New York winter I took up a self-imposed challenge to fast, pray, and “listen.” Every morning I would write in a journal whatever I remembered from that night’s dreams. I know there’s real danger is putting stock into our dreams. We are our own worst guides. That’s why I never let the pictures and feelings of a dream influence me unless I have specifically done the work to ask for God to speak to me. In 2007, I wrote this entry in my journal:
"I dream I'm at a warehouse with other men and women. It's dark inside and cool. We are sitting on benches before a chalkboard. We see the names of the world's greatest artists written around the room in gold paint along its borders. I see Picasso and Hemingway in flashes of bold letters. As someone enters the room, everyone bows knowing internally that it is the Lord. We feel the heat of His presence. He tells us to stand up and then utters two sentences:
'You think that art is about transcribing the actual into an imitation.' Then he draws a picture, stunningly, with a piece of chalk. We recognize the picture as the portrait of the Mona Lisa. People begin to chatter.
'I am interested in the art that asks where the boundary of the metaphysical and physical disappear.' With this said, he pushes a hole in the board to show us how He uses a simple man to save a child's life while he visits a foreign country. (We understand the implication. Art is not about trying to impress one another. Real art must reflect His essence.)
Others begin to object and chatter. "How is it possible?" they protest. I hear people objecting to this lecture as the Lord disappears, as the light dims and we are there alone again, all the golden names hidden from view."
Unless we exist and operate out of a tension whereby we are directed by the Holy Spirit, we will be running circle routes in our artistic lives. That’s frustrating and deflating. Almost seven years later, I still think of the dreams I had during this time period and let them swell in me. They give me strength to see through what I know God wants of me, even if I think it’s impossible.
When I try to operate as a writer alone or become indignant over what is taking so long, I often feel the tug of one of those dreams and the message is always clear. Without the tension of waiting, would what we do even matter?
Jae Newman, author of Collage of Seoul (Cascade Books 2015), lives in Rochester, New York, with his wife and daughters. He teaches writing courses at Monroe Community College and Roberts Wesleyan College. His poetry has been published in many national journals including: The Bellingham Review, Redivider, Karamu, Saranac Review, and Rock & Sling. In 2008, his poem “Honeymoons” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A graduate of the MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky, Newman has recently completed a MA in Theological Studies at Northeastern Seminary.
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