Using Dream Analysis to Revise Poetry

by Courtney Spohn 

(Note: Courtney is leading a virtual craft workshop titled Poetry Is but a Dream: Using Dream Analysis for Poetry Revision on Sunday, November 8, 1:00 p.m. CST.)

Because many poems flow easily from conception to page, the writer always finding the precise words and emotions, this post will be a waste of time. This post is for the rare writer who has written that wayward beast of a poem—the poem that is hungry for flesh — or is it flowers? The poem that creates one path, branches into two, and ends up caught — or is it liberated? — in the mud. I want to share a writing technique to try on these poems we love that just don’t have the zing we’re looking for. If you have one of these poems lying around and are interested in playing with your intuition, please allow me to share this twist on a dream analysis technique I learned as a life coach. 

The dream analysis goes like this: have a dream, write it down, read what you wrote, and circle the top three images or objects that stand out to you. For each of these three, ask the image/object two questions: “How would you describe yourself in three words?” and “What is your message for me?” Then go back to what you’ve written and replace each nistance of the image or object with your responses to the questions. Reread your dream and see if these new images help you understand any messages your unconscious mind wants to share.  

These are the linear instructions to the technique. In our case, we’ll be using a poem instead of a written dream. Once you find and dust off the poem you’d like to work with, reread it and circle three words or short phrases you believe really hold up the poem—words that have a lot of power behind them. After choosing your words, let your linear, logical mind take a little break. When you ask the phrases to describe themselves, try inhabiting the words. Can the word fit into your body? What does your body feel like as each word? Answer the questions from this perspective, and try using your non-dominant hand to help access your non-linear mind. What do you see, feel, and hear from each word? What are these words trying to tell you? Use whatever comes up — don’t force anything. But don’t settle for something if it doesn’t feel right, either.  

As you go back and replace your original words, you can see if the process brought any new insights. Play with your poem from there. You’re trying to see what it’s telling you, so let it be messy for a bit. Then use your logical mind again to see what needs to be cleaned up and what can stay.  

Here’s an example using a snippet of a poem I wrote, with the words I used in the analysis, and the answers I heard, in bold: 

Original snippet: 

What I want back are those summer days and nights. I want to stay in my own bed. I want you to lick my toes. To go to the end of the Earth. To tell me a funny joke.  

Snippet after the analysis: 

What I want back are those sweaty griefs that travel the path of my skin, the path where the scary things sit. I want to stay in my own bed. I want you to lick my differences and keep going through the bitter and salt. Go to the end of the Earth. I want you to tell me a funny; keep it light, jump around, move your body, come to a grinding stop. I want it to be feelgood in the belly. Your head is too heavy. 

As you can see, the analysis gave me more words to add to my existing poem; or I could just ditch that poem and start massaging anew one. I have more interesting questions to ask the second poem, questions the first one just didn’t reveal. 

 I hope this technique might also help you access more words and a deeper understanding of what your poem is trying to say. Your not-quite-there poem is so close to having your attention; enjoy your time with it! 

Courtney Spohn lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she has participated in various poetry readings. Her work has appeared, with Sheila E. Black, in Otoliths. She is a member of Nimrod’s editorial board, and she helps others learn to talk to themselves in a kind way through her life coaching at