Dreamwood by Adrienne Rich

‘Dreamwood’ by Adrienne Rich is a nineteen line poem that is contained within one solid block of text. Rich has not chosen to imbue this piece with a consistent or structured pattern or rhyme. Instead, she makes use of the repetition of particular words and images to create a feeling of unity within the work. A reader should take note of how she repeats certain words in neighboring lines of the poem. This occurs quite frequently. 

A perfect example of this repetition is in the first five lines. Here, she uses the words “child” and “old” twice. This occurs again in the next lines with a repetition of “map” three times. Then again in the third set of lines with the phrase “mass-produced.” 

Within this piece, there is a constant push and pull between the old and the new, the young, and the aged. The speaker jumps between the imaginings and perspective of a child to the influenced outlook of an older woman. It is clear the speaker, who is likely Rich herself, is attempting to come to terms with her own life as an artist and what it means to write poetry. By the end of the poem, she makes a conclusion about the function and makeup of poetic works. 

Dreamwood by Adrienne Rich


Summary of Dreamwood

Dreamwood’ by Adrienne Rich describes the nature of poetry and how it is made up of obdurate materials and the dreams of artists and children.

The poem begins with the speaker describing the seemingly mundane details of her typing desk. It is an extremely functional item but it also contains all the markings of a landscape-like map. This is a feature that only someone with an artistic inclination, or a child, could see. The speaker continues to describe how this map is one that describes her life. It shows the ups and downs and progress towards one particular way of being. 

The poem concludes with the speaker relating the material nature of the table to the dream-like qualities of thought and poetry. These elements are woven together, informing a reader that it is the form of the poem and the text it includes which makes it what it is. 

You can read the full poem Dreamwood here.


Structure and Form of Dreamwood

‘Dreamwood’ by Adrienne Rich is a 24 line poem. Being a poem of the modern period, it is in free verse. It means that the poem doesn’t follow a specific metrical pattern or rhyme scheme. The lines of the poem interconnect the sense of the poet by only the use of words. The internal rhythm of the poem moves in a conversational tone. It is as the poet is directly conversing with the readers. The poet occasionally uses iambic and trochaic meter in the poem to maintain the flow of the poem. It is hard to decide the metrical structure of the poem as it is in a conversational form. However, the contraction and elongation of the lines make the reading interesting.


Literary Device in Dreamwood

‘Dreamwood’ by Adrienne Rich is composed by using the literary device called enjambment. Apart from that, in the first line, there is an anticlimax in the phrase “old, scratched, cheap wood”. The poet leaves the conjunction in this phrase. Hence it is an example of asyndeton. The poet uses a metaphor while comparing the “child’s older self” with the poet. Here the poet is none other than Adrienne Rich herself. There is another metaphor in the use of the word “map”. There is an instance in the poem where the poet uses a litote. It can be seen in the line, “not a map of choices but a map of variations/ on the one great choice.”

In the poem, Rich makes use of personification in the line, “blued and purpled by romance”. Here “romance” is portrayed as a living entity. There is a paradox in the last two lines of the poem. However, the poet uses alliteration in many instances in the poem.


Analysis of Dreamwood 

Lines 1-5

In the old, scratched, cheap wood of the typing stand
(…)
the last report of the day. If this were a map,

In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by drawing a reader’s attention to a “typing stand” or desk. This is a piece of furniture on which one would have their typewriter set up. It is made of wood that she describes as being “old, scratched” and “cheap.” There is nothing special about it in its own right, but it becomes a complicated metaphor for the importance of poetry. 

In the second line, the speaker is already delving deeper into the typing stand. There is meaning embedded in the wood grain or the lines that run horizontally through every piece of naturally produced wood. They initially seem out-of-place on this old and used piece of furniture as they produce a “landscape.” The speaker is aware that an average adult will not see these lines as being anything other than what they physically are. As a child though, that changes. A young person would see the table and the “veined” patterns on its top and know it for a “landscape.” The curves make up the hills and valleys of a distant land. 

Luckily for the reader, the speaker is not an “average adult.” She is a poet. This allows her to find meaning in things that others might overlook. It is in the particular moments in which she is “dreaming” that she takes notice of these things. Her mind is wandering from what she should be typing at the end of the day. She finds stimulation in the smallest parts of her surroundings. 

 

Lines 6-10

The phrase that begins in line five runs into line six. Here, the speaker ponders a hypothetical situation in which the tabletop is a “map.” It is situated within her life in such a way that she would consider it, 

[…] the map of the last age of her life. 

Her days have brought her to this moment where she is hunched over the typewriter, trying to finish her work. All throughout her life this table, and ones like it have been tracing her path, and here is the final map. It tells her all she needs to know about how she has lived. 

She speaks of this hypothetical map as being “not a map of choices but a map of variations.” Her “choices” have all been aimed at one particular “great choice,” the way she has lived her life. Everything she has done has been in an effort to become something. 

If the table was a map, and she is not saying that it is, it would be, 

[…] the map by which 

she could see the end of touristic choices

The lines in the wood grain would show her that the frivolous days of her life are over. Everything she does now is permanent, she is no longer a tourist in her own life but an active participant. 

The woman would also recognize in the map the end of memories that were “blued and purpled by romance.” This is an interesting phrase that can be interpreted differently depending on one’s own connection to the colors. Blue and purple can represent peace but also bring to mind images of obscuring darkness, bruising, and night. 

 

Lines 11-15

In the next lines, the speaker is coming to terms with the choice she has made to become a poet. When she was young she thought of her future romantically. It was in the distance and centered around the great pursuit of writing. Now though, with the map in hand, she would be able to tell that, 

[…] poetry 

Isn’t revolution but a way of knowing 

why it must come. 

Here the speaker is describing how her age has impacted the way she considers poetry and likely art in general. The writing is not the revolutionary aspect. It is a “way of knowing” why a revolution should come. It taps into human emotions and triggers in readers and writers a need to change their worlds. 

In the second half of line thirteen, she begins another hypothetical situation. Here, she wonders how it is possible that this “cheap, mass-produced” typing stand can bring to her such deep and intense feelings. If this is the case, which it clearly is, then it is both “durable,” and as she states in the sixteenth line, a kind of “dream-map.”

 

Lines 16- 19 

so obdurate, so plain,
(…)
and that is the poem and that is the late report.

The table is many things to the speaker. It is necessary and useful; it exists for a specific purpose but also holds a purpose much more meaningful. The table is “plain” and unchanging. It exists as a material in the world that is then joined up with a dream. 

It is poets, artists, and children who have the ability to realize this. Their minds are more open than those who do not engage with art and imagination on a regular basis.  In the concluding lines, the speaker notes that the connection of material and dream defines what a poem is. It holds all the meaning and revolutionary instinct one receives. In this case, it also holds the “late report” on the poet’s life. 


Historical Context of Dreamwood

‘Dreamwood’ by Adrienne Rich was written in October/November in 1987. Recently, it appeared in print in the poetry collection, “Poetry, 100 Years” in June 2012. Looking back to the historical context of the poem, it was the period of postmodern experimentation. Hence, this poem encompasses the elements of postmodernism in its structure and theme. There is no looking back to the romantic ideals. Thus the poet tries to find solace in her simple “wooden desk”, portrayed as “dreamwood” in the poem.


Similar Poetry to Dreamwood

As it is said earlier, ‘Dreamwood’ by Adrienne Rich describes the nature of poetry. Here is a list of a few of the works which represent a similar kind of theme and subject matter.

If you liked the poem, ‘Dreamwood’ by Adrienne Rich, you can read about the Top 10 Adrienne Rich Poems here.

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