In this poem, Wright uses the symbol of light to compare California to a sunset, while his home in the East is implicitly more like a sunrise. To him, California is like a copy of a copy of a copy of his home, and it’s spiritual, strange, rampant with drugs, and boundless as the sea.
Despite his constant longing for his home, his appraisal of the beach comes with golden majesty as he describes Californians’ free-spiritedness, strangeness, and relaxed attitudes.
Explore California Dreaming
In ‘California Dreaming,’ the poet-speaker describes how Californians are similar to another evolution of people from the East. Their strange ways, free-spiritedness, spirituality, and appreciation for the ocean are youthful and always looking to the future, while Easterners are fixated on the past.
‘California Dreaming’ opens as the poet-speaker describes Californians as an entirely different breed of humans. In doing so, he seems to group himself in with their youthful, spiritual, and individualistic way of life.
California, to the speaker, is like a sunset — a later version of the sunrise. The new generation shines brilliantly, while the older generation in the East is dark. This place is dominated by the beach, where people surf, do drugs, and explore their spirituality.
Despite the merit of the free-thinking Californians, the speaker seems to miss his home. He sees Laguna Beach as a muddled copy of his home, and he can only understand it if he compares the Californian city to his home back East.
Form and Structure
‘California Dreaming’ by Charles Wright is a free verse lyric poem that embraces musicality, a conversational tone, breath, formatting, and occasional slant rhyme to capture the innermost thoughts of the speaker.
This poem’s verse is as free as it gets, emphasizing the speaker’s dreamlike state. Lines break in odd places, creating lacunas where the text pauses, encouraging the listener to take a deep breath. In doing so, the poem generates a personal imagery and musical tone that invites the listener in, forcing them to participate in the movement and flow of ideas within the text.
Although the rhyme may be difficult to notice at first glance, there are quite a few of them in this poem. For example, “ecstasy” in line nine and “sky” in line eleven create a slant rhyme. If you look hard enough, you will find plenty more examples of such rhymes.
These subtle rhymes and the odd, breathy structure of this poem combine to make it more like a song than a poem.
Light is the most significant theme in ‘California Dreaming’ by Charles Wright.
The sun seems to be his greatest muse in this poem. Since the sun rises in the East and sets in the west, it makes the perfect metaphor for Whight’s departure from Laguna Beach to live in Virginia.
The sun also lends itself well to Wright’s perception of Californian spirituality and occultism. The Californians, who celebrate religious holidays by reinterpreting Christian practices, carry on the torch of the Southeast’s stern Christian beliefs. According to the poem, these Californians are a bit like a reincarnation of Jesus, showing reverence to religious thought but in an original, reimagined way.
The bright, golden haze of California doesn’t sit well with the poet-speaker. He prefers the early morning sunlight that filters in from the East. As such, he is always looking toward his home in the American South.
In an interview, Charles Wright said:
… most of my longish poems are really a bunch of short poems stuck together, and I don’t pretend to have a narrative quality to them, except within themselves. And so, if you had the book, you’d notice that there’s a line drawn between each of those stanzas, and they jump from one to the next, but they all have to do with where I am writing the poem, which was 1771 Thurston Drive in Laguna Beach, California. And these things all happened in Laguna Beach, and that’s what more or less keeps it together, that and the idea that Californians really are a little different from easterners, in an odd way.
So, from this information, we can infer that every time we encounter a “~,” the poem will take on a new, somewhat disconnected perspective. However, Laguna Beach and the concept of California will tie each seemingly independent section of this longer poem together.
It’s also worth noting that Charles Wright likely included so many lacunas in this poem because he was trying to create a pun between the words Laguna and lacuna.
Additionally, the poem’s title and mention of “California Dreaming” in the concluding line allude to the song ‘California Dreamin’’ by the Mamas and the Papas, first released in 1966.
This song is about a person who goes for a walk on a cold winter’s day and dreams of being in California, where it’s still warm. It became a bit of an anthem for the young people involved in the Civil rights Movement and the anti-war sentiments of the 1960s, many of whom went to Southern California to be around like-minded people.
Accordingly, ‘California Dreamin’’ was popular, and the phrase “California Dreaming” gradually caught on as an idiom that meant “dreaming of a better place.”
It becomes clear that the speaker is almost literally dreaming, moving from scene to scene in his mind as the poem develops.
This piece of information makes lines such as “That was supposed to be midmorning, not midsummer because we find out what time it is as this goes on” make a lot more sense.
We are not born yet, and everything’s crystal under our feet.
We shine in our distant chambers, we are golden.
In section one of Charles Wright’s ‘California Dreaming,’ the speaker introduces a group of people: “We.” Unfortunately, the listener never quite gets to know who these people are. Are they Californians? Are they the young hippie flower children of Laguna Beach? All guesses are equally good here.
Still, the speaker describes this group of people as “unborn,” “not brethren,” “not underlings,” and as “another nation.”
In these dubious claims, some essential information from the poet Charles Wright can help us decode what’s happening:
…the first stanza, which I liked almost better than anything else, is taken from a dog book, which describes the world of dogs. We are not brethren. We are not underlings. We are another nation. But it seemed to me to fit into the way certain Californians think of themselves, and so I started out with that…
Only with this tip can we understand that the “We” of stanza one is the entire grouping of people who identify as Californians. These people, like dogs, make up their own class of beings.
In this claim, it seems that Wright implies that Californians are unlike people from other places. He indicates that they have their own quirks, rules of living, behaviors, preferences, and ideas about how the world works.
These “golden” people are “caught in the net of splendor / of time-to-come on the earth.” These lines are particularly meaningful, as they tie in images such as the California coastline and the Bohemian New Agers who favored Laguna Beach.
These “golden” people, taken to mean sunburnt, glorious, young, and spiritual, shine in their “distant chambers.” Here, the poet again other Californians, who are far removed from the rest of the world.
Midsummer, and Darvon dustfall off the Pacific
on the neck of everything.
In section two of ‘California Dreaming,’ the speaker transports us to the coast of Laguna Beach. Through the alliteration in “Darvon dustfall,” it becomes clear that the speaker or someone near him was on Darvon, an opioid painkiller and popular recreational drug, when this poem was published.
Though the text’s meaning may be blurred by drug use, the poet plays with liminal spaces. For example, he confuses the word “Midsummer” with “midmorning,” later breaking the poem’s form to tell us about his blunder. In this, the day becomes much like a year in itself, time stretching out and feeling much longer than it is.
It is also “October,” which contrasts with “Midsummer,” drawing a contrast between the speaker’s perception of the scene and the actual date, place, and time. To him, it may feel like a golden midsummer day, but it’s actually a colder day in October, and the day is just beginning.
Through wordplay, the sun becomes a “Sunday prayer-light,” a candle flame that jumps into the sky, shining from the East. In this line, the speaker seems to indicate that those who live in the East pray for the drug-addicted youths who live in the West. Instead, however, Californians have “solitude and joy,” like sparks that light up the sky during sunset.
The speaker next reveals that, though he has lived in this place for six years, he has never liked it.
To him, Laguna Beach is “Strung out like Good Friday along a cliff / That Easters down to the ocean.” In other words, the land is like the cross Jesus was crucified, and the sea represents his resurrection. It’s a place of life and death — of sedating drugs and reawakening.
It’s also like a dark wing, which refers to the triangle-like shape of Laguna Beach. However, in the poet’s imaginings, the wing’s scruffy feathers stretch out over the sea to Santa Catalina Island nearby.
As such, the speaker sees this city as a barren, drug-infested, yet spiritual and naturalistic place. Its landscape dominates his description, indicating that the people are secondary to the beach and coast itself. But this coastline is dark, rocky, hot, and uncomfortable.
What if indeed the soul is outside the body,
And turns it again and again until it is shining.
In section three of ‘California Dreaming,’ the speaker muses about the spiritual nature of Laguna Beach. In doing so, he calls back to his description of the sea as like “Easter” and the rocky cliffs as like Jesus’ cross.
The speaker begins by introducing the rhetorical question: “What if indeed the soul is outside the body, / a little rainfall of light / Moistening our every step, prismatic, apotheosizic?”
Here, he turns to the supernatural, or the esoteric, bringing to mind the massive populations of New Agers and occultists in California. He wonders if the world is animistic, questioning whether everything can change its form just as rain becomes the ocean (just as Jesus found a second life).
If, indeed, the soul exists outside of each person’s body, then it would flow like the ocean, look as pale as a white “quilt,” and be as loose and breathtaking as a hot fever. In other words, it would be flowy and always pass on eventually.
To the speaker, there is no anagoge, or spiritual understanding of the world, that makes more sense than learning more about oneself. Through one’s own body, according to the speaker, one could even climb to heaven, or “Paradise.”
Next, the speaker explains how all things on this planet “twitter and grieve,” taking part in the endless cycle of life and death. To the speaker, what happens above will also happen below. Just as we mourn and chatter underneath the canopy, the birds above us sing and grieve those who have died.
Like a bee caught and trapped in a spider web, the earth keeps spinning, and all things eventually find a new life.
Some nights, when the rock-and-roll band next door has quit playing,
the like that’s like the like.
In section four of ‘California Dreaming,’ the speaker explains that his memories of his hometown cloud his perception of Laguna Beach.
In this stanza, the speaker describes the nighttime landscape of Laguna Beach. The darkness settles across the scene, landing like a helicopter across the city.
On these late nights, the speaker finds solitude outdoors. Everyone else in the country seems to him like “flung confetti” or like litter left on the ground after the party’s over.
The speaker feels out of place by the ocean here. He seems to long for a place he knows best: his home. This place, according to the speaker, lives on the “far side of the simile.”
With this metaphor, the speaker indicates that he can never see a new place without comparing it to his home. Everything that he looks at here in California is a strange counterpoint compared to where he grew up.
He next explains that this simile, with his home on the other end, is “like the like the like.” This means that if his home is the original place, California would be a copy of a copy. California is distorted and synthetic compared to Wright’s home in the American Southeast.
Today is sweet stuff on the tongue.
We rise and fall like the sun.
In section five of ‘California Dreaming,’ the speaker displays a nihilistic attitude that almost begs the listener to seize the day. According to the speaker, living in California is like riding a surfboard. It’s like hovering on a serene yet threatening ocean that knocks us down almost every time we see success.
Likewise, no matter how we live, we will eventually fall — meaning, we will all die.
Ghost of the Muse and her dogsbody
the worm creeping out of the heart . . .
Section six of ‘California Dreaming’ reads remarkably like a journal entry. On this day, November 25th, the speaker seems to see both the stars and the sun simultaneously. The “Ghost of the Muse” and her “Dogsbody” may allude to Sirius, the dog star, and the constellation Lyra, but this interpretation may be wholly inaccurate (the speaker has never offered insight into this).
The sun shines above the scene “like a Valium disc,” again alluding to drug usage. With this simile, the sun is a downer, just as the trees are seemingly infected by smog. All the pleasant things in this section have a hidden, darker side.
The seagulls above are like nuns or friars who fly in from the East like missionaries. However, as they glance at the waves, they stop as if afraid of the violent water.
While the following lines are somewhat cryptic, the speaker is watching the ocean from the beach, attempting to remember “yesterday.” The memory of yesterday is like a delicate porcelain cup, fragile and translucent. Perhaps this memory is so delicate because the speaker had too much to drink.
However, his focus on himself and the ocean is out of fear and awe. He notices loud valves (like a yelling voice or the roaring sea) and insistent extremities (like violent fists or the sprawling tide). These movements cause “the worm” to creep out of the speaker’s and the ocean’s heart, freeing them of infection.
In this stanza, the speaker expresses his excitement upon leaving Laguna Beach. He may as well be the worm in this scene, as he never really fit in there in the first place.
Who are these people we pretend to be,
Her time has come round again.
In section seven of ‘California Dreaming,’ the poet-speaker questions his identity. Is he an Easterner, or is he a Californian? Or is he both?
According to the speaker, Californians are more handsome and more relaxed, standing “less stiffly” than Easterners. While we may see ourselves in them at first glance, as we begin to look at their customs, they become less and less like Southeastern Americans.
While they may have Christmas trees, the actual tree is a pepper tree. Their Madonna is black, and she weeps. In this example, the speaker suggests that Californians represent a New Age of humanity if they are in the next stage and the future generation.
Piece by small piece the world falls away from us like spores
California dreaming . . .
In section eight, the speaker seems to be saying his goodbyes to Laguna beach as he “falls away” from the poem and the setting.
As he explains how, as time goes on, we forget things from the past, he seems to be discussing how, every time he moves, he starts to forget the bad things about a place. Just like the song ‘California Dreamin’’ by the Mamas and the Papas, the speaker dreams of a better place — no matter where he goes.
The grass is always greener on the other side, and no matter what, someone is always humming ‘California Dreamin’’ in the back of the speaker’s head, reminding him that everything that glitters is not always gold.
The tone in ‘California Dreaming’ by Charles Wright is disillusioned, discontented, conversational, and contemplative. As the poet-speaker describes the California coastline, it becomes increasingly clear that he doesn’t like living there and longs for his home in the Southeastern USA.
The speaker in ‘California Dreaming‘ by Charles Wright is the poet. While the poem never reveals its speaker’s identity, there are some clues within the poem that Wright is the speaker. For example, the knowledge that Wright lived in Laguna Beach for a while, then moved closer to home to Virginia, helps the listener understand that this poem is Wright’s goodbye to CA.
In ‘California Dreaming’ by Charles Wright, the speaker feels uncomfortable in California. However, the speaker recognizes that California is a hub for young, spiritually curious, interesting, and outdoorsy people. While these Californians tend to reinterpret the world around them in original ways, Wright always finds himself missing his home back East.
‘California Dreaming’ is characteristic of Charles Wright in that it places great importance on the landscape and experiments with perception. The poem, which is conversational and dreamlike, flits between scenes of the California coastline as the speaker observes his surroundings.
‘California Dreaming’ captures the speaker’s fugue-like state as he says goodbye to California before moving away. His dreamy understanding of the world around him is driven by the coastline and natural landscape, which is littered with liberal, spiritual young people.
As such, this poem is a bit of a reaction to the Californian population boom following the 1960s and 1970s, when many young people from all across the country flocked to CA to find communities of like-minded people.
Some other poems that attempt to capture the cultural uniqueness of the California coastline in the mid to late 20th century include:
- ‘Believe, Believe’ by Bob Kaufman – is a free-spirited antigovernment or antiestablishment poem.
- ‘Riprap’ by Gary Snyder – describes the order of the world that includes everything, from the words we speak to an unnoticed cobble in a creek.
- ‘Lines Written Near San Francisco’ by Louis Simpson – is a poem about San Francisco in which the poet offers a lifeless description of the city that appears to be “a murmur of serious life.”
Some other Charles Wright poems of interest include:
- ‘Clear Night’ – is a poem about a speaker’s thoughts under a peaceful night sky.
- ‘Reunion’ – is an emotionally charged piece that expresses the poet’s relationship to his writing.