A close reading: The Dreamlife of Letters

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The poem "The Dreamlife of Letters" uses unique poetic structure and personification in its most simplistic forms to convey three major themes about human life, including the unavoidable chaos of life, the multidimensionality of life and the interconnectedness of life.

The structure of this poem is intentionally hap-hazard.  In fact, the poem was given life by a round table response (to an essay by Dodie Bellamy) originally authored by Rachel Blau DePlessis.  Thus author of "Dreamlife," Brian Kim Stefans, deconstructed DePlessis' response into an alphabetical listing of all its words.  The only unifying element behind the poem's structure, then, is alphabetical order.  Words seem to crash into one another with no order, syntax or meaning.  However, this structure, or lack there of, really speaks to similar elements found in human life.  For one, people constantly crash into one another for no real reason, especially when they are unceremoniously ripped from their surroundings and familiar contexts.  Taken from their familiar surroundings, people naturally reach for human connection and contact, just as these letters, taken from their original essay, are streaming into one another. 

The structure of the poem also parallels the multidimensionality of human life.  Although the words in the poem and the words in the original response are exactly the same, they take on two completely different roles in each form, thus comprising almost two completely different "lives".  Likewise, people can take on two completely different personas when they are placed in two strikingly different situations; the woman at the bar Saturday night is wild and vivacious, while the same woman at church on Sunday morning is calm and reserved. 

However, because the two structures will always be linked by their shared vocabulary they parallel the interconnectedness of all human life. Humans, although they may attempt to wear multiple guises, can never escape their whole selves; thus the woman who bar-hops on Saturday and hail-Mary’s on Sunday must still reconcile these two conflicting selves at the end of each day. 

Essential to the understanding of the themes in "Dreamlife" is another literary element, personification. These very real-life similarities can only be drawn because the poem's structure also allows the letters and words take on a life of their own.  Thus, the poem utilizes a form of personification.  However, unlike traditional personification, in which inanimate objects directly perform a human action or express a human emotion, this poem utilizes a kind of implied personification. 

For example, one line in the written poem reads, "character?/chimneysweeper Christ." From these few short words, readers begin to imagine that a word or letter is actually questioning the "character" of the person, which they describe as a "chimneysweep Christ."  The words no longer represent an idea, they are the idea; the words are performing what they are representing.  And because they are acting human-like, they are thus facilitating the aforementioned parallels to human life.

Another example of personification in "Dreamlife" includes the repetition of the words "I," "I'd" and "in." This repetition conveys the human characteristic of urgency and emphasis; because it is repeated so many times, the word “I” seems to come alive, yelling, "I, I, I!"  The word “I” feels urgent and is actively looking to place emphasis on some point.  The word “I,” like humans, is feeling, thinking and expressing itself.  Likewise, the word "in" is actually moving, attempting to burrow "in, in, in." 

Even the title implies the personification of letters and words.  In order to have a "Dreamlife," the letters and words must indeed have dreams and be alive. Moreover, this particular example of personification directly ties into the human themes the author is presenting; dreams are often the medium through which humans can explore and experience extreme examples of heightened chaos, multidimensionality and interconnectedness which ultimately help them learn more about themselves, their lives and the world around them.  

Beyond the personification that is deduced from the written prose and structure, the added element of animation also enhances the effectiveness of the poem’s personification.  Although the sense of life and motion can be seen in reading the mis-matched words on a page and then applying and reacting to learned cues (e.g. repetitiveness implies urgency), the animated poem can elevate this sense of personification by showing the letters and words in actual motion, movement and action.  In other words, readers can more easily deduce the author’s use of personification when the poem is in motion.  As an animated poem, the letters and words grow, shrink, fly, fall and spiral, in addition to countless other motions.  Readers can see the poem moving just as people do, and thus are more open and readily exposed to the literary personification of the letters and the human themes they help convey.

Ultimately, "The Dreamlife of Letters" uses a poetic "non-structure" to convey three very basic principles of life, but is only able to do so by eliciting a sense of personification from the words and letters, through both the traditional, written format of poetry and electronic, animated format.

Discussing Electronic Literature


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