Poetry | Dream Logic: The Surreal and Non-Linear in Short Poems

“Art is a lie that tells the truth.” — Pablo Picasso

This lesson involves non-linear poetic storytelling and encompasses the dream-like, absurd, and surreal. Following information about this unique narrative style, I have included three unique examples to study, along with annotations.

Defining surreal or non-linear poetry can be as difficult as fully explaining a dream. What makes abstractions and absurdity creatively work? How are we able to intuitively grasp and finally accept as real words and images that contradict what we know of the world? Let’s start off with a few notes and tips:

Notes on Surreal and Non-Linear Poetry

1)Explore the subconscious. Create something tangible, comprehendible, and resonant from your own dreamt world. Externalize the internal.
2) Readers must willingly suspend their disbelief for such poetry to “work”. We must accept what the poet is showing us. To accomplish this difficult task, the poet must build reader trust by carefully crafting a framework for the impossible to exist, by providing justification for the contradictions.
3) Non-linear poetry is all about reciprocal trust. The poet has created his or her own unique world, and we must trust that vision. We must recognize something of it in our own reality. Like a funhouse mirror, a non-linear poem is reality skewed. Readers must trust the poet to expand the known by incorporating the unknown, and the poet must respect the reader’s need for something reflexive, familiar, and safe to “ground” or “anchor” them in this fantastical world.
4) Not unlike the multi-dimensional theory espoused by some theoretical physicists, the non-linear poem exists in two or more overlapping dimensions. The real and imagined blur and coalesce. The known and unknown collide and spark something new, rebellious, and strangely beautiful.
5) Juxtaposition is key. Providing contrasts is hugely significant. Non-linear poetry must pit images against each other and certain words against their assumed meanings. These contrasts (and in some cases outright contradictions) make readers stretch their imagination  and hopefully  perceive the real world differently.
6) Sometimes consciously composed and sometimes incidental, off-beat humor often results from crafting strange and surreal imagery. Even if the context is deathly serious, when something unexpected  happens in a poem one natural human reaction is to laugh. And that’s okay; it may even be the poet’s goal.


A Few Simple Methods for Creating Non-Linear Poetry

1)Take a single surreal element and place it in a real-world context. (An example is Zachary Schomburg’s poem below)
2) Take a single real-world image or concept and place it in a fantastical or impossible situation. (Like how the impossible or strange world created by a compelling science fiction story should still contain core human elements.)
3) Begin with an actual dream. If you keep a dream journal or tend to remember your dreams, focus on a few particularly compelling images, place them on the page, and craft a world for them to exist in. (not unlike Dali’s painting above; any of us could have dreamed this but we must then create the context for it to make sense.)
4) Be a child again. Yes, force yourself to revert to childhood perception. Do you remember when the moon was made of cheese? Do you remember when you questioned the reality behind absolutely everything? When you would look up at a tree or a parent or the roof of your house and without meaning to create a metaphor? Childhood is when everything that exists in the tangible word exists in a different form in the mental world. This is the place we must return to to create stark, interesting non-linear poetry. The entire world can be a metaphor again!


Let’s see how three contemporary poets approach surreal and non-linear poetry. The below poems are quite different from each other and break from reality in different ways. Schomburg’s work is obviously surreal. Britto’s poem delves deeply into a single, strange image and builds abstract connections from it. And Lighthart makes us see the intimate world in a fresh, new way.

Following each poem is a set of notes that highlight the poet’s tools, techniques, and approaches.

After studying the above tips and below annotated poems, you will find your reading, discussion, and writing assignments for the week.

Annotated Example #1

Zachary Schomburg

This is a Night of Evenly Spaced-Out Escalators

This is a night of evenly spaced-
out escalators. This is a night of werewolves.

Bodies are colliding into one another.
Trains, oceans. My body collided with hers
hers collided with his

his fell awkwardly to its death.
There are werewolves that scatter about evenly
but congregate at dead bodies.
Ants at a picnic. Trees to rivers.

There are werewolves in business casual
riding up the escalators, so evenly spaced-
out, so tremendously efficient
and consistent. This is a night of driving.

I am in my Mercury Topaz. She is in hers.
Moons are electrons above us.
We are hitting tons of werewolves.

Notes on poem.

  • The strange connections Schomburg makes. This poem exists simultaneously in two worlds: the mundane (escalators, trains, trees) and the horrific (werewolves, bodies, death).
  • The absurdity creates a strange, dark humor. Without the inclusion of werewolves, this wouldn’t be as surreal, funny, or resonant.
  • As we discussed above, notice how this poem couches only one dream-like image (the werewolves) into our world, creating a jarring emotional response.
  • Notice the way each image cascades in a dream-like manner. Somehow we move from night to urbanity to rural landscape and back to urbanity and finally back to night. So there is a consistency of structure we recognize and trust within which the beauty and absurdity thrives. 

Annotated Example #2

Paulo Henriques Britto



The tuba player

wrings a grimy and crusted music

from the intestines of the metal.


The trees, unaccustomed, all shiver

at the guttural sound. (So virginal are they.)

With the brusque gesture of its shoulders,

the sky, blue and perfectly clean, repels

the hoarse notes lifting weakly

into flight, and the notes

crash, corpulent

vultures struck from the air.


Indifferent, the tuba player stops, spits,

and plays on.


Notes on poem.

  • The title itself works to challenge reader expectations. The pastoral is a conventional poetic form that most readers are familiar with, yet Britto approaches it unconventionally.
  • Britto creates a world we can trust and inhabit. This is fundamental when toying with dream imagery.  Notice how he:
    1. Anchors us immediately with a specific, recognizable character. He ends the poem with the same character, making the poem progress almost like a narrative.
    2. Focuses each image so that every word in the poem relates directly to the body or music. This provides a clear thread for us to follow, making his surreal statements feel more authentic.
    3. Includes so many visceral words. Intestines, guttural, virginal, shoulders, corpulent— these words help the poem feel intimate and recognizable. Our own bodies work as reference points.
    4. Includes natural images too, providing further evidence that his dreamt world is very much our own tangible world.

Annotated Example #3

Annie Lighthart

Old Tapestry


See how strong the thread is, how the tree of life is stitched into place,

how all your sad thought cannot dampen this cloth.


Someone has woven a trusted face into every branch.

Even the hungry roots bear that smiling gaze.


Nothing has been forgotten.

Within the branches, the flowers wear your eyes.

To look at even one petal is to see your life hidden everywhere.


Notes on poem. Notice:

  • The first line presents a paradoxical image: a tree, stitched. In the second, we learn: perhaps the tree is not really a tree, but a cloth? The reader is enticed to meander in the area between these two strong images to begin their interpretive work.
  • The metaphor extends to verse 2. The tree is populated with faces – trusted, smiling. Who is the someone the poet may be referring to?
  • Verse 3 stuns the reader with its bold declaration, its guarantee of memory. The reader encounters their own memory and its limits, its madeleine cakes. A line like this may keep the reader occupied for a while.
  • The last verse continues its bold escalation of risky, yet compelling assertions, concluding in the life-affirming final line. What does it mean, to have one’s life hidden everywhere? Does this notion come with a responsibility for everything?
  • The poet appeals to the reader directly. This is risky – some readers don’t appreciate being talked to. What makes the poem a whisper in your ear rather than a speech from a podium? What entices the readers to trust, love the voice that addresses them?


“Invisible Architecture”, by Barbara Guest (essay; 1 p.)

“The Abandoned Hotel”, by Zachary Schomburg (poem)

“Keeping Things Whole”, by Mark Strand(poem)

“Darling” by Alex Dimitrov (poem)


In “Invisible Architecture”, Guest says, “The writer only slowly retains power over the poem, physical power, when the poem breaks away from the authority of the invisible architecture.” In at least 100 words, discuss what internal, invisible architecture you see in the three assigned poems and how the poets break away from it. You may write about one, two, or all three of the poems.

To create a robust conversation, don’t forget to comment on your fellow course mates’ comments.

Writing Exercise

Let’s call this week’s writing assignment: the dream come to life. Begin with a single dream-like image, be it pulled from your dream notebook or wholly invented. Remember: you can be a child again, and no metaphor is too “out there”. Using this unique image as your base, think about how you can incorporate it into the real world. Think about what things you can compare to it and contrast against it. Think about how to make readers trust you with this image and with the journey you take them on.


John Sibley Williams’ writing has appeared in American Literary Review, Third Coast, and RHINO. He is the author of eight poetry collections, most recently Controlled Hallucinations (FutureCycle Press, 2013). Four-time Pushcart nominee, he is the winner of the HEART Poetry Award and has been a finalist for the Rumi, Third Coast, Ian MacMillan, Best of the Net, and The Pinch Poetry Prizes. John serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and Board Member of the Friends of William Stafford. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Rivier College and an MA in Book Publishing from Portland State University, and he currently works as Marketing Director of Inkwater Press and as a literary agent. John lives in Portland, Oregon.



Lesson No. 1: Narrative Short Poems with John Sibley Williams

Welcome! After providing a few overall tips for creating short poems, we will focus this lesson on writing short narrative poetry about a personal experience in a way that resonates with readers and echoes off the page. We will study works by Pauline Petersen, William Stafford, Zubair Ahmed, and more.

Tips on Writing Short Poems

1) Choose a title that provides context for the poem, be it the overarching metaphor or a significant detail/image.
2) Focus on the significance, weight, and impact of each word.
3) Cull extraneous words, unfocused images, and extended monologue.
4) Ensure your first and last lines are powerful, as they respectively introduce readers to your world and define the poem’s lasting impression.
5) Consider carefully each line and stanza break, as well as the placement and usage of punctuation
6) Ensure each image and detail doubles as both metaphor and grounded anchor, eliminating those that don’t serve a grander purpose.
7) Keep a consistent tone, mood, and voice throughout.
8) Never stray far from the poem’s core metaphor.
9) Avoid over-explaining, allowing readers to come to their own conclusions instead.
10) Consider the use of intuitive and imaginative (sometimes even surreal) leaps in the poem’s narrative. Trust the reader to make those leaps with you.


As there is no better way to discuss poetry than to dissect successful poems and see what tools the poet applied, here are three pieces that approach the narrative short poem from distinct angles. Following each poem is a set of notes that highlight the poet’s tools, techniques, and approaches. Please read each poem at least twice before reviewing the notes. After reading Petersen and Stafford’s works, try taking your own notes on Ahmed’s poem.

After studying the above tips and below annotated poems, you will find your reading, discussion, and writing assignments. Each week I will include a mix of essays and further poem examples for your review, and you will be asked to write a minimum of one new poem inspired by the reading.

Annotated Example #1

Paulann Petersen

Feeding Crows


I can move closer. Too much

and they scatter. Snap and clatter of black

lifted to trees. Caw and creech railing at intrusion.


Of late, my heart startles, flying against my chest.

Aberrant beats, thousands each day. Panicked,

I tell it, I must tame you to survive.


No. I’ll give this dark nester

what it craves. Sleep

laden with dreams. Then—from a distance—


morsels of fond neglect.


Notes on poem. Notice:

  • The title, which provides context for the poem and frees Petersen to not have to reference birds again. She can be more flexible and abstract because she has already anchored us with a tangible, grounded image.
  • Petersen’s very specific, surprising, and unique word choice.
    1. Her verbs are contextually accurate, evocative, and repeat similar consonant and vowel sounds, creating flow and cohesion (scatter, snap, caw, creech, crave, tame).
    2. Few adjectives, but those she uses provide mood (black, dark, aberrant).
    3. No extraneous words or tangents; very focused language.
  • The first and last lines.
    1. “I can move closer” provides ambiguity and mystery, pulling the reader in.
    2. “Then—from a distance—/ morsels of fond neglect” leaves the reader asking questions with a powerful combination of words.
  • How Petersen’s use of punctuation molds how we read the poem.
    1. Short lines are hard-stopped on periods.
    2. Commas provide a breathy pause and em dashes a physical distance that enhances the metaphorical distance she describes.
  • How Petersen never strays from her core image. Every word is tightly wound around a single experience, which she uses as a metaphor about her own nature. 

Annotated Example #2

William Stafford

Across Kansas


My family slept those level miles
but like a bell rung deep till dawn
I drove down an aisle of sound,
nothing real but in the bell,
past the town where I was born.

Once you cross a land like that
you own your face more: what the light
struck told a self; every rock
denied all the rest of the world.
We stopped at Sharon Springs and ate—

My state still dark, my dream too long to tell.


Notes on poem. Notice:

  • How the title gives all the specifics the reader requires. We all know of Kansas’ flatness, its barren fields, its sense of loneliness, yet it’s also part of the ‘heartland’. He says Kansas, and we immediately have a picture in our minds. That one word does a lot of work in the poem.
  • How Stafford speaks directly to the reader in the second stanza. This tactic creates immediacy and makes the reader personally invested in the poetic outcome.
  • Stafford’s line breaks. Apart from “that”, each line ends with a strong, evocative noun or verb that drives us into the following line. Notice also how each line begins with incredible verbs (struck, denied) and perspective-shifting pronouns (I, you, and we).
  • How Stafford balances specifics with universal imagery.
    1. He uses common nouns (bell, sound, town, land, rock, world) that can resonate with any reader while also giving us a specific location and characters (his family).
  • His tactics in moving at ease between the intimate and the conceptual.
    1. He speaks to his inner world with the first person pronoun, utilizes the second person “you” to directly include the reader in the poem, and then moves back to the intimate “I” to conclude the poem on a personal note.
    2. His last line pans out from firsthand experience so we feel the full weight of his metaphor. Also, the word “state” could signify Kansas or his mental state, which leaves the poem on a wonderfully ambiguous question.

Annotated Example #3

Zubair Ahmed

A Field of Wells


My great-grandmother left

Before the sun rose

To gather water from a field of wells

Seventeen miles north.

I watched from my bed

As she kneeled in the corner

And bathed her arms with dust.

I think she prayed.

She opened the door,

Careful not to waken the crickets

Sleeping within us.

Before she left, her face forgot

Our names.

Today, the Ganges will be dense

With dead bodies.


Notes on poem. Notice:

  • How Ahmed shows so much more than he tells. His meanings are implied, not stated, which allows the reader to interact with the poem on his or her own personal terms.
  • How fluidly the poem moves from the extremely intimate to the universal (from the author’s great grandmother to an entire culture’s worth of casualties) until ultimately they blend and become one single poetic thread.
  • Ahmed’s careful selection of details. In keeping each image anchored yet broad, he invites the reader into the poem and into the lives of the character and narrator. His great grandmother is our great grandmother. His Bangladesh is our own country.
  • How the poem holds us tight to its breast until the final two lines, when it opens up to the larger world and broader historic context. Suddenly what seemed like a family narrative becomes a cultural narrative.
  • The consistently mysterious tone. From the highly metaphorical title to the haunting closing image, each line has an ephemeral quality that seems fitting for a poem about loss and grief and family.

Readings: Narrative Short Poems

“Some Notes on Organic Form”, by Denise Levertov (essay; 3 pp.)

“Approximately Forever”, by C. D. Wright  (poem)

“Afterlife”, by Bruce Snider (poem)

“The Resurrection of the Body”, by Eric Pankey (poem)


After reading Levertov’s article, use the comment forum below to provide a quote from the article that piqued your interest. You can agree with it, disagree with it, or simply wish to delve deeper into it.

Writing Exercise 

With Stafford, Ahmed, and Petersen’s poems in mind, please construct a metaphorical poem based on an experience or memory.


1) Take a moment to consider a specific experience from your life, one that could potentially resonate with others and that speaks to something you consider important.

2) List a few details about this experience: the who, what, where, when, how, but in particular the why, as in: why does this experience matter?

1. Mark or highlight those you think are particularly interesting and evocative.

2. What poetic images might you be able to construct from these details?

3) Consider what mood would you like to create. How do you want the reader to feel: heart-broken, joyous, contemplative?

4) Consider what you want to say in this poem. What meaning might you want it to convey to others?

5) Now, begin to write. Start powerfully, perhaps with a stark image.

John Sibley Williams’ writing has appeared in American Literary Review, Third Coast, and RHINO. He is the author of eight poetry collections, most recently Controlled Hallucinations (FutureCycle Press, 2013). Four-time Pushcart nominee, he is the winner of the HEART Poetry Award and has been a finalist for the Rumi, Third Coast, Ian MacMillan, Best of the Net, and The Pinch Poetry Prizes. John serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and Board Member of the Friends of William Stafford. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Rivier College and an MA in Book Publishing from Portland State University, and he currently works as Marketing Director of Inkwater Press and as a literary agent. John lives in Portland, Oregon.

Lesson No. 3: The Poetry of Jihad with The New Yorker

Conflict poetry is not only an expression of experience but also an expression of action and unity, the most extreme and violent example being the poetry of jihad.


Battle Lines: Want to understand the jihadis? Read their poetry.


“On October 11, 2014, according to Islamic State-affiliated Twitter accounts a woman going by the name Ahlam al-Nasr was married in the courthouse of Raqqa, Syria, to Abu Usama al-Gharib, a Vienna-born jihadi close to the movement’s leadership. ISIS social media rarely make marriage announcements, but al-Nasr and al-Gharib are a jihadi power couple. Al-Gharib is a veteran propagandist, initially for Al Qaeda and now for ISIS. His bride is a burgeoning literary celebrity, better known as “the Poetess of the Islamic State.” Her first book of verse, “The Blaze of Truth,” was published online last summer and quickly circulated among militant networks. Sung recitations of her work, performed a cappella, in accordance with ISIS’s prohibition on instrumental music, are easy to find on YouTube. “The Blaze of Truth” consists of a hundred and seven poems in Arabic—elegies to mujahideen, laments for prisoners, victory odes, and short poems that were originally tweets. Almost all the poems are written in monorhyme—one rhyme for what is sometimes many dozens of lines of verse—and classical Arabic meters…” (Read More at The New Yorker).


“The culture of jihad is a culture of romance. It promises adventure and asserts that the codes of medieval heroism and chivalry are still relevant. Having renounced their nationalities, the militants must invent an identity of their own. They are eager to convince themselves that this identity is not really new but extremely old. The knights of jihad style themselves as the only true Muslims, and, while they may be tilting at windmills, the romance seems to be working. ISIS recruits do not imagine they are emigrating to a dusty borderland between two disintegrating states but to a caliphate with more than a millennium of history.”


In the jihadi narrative, as in all successful narratives—poetry, prose…—shared and cathartic conflict is the driving force. It creates a conversation of conflict. How do you reply to the following jihadi poem by Muhammad al-Zuhayri, self-proclaimed as “The Poet of Al Qaeda”?


Wake us to the song of swords,

and when the cavalcade sets off, say


The horses’ neighing fills the desert,

arousing our souls and spurring them


The knights’ pride stirs at the sound,

while humiliation lashes our foes.


Writing Exercise

The above jihadi poem is written to a unnamed woman. In this exercise, become that unnamed woman, whomever you want her to be, and answer “The Poet of Al-Qaeda” in verse or prose-poetry.

Rae Bryant, FacultyRae Bryant is the author of the short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals. Her stories and essays have appeared in print and online at  The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, Diagram, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s, New World Writing, Gargoyle Magazine,and Redivider, among other publications and have been nominated for the Pen/Hemingway, Pen Emerging Writers, &NOW Award and Pushcart Prize. She has won awards in fiction from Whidbey Writers and The Johns Hopkins University as well as fellowships from the VCCA and Hopkins to write, study and teach in Florence. She earned a Masters in Writing from Hopkins where she continues to teach creative writing and is editor in chief of The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She has also taught in the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. Rae is the director of The Eckleburg Workshops. Rae is a member of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, AWP, NBCC, CLMP and Johns Hopkins Alumni Association. She is represented by Jennifer Carlson of Dunow, Carlson and Lerner.


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