Bottom’s Dream

by Joseph S. Salemi

I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was… The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream: it shall be called ‘Bottom’s Dream,’ because it hath no bottom.

—A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act IV, scene 1

Everyone knows how Bottom the Weaver became an ass, and was then magically transformed back into his asinine human self. It’s a delightful side-plot in Shakespeare’s most ethereal of plays, that wonderful jeu d’esprit of masque and antic-masque spectacle called A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I bring it up here because an examination of Bottom’s words upon awakening from his trance tells us something important about the composition of poetry, and why so many would-be practitioners of the art go astray. It’s as if Shakespeare, our sublimest wordsmith, were putting into the mouth of an ass the perfect recipe for bad poetry.

Bottom—like so many naïve young poets—has had a transforming experience. Something great and moving has happened to him. He has been lifted out of his ordinary mundane sphere and transported to a realm of mysterious delight and exalted perception. And what is the result? Well, it’s predictable: He wants to write a poem about it.

I hasten to add that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with doing such a thing. I recall a summer’s day over forty years ago when I was swept up by some divine afflatus, and wrote my first serious poem. It was along a deserted stretch of beach on Long Island, and I felt the power of the Muses pick me up and strum me like a lyre. The experience was unforgettable. But when I look back today at the poem that resulted, it strikes me as overblown and mediocre, and not at all up to the wonderful Dionysian explosion that was its occasion. Great feeling doesn’t guarantee great poetry. Why is that so hard for my students to comprehend?

The biggest obstacle I face as a teacher of poetry is this near-universal tendency of beginning poets to want to put into poetic form an actual feeling or experience that has been of earthshaking significance to them. Indeed, many of these young people have signed up in my poetry seminar for the sole purpose of giving verbal expression to some sort of ineffable event or perception. My heart sinks when I read those first drafts of a youthful awakening, or the disappointment of prom night, or the vulgar details of a sexual deflowering, or the detritus of some ill-starred liaison. The writers of these first drafts seem to think that because such an experience was important to them, it necessarily will be important to other people.

Like Bottom, they misunderstand. No one cares about your “most rare vision.” Thinking that they do is like imagining that strangers want to hear the details of your arthritis attacks, or how your grandchildren are doing in pre-school. Believe me, they don’t want to know.

But the beginning student won’t accept that fact. He fights against it. He has “something to say,” and he wants to say it, come hell or high water. And like Bottom, he cannot seem to get his eye, ear, hand, tongue, and heart into perfect alignment so as to express his special experience in precisely the terms that it deserves.

This is what I find most maddening in those poetry seminars—when the student keeps going on and on about how he hasn’t quite “captured the reality” of his remembered experience, or how the words of his draft “don’t precisely express” what he was thinking or feeling or doing or perceiving or Whatever-The-Hell-Else was going on when he had his great epiphany. And he wants to spend the entire semester fine-tuning that first draft until it perfectly meshes with the incident that it purports to describe.

I try to explain to such students that they are going about poetic composition in a totally ass-backwards way, as we say here in Brooklyn. In poetry, the important thing isn’t your great transforming experience. The important thing is the text that you put down on the page.

I recall one teenage girl who wouldn’t let go of some vague childhood memory of being in a closet, and smelling the strong scent of her father’s overcoat. She was desperate to express this experience in a poem. After three weeks of listening to her nebulous reminiscences on this incident, I lost patience and said “Look—will you just do something with it?” She said “But nothing really happened—I just recall vividly the scent of the overcoat.” I answered “Well, make something happen. Turn it into a poem about your father molesting you in the closet.” She blanched, and dropped the class.

I never tire of pointing out the ineradicable Puritanism of Americans, their earnest belief that everything ought to have a practical purpose and a worthwhile goal. Everyone in the nation, both Christian and non-Christian, seems to be infected with this Low-Church Protestant notion that we have a duty to be truthful and honest at all times, in order to “do the right thing” or “accomplish something positive” or some other Sunday-School bromide. When you suffer from that kind of intellectual disability, you can’t write poetry except as a form or proselytizing, or as a recherché sort of affidavit about your personal feelings and experiences. It’s a terrible handicap in an art where sophisticated techniques of feigning and lying are traditional tools of the trade.

The point about Bottom’s dream is that “it hath no bottom.” Or to put it more prosaically, actual human experiences, in and of themselves, don’t necessarily have a substantial enough basis to provide us with the material for poetry. We have to change them and embellish them. We have to improvise and patch. We have to completely re-imagine them and—if necessary—totally discard them in favor of something that will make for more compelling poetry. In short, we have to lie.

A lot of people just can’t bring themselves to do that. They are incorrigible Low-Church Protestants, and they won’t lie. Which is fine with me, but like Bottom the Ass, they ought to avoid writing poetry.

© 2008 by Joseph S. Salemi



About the Author

Joseph S. Salemi teaches in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College, CUNY. His books of poetry are Formal Complaints, Nonsense Couplets, Masquerade, and The Lilacs on Good Friday. His poems, articles, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in over one hundred journals world-wide. Two of his most recent essays appear on-line at Barefoot Muse and The Chimaera. His article on Whittaker Chambers has just appeared in The University Bookman, and his “Memoir of Figurative Language” is in the latest number of Italian-Americana. He is an NEH Fellow, a winner of The Classical and Modern Literature Award, and a four-time finalist for The Howard Nemerov Prize. His latest book can be seen at


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