Poetry in the head: a review of daydreaming


My listening skills are diabolical.

I can be listening to a lecture and half way through some siren thought will come and tap me on the shoulder, and suddenly my eyes and my body will look exactly as if I am still listening intently, yet my mind is off following a trail.

This extends past listening to any activity. Lost on a thinking-path, I can quite easily ignore someone completely as I walk past them. I am not being rude, though it looks terrible: I am away, as as they say, with the fairies, daydreaming.

Daydreams: their nighttime counterparts have fangs and claws, but the daydream drifts around in muslin dresses. As the body settles into doing something automatic, the mind feels safe to begin building scenarios and thinking through possibilities.

It was Henry Ford, the father of the assembly line, who noticed the concrete implications of how the body and mind could go their separate ways. His workers were doing the same boring, repetitive task over and over again to create a car. On paper, his system was faster, cheaper and more effective and made mass production a reality. But the effect on people was marked. As they became bored their minds wandered off to do other things. And when that happens and you’re in charge of heavy machinery, the consequences of not ‘concentrating’ – not being present in the task to hand – can be fatal.

Look at driving. Being present in the task is so very hard: is there anyone out there who has not driven all the way to work without remembering the journey, so deep were they in their plans for the day?

Because those daydreams are far more powerful than we realise. They are not just sojurns with the fairies, a team from the University of British Columbia found in a study published in 2009, but high-level problem -solving.

The study asked subjects to perform routine tasks while they scanned the electrical activity in their brains. They found that the ‘executive network’ in the brain – the part which solves complex problems – was seen clearly working alongside the system which managed the task.

Daydreaming is very, very important.

Which brings me to a tale about WB Yeats, whose lines of poetry course through my mind at the strangest times. The poet who died in 1939 was a dreamer, plain and simple, and his unconscious was usually working on words. So diligently, in fact, that his day to day Β routine was haphazard at best.

Fellow Irish poet Katharine Tynan wrote about him: “Yeats,” she said, “never had the remotest idea of taking care of himself.”

In her reminiscences she said he could go all day without food unless someone else remembered to remind him to eat; and similarly, he would carry on eating until someone told him to stop.

He used to visit Katharine, walking out from Dublin to her house which was about five miles away. “A gaunt figure,” she described him, “striding along over the snow-bound roads, mouthing poetry, swinging his arms and gesticulating as he went.”

He must have cut a strange figure. Yeats is said to have been unconscious of his mannerisms, even projecting them on a fellow critic, painter and writer George Russell. But it was ‘Willie’ Yeats who was remembered for it, Katharine observed wryly.

“I remember how the Dublin policemen used to eye him in those days, as though uncertain whether to ‘run him in’ or not. But, by and by, they used to say. ‘Shure, ’tisn’t mad he is, nor yet drink taken. ‘Tis the poethry that’s disturbin’ his head,’ and leave him alone.”

So even the Dublin policemen could see the value of daydreaming.

When do you do yours?


40 thoughts on “Poetry in the head: a review of daydreaming

  1. Brings back to me this poem of Yeats’ :

    ‘Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
    Enwrought with golden and silver light,
    The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
    Of night and light and the half light,
    I would spread the cloths under your feet:
    But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
    I have spread my dreams under your feet;
    Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’


  2. How I identified with this post. My night dreams, when I remember them, are not so good (fangs and claws….yes), but during the day, my mind takes the most amazing flights of fancy, and I think, how would I create anything without them. When they’re absent, I miss them. The ex husband of a friend of mine was an actor. She said that in the midst of a party, he’d be off talking to a tree (trying to capture his character’s inner personality, I imagine). And how easy it is to forget about eating, to ignore those around you, or anything else practical when you’re lost in the creative process within your mind. Lovely post, as always.

  3. I often find myself thinking about two or more things at the same time while managing to carry out mundane tasks. The net result of this is that I don’t give any of them the proper attention and wind up having to re-think them in order to get anything done. I do think that daydreaming is good for the soul as it lets you escape the occasional harshness around us. I do hope that someone will tell me if I start talking to myself or begin holding conversations with myself.

    1. Duly noted, Lou πŸ˜€ For the more eccentric among us, for whom unconventional behaviour is rather a regular occurrence, Yeats is a comforting figure. One can be odd, and still make good. And the concentrating business if a taxing one. DRiving whilst distracted can be lethal: but how to train the mind to stay where it needs to be?

  4. A handsome man, wasn’t he, even if a tad crumpled? Oh, see, now I’m even daydreaming as I leave my comment, for I am gifted at being able to daydream anywhere, anytime; in church, the line at the grocery store, even awaiting a root canal, my mind does wander.

  5. Wow, that sounds somewhat like maldaptive daydreaming, doesn’t it? Yeats, that is. Very interesting, thanks for sharing.

    1. It does sound like that, JG: though I think the incredibly creative retreat to their creative world, and away from outside stimulus, as a matter of choice often, resultign in some fairly outlandish mannerisms. The two impulses, the need to anchor in the familiar, and the need to create, feel quite close together to me.

  6. Thank you Kate, for giving me an excuse to compare myself to Yeats when I tune out while cooking or folding clothes. The problems of plot and conflict are often solved while my hands are busy.

  7. Perhaps I do not dream because I am perpetually daydreaming. I swear, I don’t know how I get anything done sometimes. I came out of our front door tonight and saw a neighbor, but I was still so enmeshed in my book characters that I could not even carry on a conversation. She probably thinks I am a jerk. And, I will go to bed tonight with a dreamless sleep………

  8. Wonderful post, Kate…it reminds me that perhaps too much time is spent tethered to gadgets. I used to be a wonderful dreamer in wake and sleep – it has vanished. Thank you for this ‘wake-up’ call, perhaps a 2013 non-resolution is in the making…cheers!

  9. Very nice post Kate. I am such a big day dreamer that I often get lost in my thoughts not hearing a word of what the other person is saying…

  10. So interesting. I had the impression that Yeats was a quiet, dignified man. I thought it sad that Maud Gonne refused to marry him, but perhaps she knew what she was doing. (Aside from a couple of poems and this post, Maud Gonne is as far as my acquaintance with Yeats goes. But I know a lot about daydreaming.)

  11. Give me daydreamers, eccentrics, creative creatures and any other persons of imagination. I would wither without characters in my life – and please…may I be one!

  12. Oh I do love Yeats! I can imagine him gesticulating away, thoughts only on the next creative lines. And here we are so long past still getting lost in his words. I daydream all the time. Perfect timing on this read, Kate. My boss actually called me into her office just today to say that I had “offended” someone because I didn’t respond with enough enthusiasm to something said. Better yet for me…I don’t remember a bit of my supposed offense. I doubt I was listening. I have a wonderfully rich thought life…I can tell you this, I’m never lonely! Apparently rude, but never lonely! πŸ™‚

  13. Thanks for this, Kate. I love the poem yizhivika shared.
    I’ve done my best daydreaming and sorting out things while I’m driving. When I had a one-hour commute to work in Central New York, I often was amazed how fast I got from here to there on the NY State Thruway with little conciousness of the inbetween. (I was alert to other drivers, but mentally… I was off dreaming.)

  14. I daydream best when I can close my eyes . . . but I definitely have managed to drive from point A to point B without cognition of points in between. πŸ˜‰

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