Knowing our Dreams by Heart

There are few things more comforting than committing a poem to memory. To know that if everything around you suddenly crumbled, you would have—safely tucked in the deepest part of your heart—Ruth Stone’s “Mantra” or Robert Frost’s “Snowy Evening” is to understand that, eventually, everything will be okay. Because of this, I begin every poetry workshop I teach by having students memorize Langston Hughes’s “Dreams”:

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.


Hold fast to dreams

For when dreams go

Life is a barren field

Frozen with snow.

This tiny two-stanza poem replete with poor bird and cold, barren field has proven to be accessible to people of all ages and abilities. Years ago when I was working with children with autism who were mostly nonverbal, I found that, with the use of simple hand gestures and repeated motions, the children were able to “memorize” the poem themselves. Their sense of accomplishment in “performing” the poem for others never failed to delight me or their classroom teachers.

The hand gestures are straightforward: a quick clasping of the hands for “hold fast,” followed by a waving of the fingers at the temples for “dreams.” You can surely imagine what “die” looks like (and how funny it can be to enact), as well as, that limp arm of the “broken-winged bird that cannot fly.” “Life” is the most exciting: a shooting-up of the arm into the sky, and a pronouncement of “Life,” often followed by my request to “Say it like you mean it,” which leads to an even faster extension of the arm and an even louder saying of “Life!!!”

Just this past Tuesday, I taught this poem to a group of three-year-olds at my daughter’s preschool.  I was amazed not only by how quickly they were able to take it in but also by how much they grasped it on a conceptual level. “Life without dreams,” I explained to them, “is like a bird that can’t fly. It would be like…like what?” I urged them. “A ballerina,” Zoe said, and then she frowned a little as she went on: “A ballerina that can’t dance.” And yet, I told them, all we have to do—so we can dance and dance and dance!—is hold fast to our dreams.

Last winter, walking down the street in Brooklyn late one evening I ran into a classroom teacher that I hadn’t seen in years. “I still know the poem!” she said. “The poem?” I asked. “Dreams!” she said. “I still know it by heart. I say it to myself over and over on the subway sometimes!”

Imagine if that’s what everyone on the subway was doing—not going over the endless to-do list or mentally drafting out yet another e-mail or staring blankly at the rows and rows of advertisements, but instead, reciting poems that they’ve carried around in their hearts for years—oh, what a different city it would be!

-Nicole Callihan

Nicole Callihan writes poems, stories, and essays, and has been a T&W teaching artist since 1998.  You can read more about Nicole here.