I recently read Lee Strasberg’s classic book on Method acting, A Dream of Passion
, and its relevance to poetry was striking. Well, its relevance to poetry was striking to Strasberg too, as he traces the roots of Method acting back to the Romantic poets, Wordsworth and Coleridge, and also to the great Modernist writers, Eliot, Proust, and Joyce. Writing in specific sensual imagery is rather out of fashion and has become almost a cliché, but Strasberg reminded me how emotion is in fact rooted in sensual particulars (Proust’s cookie). Strasberg talks about the acting process:
The correct process of inducing a response is through the senses. He [the actor] tries to remember where he was. Say he was in the yard. The actor cannot simply think in generalities. The yard is composed of many objects that he sees, hears, touches, and so forth, to which he assigns the word yard. Only by formulating the sensory concreteness of these objects can the emotions be stimulated. It is not sufficient to say, “It was hot.” Rather, the actor must define precisely in what area he experienced the particular heat he remembers; the actor localizes the concentration in that area to create not just a memory but a reliving of that particular moment. The actor remembers what he had on: the sight, texture, or sensation of that material on the body. The actor tries to remember the event that caused the emotion, not in terms of the sequence of the story, but in terms of the various senses that surrounded it.
This feels to me so much like the process of writing a poem! It’s all about imagining the texture of the fabric one is wearing, the feel of the wind on the only spot on one’s neck uncovered by the scarf, the color of the bench at the bus stop—and not just the important details but the unimportant, because, as Strasberg says, “In the midst of severe crisis, an individual’s attention will often register the smallest details related and unrelated
to that crisis.”
Again, Strasberg makes the connection to writing and says the task is the same: “Affective memory is a decisive element in most artistic creation. The only difference is that in other art forms, the affective memory is created by the artist in the solitude of his own environment. … The link between affective memory and creativity has been a constant presence in poetry.”
The phrase “a dream of passion” is taken from Hamlet’s speech about acting, and it captures, I think perfectly, the artist’s balancing act: the need for art to be passionate, but it’s not exactly passion—rather, a dream
of passion. A dream without passion is not poetry, but it must be a dream. As Hamlet says, “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her?”