Is Stanislavsky speaking to poets?

Martha Kaplan

Time is a splendid filter for our remembered feelings — besides it is a great filter. It not only purifies, it even transmutes painfully realistic memories into poetry…when time filters, it makes the good memories better, the bad memories worse, and the middle memories disappear. So, think about the halos you put on your good memories, the crepe you hang on your bad ones, and try to resurrect those everyday memories that you have let disappear.
— Constantin Stanislavky, AN ACTOR PREPARES

Constantin Stanislavsky’s advice to his actors is compelling. We brighten good, darken bad, and forget the rest. He urges his actors to recall those lost middle memories and to use them for their art. The beauty is its simplicity. As individuals we can grasp that advice and shift our focus a bit for our art. Yet memory is complex. We have threads of signification that alter how we see events and determine what for us is meaningful. 

What do we mean when we speak of memory? Are we directing our attention solely to our individual memories, as Stanislavsky elaborates, or to other sorts of memories, to cultural memories, or even to all forms of human communal memory?  A recent and fascinating book, Timefulness, by Lawrence University geologist Marcia Bjornerus, suggests we share memory with the entire biosphere, with the solar system, even the universe. For most of us, that is a radical thought.

There are cultures on this planet that see no division between flora, fauna, and what we describe as mineral, and record memories accordingly. The Achumawi, from the Pit River Country of northern California, have stories referencing events as long ago as ten thousand years. For them everything is alive. In the early 20th century, linguist Jaime de Angelo documented Achumawi oral records for the nascent anthropology department of the University of California, Berkeley (Tracks Along the Left Coast: Jaime de Angelo and Pacific Coast Culture). Recent science on the origins of life suggests closer relationships between what we call life and what we call mineral. Just as there are multiple ways to think about memory, there are different strategies for remembering.

Specific ways “in” to our memories, approaches that can be especially helpful to us as writers, are lacking in Stanislavsky’s prompt. He exhorts us to recall the middle memories, but doesn’t tell us how, although he notes that time will distill our memories into essences, fit for poetry. Well, maybe.

Memories filter and transmute in multiple ways through multiple neural networks. We have 100 billion neurons with 1,000 trillion synaptic connections in our brains. Our knowledge of our brain and memory is paradoxical; we know much, and we know little simultaneously. There is data that suggests we remember the unusual far better than the usual, about that Stanislavsky is correct. Nonetheless, memory with its multiple processes both active and passive, still contains elusive mysteries. Just how do we get at it?

The Old Ways were oral. Stories were told over and over, handed down in myth and ritual, rendered in individual voices keeping the stories current, distilling the details for important knowledge, one voice after another, in forms often filled with mnemonic strategies, repetitions, characters, sounds, pathways, song, dance, music and muse. Material culture, too, conveys narrative. Totem poles, pottery, things constructed, code cultural memory. Australian aboriginal grave totems decorated in particular patterns tell the story of a person’s life.

Australian Aboriginal funeral totems; Phillips Gallery Exhibition DC June, 2018

Australian Aboriginal funeral totems; Phillips Gallery Exhibition DC June, 2018

Our brains are capable of remembering more than we realize. When written texts were not easily available, peoples supplemented the words orally through memorization. Certain religious texts have oral traditions contained within them, as well as oral traditions in practice. Memorizing poems was common practice in our schools until slightly past the middle of the last century.

In one of the most prodigious literary explorations of memory, À la recherche du temps perdu [trs. – In Search of Lost Time] by Marcel Proust, the author describes how lost memories returned to him after they were triggered by a certain taste, the taste of a simple confection, a madeleine. Swann’s Way, the first volume in the series, however, begins with another strategy, the description of a struggle to fetch memory from dreams. Proust’s six volume work describes multiple ways to access memories. Out of the details, the culture of an entire time, place, and social class is laid out in an epic of memoir. What Proust lost, he found, though his life’s work was still unfinished at his death.  If you have the time, it’s worth reading even a part of any volume. 

Why was it such a lengthy task for Proust? Purpose informs how memory is coded and how it is recalled. Proust’s sense of purpose was formed in part from 19th century English critic John Ruskin’s assertion that the artist’s task was to confront, deduce essence, and retell or explain through art. Proust, unlike Ruskin, took human memory to be his task. His work is filled with narrative and description rendered like a still life painting:


On the table was the same plate of marzipans that was always there; my uncle wore the same jacket as on other days; but opposite to him, in a pink silk dress with a great necklace of pearls about her throat, sat a young woman who was just finishing a tangerine.


For the seventeenth century Japanese poet Bashô, purpose was tied to Zen Buddhism. His journey and his recording of his journey during the Edo period was intended to be a meditative task to strip himself of material ties. He carried with him little but his journal, which became The Narrow Road to the Deep North.  Through the journey, he is searching for a form of eternity, writing against the flow of time in search of an essence of self, of a world. The Narrow Road is constructed of haibun, paragraphs of descriptive prose followed by haiku. The journal includes sketches of places and people. A brief example:


At the bottom of the valley where the ancient Poet, Saigyô is said to have erected his hermitage, there was a stream and a woman was washing potatoes.

The Poet Saigyô
Would have written a poem
Even for the woman
Washing potatoes.


Do songs help you remember? Do you write to music? If you are multi-lingual, science suggests you remember easiest through the language in which your memories were set down. Do colors or smells call forth memories? Can you show touch or smell in words? How we depict anything in our poems, varies with purpose. Sometimes, our words need to breathe on the page to properly convey their roots in oral traditions, as 20th century poet Charles Olson has suggested. Think how the visual arts consider negative space, the shape of what isn’t, as well as positive space. There are erasures in our history and our language that we may want to urgently convey. And we may also need to startle. Consider Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. She worked to freshen the sensibility of everyday objects, foods, rooms.

Stanislavsky’s prompt was addressed to actors whose art has both similar and divergent qualities compared to ours, poetry. Certainly, Spoken Word approaches performance most closely, and those of us who think of ourselves as print artists might benefit from “theater” as we read our work. How we draw on memory and why, depends upon how we understand and define our purpose, and the ways we devise to record it.


Martha Kaplan

Martha Kaplan

Martha Jackson Kaplan is a Madison poet and flash fiction writer. In 2016 she placed first, and in 2018 third in WFOP Poet’s Choice Triad contest. She’s a Pushcart nominee who has a passion for history, color, and a sense of place. More about her at