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f/k/a archives . . . real opinions & real haiku

March 11, 2004

Every Law Library Needs This Volume

Filed under: pre-06-2006 — David Giacalone @ 9:58 pm

Vol. 28 of the Legal Studies Forum [reproduced online at the U. Texas Tarlton Law Library] is unlikely to generate any income directly. In fact, it’s a great disguise for the lawyer who wants to look busy while rekindling the spark of life. Yet, at $25, ethicalEsq thinks the 700-page anthology of poetry by lawyers is the best library acquisition value a law firm could make this season — and haikuEsq fully agrees.

law books brilliant disguise

The publishing milestone that we foretold last month has come to pass — Professor James R. Elkins (College of Law, West Virginia University) and the Legal Studies Forum have published “the first effort of a United States legal journal to devote an entire issue to poetry.” The Forum edition, entitled Off the Record: an anthology of poetry by lawyers, 28 Legal Studies Forum (No. 1 & 2, 2004), is not filled with poetry about law, lawyers, and the legal world, but instead contains “poetry by poets educated and trained as lawyers.” Sixty-six currently-active lawyer-poets are represented.

The twenty-page Introduction by Prof. Elkins may look like a law review article, but it’s a strong reminder that there is nothing inconsistent about the lawyer and the poet coming together in one man or woman. It’s also a rousing argument that every school of law must nurture a practice of law that is enfused with “the poet’s sensibilities, awareness, introspection, and care for the things and the particulars of the world”.

Elkins notes:

“The idea of poetry in a legal journal, even an eclectic journal like the Legal Studies Forum, may seem peculiar. For those who find it so, we might note that in poetry – and law – we find the familiar made strange. (emphasis added)

Legal education is a process of “taking the familiar and giving it new names, producing new categories of thought, a new way of valuing, and in doing all this, producing a new system of meaning.” Therefore, ‘Given this steady – if arrhytmic – translation of the familiar to the strange so that it, too, can then be made familiar, we may have found an unsuspetcting relationship to poetry.”

Elkins also contrasts the feelings of two of the best known American lawyer-poets, Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) and Archibald MacLeish (1892–1982). Stevens “seems never to have found it odd that he was both a lawyer for an insurance company and a poet, and that doing both well was anything to be considered exceptional.” In turning down an invitation to be featured in a Harpers Bazaar article about his being a lawyer and poet, Stevens wrote that he did not believe the two were in opposition, saying:

mouse lawyer small . .

‘I don’t have a separate mind for legal work and another for writing poetry. I do each with my own mind . . .”

[skepticalEsq Aside: The poetic soul in Stevens certainly sets him off from the brand-conscious, ever-marketing lawyer of today — who clearly wouldn’t dream of turning down an article in a major magazine!]

In contrast to Stevens’ ease with the dual lawyer-poet role, MacLeish “never forgot his education and training as a lawyer. And he was never allowed to forget that his lawyer colleagues at Harvard, and one might assume elsewhere, viewed him as an odd duck for giving up the law to be a poet.” Despite this discomfort, MacLeish, in his famous “Apologia” speech (Harvard Law Review, Cambridge, June 1972) stressed:

The business of the law is to make sense of the confusion of what we call human life—to reduce it to order but at the same time to give it possibility, scope, even dignity.

[And, the business of poetry is] “Precisely to make sense of the chaos of our lives. To create the understanding of our lives. To compose an order which the bewildered, angry heart can recognize. To imagine man.”

masks Similarly, MacLeish rejects lawyer and poet stereotypes, saying that they “fall apart when applied to a single human being. The mask of the poet or mask of the lawyer are poor substitutes for the real human being and his collection of fear, joy, bewilderment and experience.”

Elkins summarizes by pointing out that “We have always had lawyer poets; we know now, with the publication of this anthology of poetry, that we still do.” And, he asks

Should we actually be surprised to learn that lawyers, by training and craft, attuned to the nuance and power of language, schooled in the the clever rhetorical deployment of language, performers in our legal dramas (great and small), should also serve as our poets? Accustomed as we may be, in this John Grisham era of legal thrillers, to the now common idea of the lawyer-novelist, there is still some mystery, sense of wonderment, and bedevilment at the idea of a person who has the capacity, sensibilities, skills, and talents to be a poet and a lawyer.”

And, Prof. Elkins concludes: “If we think literature matters, . . . then the best education of a lawyer remains an education in skills practiced as an art, an occupational poetics of the real.”

For more on lawyers as poets see Prof. Elkins’ impressive website compilation, Strangers to Us All: Lawyers and Poetry. You can also find poems by six of the lawyers from the anthology at attorney-poet Lillian Kennedy’s website Hearsay: poetry written by lawyers.

  • There’s also an interesting discussion of whether the Muse or the Law is a more jealous mistrisss. Carolyn Elefant might be interested in the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, that “if a man has a genius for painting, poetry, music, architecture or philosophy, he makes a bad husband and an ill provider.”


    order today gray Off the Record has 679 pages of poetry by lawyers, in addition to the 20-page Introduction. The price for the Legal Studies Forum‘s poetry antholgy is $25. Contact Prof. Elkins through the Forum’s subscriptions page.

  • Given my haiku-bias (and short attention span), I am already pleased to have discovered Indian Law expert Frank Pommershein, who teaches at the University of South Dakota School of Law, and serves as a justice on several tribal appellate courts. Friedrick Haines of the Colorado Law Department also contributes three haiku to the LSF anthology.

Afterthought (03-15-04): Today, Rory Perry has posted a fine recommendation for Off the Record and daily poetry at his weblog.

update: see our post LSF again features lawyer poets (May 6, 2005), which notes that LSF has “produced a spectacular encore — Legal Studies Forum XXIX:1 (2005) — which includes about 300 pages of poetry by people with law degrees (very little of which is about the law), along with interviews and essays about lawyers and poetry.”

1 Comment

  1. Bravo, David. I love MacLeish and Stevens. I may very well have to buy this volume…

    Comment by Scipio — March 15, 2004 @ 11:16 am

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