The great American attorney Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) reflected, “Inside every lawyer is the wreck of a poet.”
It’s unclear whether Darrow believed that lawyers’ poetic potentials are degraded in, corrupted by, or simply abandoned during, their professional pursuits.
However, National Poetry Month (April)— though called “the cruellest month” in the first line of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922)—might be a particularly propitious period for lawyers, law students, and pre-law students to revisit, reclaim, and refine their practices of prosody.
First, lawyers, like poets, should be attuned to words’ fine shades of denotation and connotation, individually and in combination. Both types of writers desire to draft documents in which, as Eliot wrote near the conclusion of Little Gidding (1942),
And sentence. . . is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together) [and]
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning. . . .
Second, like poets, lawyers can be artists of ambiguity. Poet and commentator Jane Hirshfield asked about a famous haiku, “[H]ow can it be that a poem so seemingly particular, small, and specific is so broadly open to multiple responses?”
Similarly, in The Lawyers Know Too Much (1922), Carl Sandburg warned,
In the heels of the higgling lawyers, Bob,
Too many slippery ifs and buts and howevers,
Too much hereinbefore provided whereas
Too many doors to go in and out of.
When the lawyers are through
What is there left, Bob?
Can a mouse nibble at it
And find enough to fasten a tooth in?
Third, the poetic formulation of a written or oral argument, or of a court’s decision, can dramatically enhance its impact and longevity. Among the best examples is certainly the New York Court of Appeals’ majority opinion in Meinhard v. Salmon, 164 N.E. 545, 546 (N.Y. 1928), which contained (then-) Chief Judge Benjamin Cardozo’s lapidary, and still-cited, proclamation that
Joint adventurers, like copartners, owe to one another, while the enterprise continues, the duty of the finest loyalty. Many forms of conduct permissible in a workaday world for those acting at arm’s length, are forbidden to those bound by fiduciary ties. A trustee is held to something stricter than the morals of the market place. Not honesty alone, but the punctilio of an honor the most sensitive, is then the standard of behavior.
According to Andrew Kaufman’s biography of Cardozo, the judge wrote “somewhat humorlessly, or perhaps somewhat disingenuously,” to Felix Frankfurter (who was at that time a member of the Harvard Law School faculty) that the decision “’is one of the cases in which some of my colleagues think that my poetry is better than my law. I think its law is better than its poetry (which indeed I cannot discover).’”
Justice Frankfurter himself, responding in 1954 to a twelve-year-old boy’s request for “some ways to start preparing myself while still in junior high school” for a career in the law, wrote that
[t]he best way to prepare for the law is to come to the study of law as a well-read person. Thus alone can one acquire the capacity to use the English language on paper and in speech and with the habits of clear thinking which only a truly liberal education can give. . . . Stock your mind with the deposit of much good reading, and widen and deepen your feelings by experiencing vicariously as much as possible the wonderful mysteries of the universe. . . .
Richard Weisberg, in Poethics and Other Strategies of Law and Literature (1992), cites Cardozo’s decisions, and the judge’s other writings on law, as illustrations of “The Poetic Method for Law”: that is, that “Words do not translate the thought of justice, words are justice, and words can be the absence of justice. . . . Cardozo’s opinion, all opinions, stand or fall on their language, but also on the appropriateness of the fit—the fluid harmony—between the words used and the aspiration toward justice that every legal pronouncement should embody.”
Fourth, both lawyers and poets appreciate not just gracefulness but economy of expression. “Omit needless words” is among the earliest of the “Principles for All Legal Writing” enunciated in Bryan Garner’s Legal Writing in Plain English (2d Edition 2013).
Fifth, lawyers, like poets, should be mindful not just of their words’ sense, sentiment, and structure, but also of their sounds. In The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide (1998), U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky promised “to help the reader hear more of what is going on in poems, and by hearing more to gain in enjoyment and understanding.”
To better assess the rhythm, pacing, clarity, and tone of their work, legal writers might also be attentive listeners. Garner advises, “You should probably try reading your prose aloud to see whether you’d actually say it the way you’ve written it.” Deborah Bouchoux’s Aspen Handbook for Legal Writers (2021) recommends reading a draft aloud as part of the proofreading process, to catch omissions, spelling and grammatical errors, and (“If you get to the end of [a] sentence and are nearly out of breath”) overlong sentences. Similarly, Steven Stark, in Writing to Win: The Legal Writer (2012), finds even greater than “the value of reciting your prose as you create to capture the right feel” the importance of “do[ing] the same thing when you edit your writing.”
Sixth, poems provide perspective. John Adams suggested specifically that his son John Quincy Adams (who would follow him in becoming both a lawyer and president), “Read somewhat in the English poets every day. You will find them elegant, entertaining, and constructive companions through your whole life. In all the disquisitions you have heard concerning the happiness of life, has it ever been recommended to you to read poetry?”
On March 25, The Wall Street Journal’s front page reported on the EDC (or, “Every Day Carry”) trend, in which people pack their pockets, pouches, or purses with “all manner of writing instruments, trinkets, flashlights, pint-sized tools, coins, handkerchiefs, and more.” Why not add (or substitute) a few printed poems?
Seventh, in turbulent times, readers of poems might readily re-center themselves (entering Eliot’s “still point of the turning world”), or even lose themselves entirely (in the words of lawyer Wallace Stevens, “The house was quiet and the world was calm. / The reader became the book. . . .”).
Moreover, they can quickly find comfort and solace. In his best-selling anthology, Poetry Rx: How Fifty Inspiring Poems Can Heal and Bring Joy to Your Life (2021), psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal observed that “Although all literature can console, there is something about great poetry—its rhythms and cadences, its conciseness and brilliance—that has a power and charm all its own. One way in which poetry exerts its effect is that is it easier to remember, recall, and reproduce at will.”
Eighth, memorizing poems has traditionally been considered not only a form of mental training but a semi-meditative, and possibly soul-sculpting, exercise. Joshua Foer, in Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (2011), resolved to make memorizing a poem “a part of my daily routine,” noting that to writers of previous centuries, internalizing selected works was actually “about strengthening one’s personal ethics and becoming a more complete person. . . What one memorized helped shape one’s character.” (Students might even—as a creative, analytic, and mnemonic exercise—attempt to summarize some legal doctrines in poetic form.)
Ninth, like reading the poems of others, writing one’s own requires no extraordinary expense, equipment, scheduling, or setting. As with journal entries, or Julia Cameron’s stream-of-consciousness “Morning Pages,” there are no “wrong” poems; and their creation can be a productive way to process experiences and emotions, and to clarify one’s perspectives.
In A Primer for Poets & Readers of Poetry (2018), Gregory Orr noted that “Lyric poets have always claimed that expressing . . . emotion in words can heal, bringing a transformative sense of release and relief,” and stated that “the poet actively restabilizes herself through expressive writing.”
Tenth, poetry-writing can help students and lawyers develop their unique (and sometimes humorous) voices and styles, and enhance their appreciation for those of others. It can be especially fulfilling to demonstrate creativity within the constructs and constraints of particular metrical forms. Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Oliver concluded, in her own handbook on the subject and skill of scansion, “There is method. . . both in the way the form is severe and in the way it relaxes so that a particular voice may develop its own individuality.”
Eleventh, law schools and law firms might consider creating poetry reading and discussion groups, speaker series, and perhaps poetry-writing workshops, to feature and foster in their communities a greater appreciation of poetry and its creation, development, and editing.
Twelfth, law schools could, as did the Washington College of Law, create a Web page to which their faculty, staff, and students are invited to contribute text and/or videos about their own favorite poems—and maybe (perhaps with the option of anonymity) their own works.
In 1892, Walt Whitman wrote, “[T]he powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
Ninety-seven years later, after memorably (and literally) discarding an academic’s attempt to accurately assay the “greatness” of particular poems, John Keating asked his students, “What will your verse be?”