Poets and Lawyers: Birds of a Feather

Good lawyers, like good poets, wrestle with world and word. Good lawyers, like good poets, fuse theory and practice in a craft of language.
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People are often surprised to learn that the great American poet Wallace Stevens was a lawyer. His "real job" was heading the fidelity and surety claims division of Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. He was also an officer of the affiliated Harvard Livestock Insurance Company.

Why are people surprised by this? As a lawyer smitten by poetry myself, I'm surprised at the surprise. Good lawyers, like good poets, wrestle with world and word. Good lawyers, like good poets, fuse theory and practice in a craft of language.

Good lawyers, like good poets, also understand that good poetic form can embrace all three forms of persuasion noted by Aristotle. To be able to speak in concise and pleasing form bolsters the speaker's ethos. Beauty or other striking form rouses feeling and thus pathos. Logos or reason is not only polished but strengthened by form where form includes the necessary elements of good thought. Let's have some fun in bringing these points home.

I'll begin the joy with the Shakespearean sonnet which can magnificently mirror basic thought form. As I have noted elsewhere, complete thoughts usually include four parts: a reference to something real or imaginary, delineation of issues relating to that something, some degree of analysis of those issues, and some degree of conclusion. For example, if a lawyer thinks she is holding a good lease in her hands, she is thinking of a document raising certain issues which she has analyzed to her satisfaction.

Similarly, the fourteen lines of a Shakespearean sonnet break into four rhyming parts (abab cdcd efef gg) which can each address one of these four parts of thought. The shorter fourth part consisting of only two lines is especially suited for the briefer role of conclusion. Of course, the overall fourteen-line limitation also forces us to be concise -- something lawyers no doubt often need. As a specific example of what I mean, Shakespeare succinctly tackles in his Sonnet 2 the issue of his young male friend's inevitable aging and loss of beauty:

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field,
Thy youth's proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed, of small worth held.
Then being asked where all thy beauty lies --
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days --
To say within thine own deep-sunken eyes
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty's use
If thou couldst answer "This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count and make my old excuse,"
Proving his beauty by succession thine.
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel'st it cold.

Consistent with good form of thought, the first four lines refer to the problem of the beautiful friend's aging. The next four lines address the issue of having nothing to show in old age for such beauty. The next four lines analyze options: one could generate more beauty through children. The final couplet thus concludes that youth can be regained through one's children. Thus, in this beautiful sonnet a verbose lawyer can find an example of concise, complete, and elegant thought. (I won't pick on Shakespeare further. All following poems are my own.)

In similar fashion, first year law students are taught to reason in "IRAC" form (Issue-Rule-Application-Conclusion) because it requires them to expressly address four critical steps of legal analysis in a structured form that also serves ethos and appropriate pathos. As I have noted elsewhere, IRAC derives from the basic reference-issue-analysis-conclusion form of thought embraced by such a Shakespearean sonnet. It should therefore hardly be surprising that such verse should appeal to lawyers or that Wallace Stevens could have been a corporate lawyer.

Of no less interest to lawyers, variations of the sonnet form can perform other functions such as highlighting ambiguity or irony. The "Italian" sonnet form (typically abba abba cde cde with variations permitted in the last six lines) is particularly suited for ambiguity or irony. The natural break beginning with the last six lines allows such sonnets to provide a natural "volta" permitting ironic or other shift. Thus, we might in a variant rhyme scheme explore the complexity of a piece of art such as the "Pieta" at St. Peter's:

In Rome I have seen Christ himself laid out
Across his mother's lap. His gentle face
Displays no evil. Everything about
Him signals justice, purity and grace.

His mother, too, convinces in the way
She holds her child just crucified. Her eyes
Speak volumes more than lips alone could say
As she caresses God and man and cries.

There must of course be something quite profound
In art that speaks so well, that moves one when
It neither moves itself nor makes a sound.

It must of course unsettle thinking men
To see stone wearing piety -- if it
Convinces, how much more the hypocrite?

Similarly, we might explore ambiguities and ironies in an ordinary church service:

What motives might entice such different kinds
To gather briefly in a Sunday mass?
Perhaps in such ephemeral crowds are minds
Drawn by the Holy Spirit, the stained glass,

The sacred music and the homily.
Perhaps some broken hearted people come
In search of explanations. Possibly
Some come in fear of brimstone -- maybe some

Are children who don't always sleep at night
Because of Hell. Perhaps some others burn
Quite differently and mingle where they might

Find mates or status or a little turn
At good, warm Sunday spirits where it's fine
For even drunks to have a little wine.

Of course, the persuasive power of form can apply to sonnets that deviate entirely from the schemes noted above. Take, for example, the following Jamesian argument that sentiment is inseparable from rationality:

I pluck away some place within the weeds
To nest and sing and there avoid awhile
The wild's unceasing appetite for all.
Composing such a nest, of course I shall

Weave in materials that comfort me
Yet do not harm the fabric (such as bands
Of rosaries for fingering a bit
And strings of Bach and Schubert.) Given that

"Placebos" placate, prime construction should
Avow them to avoid a vapid and
Thus subprime craft. Allowed my ornament,

I modify my piece of things themselves.
Long as they hold, I scoff at any claim
A lyre's a liar by that or any name.

Additionally, repetition in poetic form underscores another important tool of persuasion. Repetition (such as parallelism) draws attention and is thus inherently useful for persuasion. Furthermore, the more we hear a statement, the more we may be inclined to believe it. It is no wonder that lawyers should be fascinated with other poetic forms of repetition such as the ballade (ababbcbC ababbcbC ababbcbC bcbC), the villanelle (A1bA2 abA1 abA2 abA1 abA2 abA1A2), and the sestina (end words formulaically reused) -- especially if such verse is in the form of an argument.

Hence a judgment-day appeal of Joan of Arc in ballade form can understandably intrigue a lawyer who appreciates the potential power of such a form:

O Lord, I never wavered from the joy
I felt when I first heard you speaking with
Saints Michael, Margaret and Catherine.
As I would not depend upon hearsay
Of men or texts, I knew no other way
To find you under all those layers from
The Latin to the Hebrew that they wield.
I listen to you first, Lord, not to men.

Each mouth that quotes another for a truth
Stands further from that truth. Thus mortal courts
Take care to keep all such infection out.
As mortal courts refuse such hearsay for
Ephemeral matters, logic would demand
The same respect for God's eternal court.
I have no time for preachers' hearsay when
I listen to you first, Lord, not to men.

They proved me right when they burned me upon
A stake because they said I wore "men's clothes."
What twisted reading of a hearsay text
Could elevate attire above the Rule
Of Gold? What arrogance of sinful men
To foist such deadly fashions on you, Lord,
Or claim to know your tastes as well as you!
I listen to you first, Lord, not to men.

Lord, what is "man's attire." Tell me yourself
What's right and what's abominable to you.
Tell me yourself if I have rooms above.
I listen to you first, Lord, not to men.

The same could be said of a judgment-day appeal of Salome in villanelle form:

I leap and frolic like a brilliant flame.
O Lord, beyond the Earth, I blaze for you
And dance the spheres to Heavenly acclaim.

My ruby strands now join the fiery game.
As white-hot diamonds flare and sparkle, too,
I leap and frolic like a brilliant flame.

My shiny veils instead of hiding shame
Now swirl round me as fire's hot vapors do
And dance the spheres to Heavenly acclaim.

Now swirling in the firmaments, I aim
To please no less -- the dance is never through.
I leap and frolic like a brilliant flame.

I twirl with planets, angels. All can claim
Their rounds -- I grab their hands no matter who
And dance the spheres to Heavenly acclaim.

Perhaps, Lord, even one of Baptist name
Now joins the dance. If so, with him beside
I leap and frolic like a brilliant flame
And dance the spheres to Heavenly acclaim.

The same might also be said of a judgment-day appeal of Erasmus in sestina form (whose loss of his testacles for love I'll leave unmentioned):

Though the opposing sides condemned me, Lord,
As cowardly for keeping to the mean,
I understood (with Aristotle) man
Is fashioned for no more. When he would claim
The means to be extreme, the folly that
Ensues will soon unmask his hubris there.

This was quite clear in Rome. The proud Pope there
Was more like Caesar on his gold throne, Lord,
Than Christ. He was imperial, thought that
He could not err, that all his words must mean
Some clear thing he intended. Thus, he'd claim
(As Peter's heir) some lordship over man.

Still no less Luther (though but just a man)
Thought he'd unmasked the Cosmos finding there
Inflexibility so harsh he'd claim
Predestination. Thus, our Loving Lord
He turned into a vicious monster mean
Enough to force a deed yet damn it. That

Was further proof the mean is best and that
An open mind is therefore moral. Man
By definition only keeps the mean
Without extremes of dogma. Therefore, there
Must be such liberty for mankind, Lord,
For any faith to make a moral claim.

Of course, right liberty itself can't claim
Rights to perform all kinds of actions that
Might come to mind. A man needs knowledge, Lord,
Of means and ends and how the virtuous man
(Through good role models) acts. With learning, there
Come skill and modesty and thus the mean.

This must include disputes we have. The mean
Prohibits combat as extreme. Each claim
Must have its proof in words and not force. There
Must be good rhetoric requiring that
We relearn all those ancient volumes -- man
Needs Cicero and Aristotle, Lord.

Lord, as I've kept the mean, I'm hoping that
I'll find the same above. A humble man,
I'd shun extremes of Hell, of Nothing, Lord.

Of course, it is important to note that form can be powerful in itself even if it does not otherwise mirror some specific aspect of persuasion. Take for example the following acrostic of Lillith, the legendary first wife of Adam. I at least would be willing to give her argument a second look because she has managed to spell her name vertically down the lines.

Let me put it briefly if I may:
I was the first wife (as the scriptures say
Lord God made male and female as a deed
Implying that the Rib was second). We'd
Take now our dower, cut his share in two.
Half Adam's claim in Heaven's Lilith's, too.

Additionally, the power of form need not come from an overarching structure but can some from the meter itself which is another form of form. I at least find that Harold II's blank verse adds to its persuasiveness:

At Hastings Normans would extinguish us,
Our art, our laws, our books, our Beowulf.
I, Harold, therefore had to fight and did.
I battled hard their bastard king who paid
In blood for every inch of England sought.
Although he took our crown, I did my best
Despite the odds. That is my measure, not
How many arrows Normans put in me.

The framing required of poets also reminds the lawyer of the framing lawyers must do -- often with no settled or "right" answer. For example, lawyers can sympathize with how the atheist might see the moon quite differently from the believer. The atheist might see the moon as proof there is no God:

This pitted, ever changing stone
Shows chance's signature
Upon a rocky canvass. God's
Hand can't be so impure.

The believer, on the other hand, might see the very opposite in the very same moon:

God shares his monthly watch with us
To mark the days and hours --
A cosmic mechanism that
No doubt proves his powers.

Of course, the ever cautious lawyer might just see this:

The dark is prudent. Learn from it.
It burns a little light
So if some person trips and falls
It's not its oversight.

As I have noted elsewhere, narrative plays a critical role in the law, and verse also helps us go about narrative in a succinct and memorable way. For example, the "miracle" story of Lazarus has a troubling side (including a legal one as to property rights) which blank verse seems particularly suited for Lazarus to use:

. . .I woke up
Enflamed with fever. Martha wet some rags --
Yet as my sister fought the blaze she seemed
Instead to stoke it. I was howling as
I burned alive. I swore if I survived
I'd never cook an animal again.
Yet I burned hotter still -- and then the dark.
The cool and tranquil black enveloped me.
Although I could see nothing, I assumed
The body was consumed -- I could not feel
Or find extremities or flesh. I planned
To understand it all -- although not then.
I was exhausted from the trauma. Then
I only thought of undimensioned rest.
I therefore wafted in the dark relaxed,
Immune to gravity, collision and
The other painful attributes of mass.
As I was nothing, nothing would I need,
And lacking nothing I was richer than
I ever was embodied. Then against
My will some force or creature snatched me. I
Fought as it stuffed me in a four-day corpse.
The stench was horrid. I disgorged. I sobbed.
I squirmed as I felt worms crawl in that skin
And feast upon it in the pitch-black tomb
Till yet another terror came to me.
How long would that small fetid bit of air
Last in the cell? I tried to free myself
Yet linens held me tight. As no cloth tore,
More tears ran down my cheeks. What had I done
To merit such a torment? Had my tithes
Or alms been insufficient or were there
Some other sins forgotten? Then the stone
Rolled back. They fetched me out. While washing me
They said I'd suffered terrors so to grant
My sisters' prayers. Once I had learned this
I naturally assumed the pain was done --
But I then found more torments were to come.
The title to what property I'd had
Was clouded. I was homeless now at law.
I was a monster to most children. They
Told tales about me, trembled in their beds
At night imagining sarcophagi
In nearby graveyards would spit out their dead
To stumble round on rotting, wormy limbs.
Were this not bad enough, I suffered worse --
The deadly hatred of the Sadducees,
Those priests who claimed no resurrection. With
Their livelihoods at risk, they hounded me.
They planned my murder. In the temple, I
Observed their daggers outlined under their
Well-laundered garments. Worshipping in crowds,
I never gave them leave to do the deed
In God's house. Thus they took their plot outside
Where I could see the moonlit robes at night.
I knew I had no choice. I had to flee.
My sisters helped me find a boat to Rome.
As I was savoring my last glimpse of shore,
I saw the robes again across the deck.
They had me in a snare. I was resigned
To fate. My last remembrance was a breeze,
A moonless night on board and then a plunge
Of metal in the back and rustling robes . . . .

In addition to "original" verse, verse translation should intrigue and benefit lawyers. Lawyers must translate the world into not only the language of the law. The must also translate the world into a language that works and flows in right ways. Translating verse in a way that captures both the form and substance of the original verse to the degree possible is one of the hardest forms of translation. A lawyer who does such translation reaps the rewards of care and humility such translation requires. To give my own flawed example of what I mean, I first thought of using this DuBellay sonnet because of its humility about verse itself:

In nature's bosom I've no wish to pry,
No wish to find what cosmos truly is,
No wish to sound dark depths of the abyss,
Or sketch grand architectures of the sky.

The ink I use has not so rich a dye,
Nor does my verse explore such loftiness:
Down here I merely write about what is --
Though good or bad -- by chance I versify.

My lines hear my complaints if I've regret,
I laugh with them, my secrets, too, they get
As trusted secretaries of my heart.

I do not wish to comb or curl them, though,
Or hide them under gallant names as though
They're more than merely jottings on my part.

However, I'll use instead the following sonnet whose message we overachieving lawyers should take to heart.

O happy is the man whose life is spent
With others like himself! He need not feign,
Fear, strive or envy. He can peacefully reign
In his poor home ambitionless, content.

The miserable cares of more accomplishment
Can't tyrannize or otherwise restrain
Him when all wealth he wishes to attain
Is heritage that comes from his descent.

He's not preoccupied with others' rank.
For his great hopes he has himself to thank.
His court, king, patron, and his boss he is.

He never risks his wealth in foreign states,
Nor risks his life for other men's estates,
Nor wishes greater wealth than now is his.

Of course, verse need not only translate itself. It can also translate prose as with the following sonnet "translation" of Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death":

We noticed there was pestilence about
And played instead of passive victim an
Aggressive agent capable of plan
And execution. In, we locked it out,

A simple action, really, which we sealed
With weighty velvet curtains drawn across
An iron door bolted tight. "Our gain, Hell's loss!"
We toasted with good bourbon and were steeled.

"God helps who helps himself," we boasted till
We saw a shadow by a comrade still
And cold throughout the reverie. It hid

As quick within the heavy draperies. Did
Drink fool? No. Oh, no fancy has composed
Such vast lost voices in a single ghost.

Nor need verse translate entire prose pieces. One can translate parts such as the following brief scene from Hawthorne's "The House of Seven Gables":

An urchin's barrel-organ down below
Encases some still human figurines.
He turns the crank, spills out twelve strings of notes
To animate the figures. To one tune,
The maiden milks enthusiastically,
The scholar reads, the miser boxes gold,
The lady fans, the lover woos, the smith
Strikes anvils while the soldier swings a blade.
Moved, too, we marvel at the progress till
The boy's arm tires abandoning the crank.
The figures stop themselves where they began
As though they never hoped or labored. We
Include ourselves. Retreating from the pane,
We shall not be so gullible again.

Verse can also translate non-verbal art, such as the following translation of Turner's painting "Approach to Venice":

What inference do we draw about a Sun
That never tries the night though weaker Moon
Swings both ways rising up before day's done
As readily as at night? One might soon
Conclude the frailer orb the braver or
The more inquisitive, industrious
Could such bold reasoning somehow ignore
The damage to the language. It can't. Thus,
One says it's not the Sun but is the night
That flees the Sun, that logic by some sleight
Has cleaved the two. Where Sun is day is, too --
One's words demand that Sun could never do
As moon. Obedient, the Sun retires
So mind might have those shadows it requires.

Returning to my initial suggestion of fun, lawyers should also just have fun with verse. No matter how limited their poetic gifts, they should enjoy the diversion. They should put aside their perfectionism and just enjoy their own music however bad. I readily admit I do it, as a random sample of no-doubt varying quality will show:

Puppy Love

The Moon must have a little crush.
Those nights she walks with me
(Though I may tarry or may rush
Through open fields or densest brush)
She follows doggedly.


How can I doubt you, Darwin? My
Own two evolved eyes see
That like the primates I too sleep
In trees -- mahogany
Or oak or pine or maple make
Fine poster beds for me.

The Flood

I'd never wash away a World
For then I'd long to know
The treasures lost, the poets swirled,
The musics muted so

And wonder over friends I'd miss
And tales they'd never share --
Instead of washings harsh as this,
I'd spot clean here and there.


Accountants guessed
That God drew west
When cost of brown
Was down,
And then drew east
When brown's increased
And green then cost
Him least.


If thoughts are mirrors of the world
The most reflective head
Is like the stillest waters or
In other words is dead.

Akhenaten's Fool

If it's more primitive to praise
A group of two than one,
Does that same logic not require
The worshipping of none?

Ethel Waters

She couldn't read a note -- a trivial thing.
She had no need of music. She could sing.

A Puritan Judges the Buried Dead

Those worthless legions grow and grow
Of lazy bums who lie
In their own filth without a cent
And never work. Oh, my,

Why, even lawyer Rich who used
To work the whole year round
One day turned lazy. See! He's joined
Those deadbeats underground.

What Need Has God of Man's Army?

What need has God of Man's Army
With powers such as His are? Me
I find it quite extremely odd
That some kill in the name of God --
What mortal aid could He require?
They say He set the Sun on fire.


Man is Actaeon. He believes
He's master of the beast
Till death transforms him and deceives
The servile worm that then perceives
No master in the feast.

Why We Sneeze

Of course there must be pollen in the spring
Opposing all the beauty of the thing --
Sir Isaac's laws of opposition would
Be breached by only perfume in the wood.

Either Oar

One turns to Kierkegaard when on a boat
As anywhere. The waters also place
One in dilemmas when one has to face
A choice to either row or merely float.

Yet is it such a simple either or?
There is the dock of course. Why sail? One could
Read just as well dockside as not. And should
One row, one might still favor either oar

Or both or neither oar. Complex -- and yet
We'd rather move than not and so we slip
Both oars into the waters where we dip

The possibilities and where we make
A journey cross its surface to forget
We'd drown within the belly of the lake.

"Free"Verse is Hardly Free

There are duets in meter and in rhyme
Not found in solipsisms of "free" verse --
The forms push back with their responses, too,
That poets can consider as they sing
Unshackled from their first dogmatic notes.

On William James

Mozart of me, my bars encage
Fit melodies instead
Of me. The chords of others round
My neck seem to my head
An abject yoke. I sing therefore
A world for me instead
Of them which means I also sing
For them as well. I'm led
By songs of conscience, too, whereby
Polyphonies are bred.

Forgive These Faulty Verses

Forgive these faulty verses and your own.
Your only measure is yourself which means
You're judgment proof : Others can't judge you;
Due process will not let you judge yourself.

I have little doubt my stacks of original verse (I'd hazard over 63,000 words not including early and unfinished pieces) and long translations will end up in a dumpster when I'm gone. No matter -- I've both selfishly enjoyed the compositions and believe I am better for the wear regardless of the quality of verse. I would recommend such diversion for others -- especially for lawyers. The law needs its humanities.

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