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The Unacknowledged Legislators of the World

The following is a guest post by Brandon Fitzgerald, project manager of a Law Library staffing contract, writer and student of poetry and literature.

In honor of National Poetry Month, I want to consider the intersections between law and poetry. Each entails persuasion and  precision of language. Word choice and word placement are central to law and poetry. They are disciplines that invite study and interpretation. Their works are products of their time, and at the same time somehow immutable. We amend the law just as we revise the poem. Most lawyers and poets, however, think of themselves as occupying wholly separate spheres. Walker Gibson goes into more detail: “To the literary man, the language of the law is likely to seem abstract, cumbersome, and remote from life […] On the other hand, the legal man, who often believes himself sympathetic to books and the arts, thinks of literary study nevertheless as irrelevant to his own profession, fuzzy in its definitions, and essentially a frivolous ‘escape’.”

Following up on our earlier blog post on Francis Scott Key, let’s take a look at a few other lawyer-poets: William Cullen Bryant, Wallace Stevens and Archibald MacLeish.

William Cullen Bryant, a Massachusetts state legislator, found an escape in meditative poetry. Writing in the early 19th century, his works are built on the idea of natural order and the great experiment of American political theory stemming from the Enlightenment. His poem “Rats and Mice” explores a new world framed by law and natural reason:

Once on a time, as saith our story,
Within a single edifice
A nation flourished in its glory,
Whose citizens were rats and mice.
The politics they prospered under
Passed far and widely for a wonder,
So based were they on reason’s laws,
And equal rights of vermin;–
So planned, the general good to cause
And cleanly keep Justitia’s ermine.

Unlike Bryant, who enjoyed the distractions poetry provided him, Wallace Stevens, a surety lawyer for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Insurance Company, considered poetry his true profession. Although Stevens did not confront law as a subject directly in his poetry, those in the legal profession can learn something from the way in which he dealt in uncertainties, mysteries and pragmatism. Stevens, like most poets, avoided rigid polarities that are so often associated with the law. While Stevens imposed a separation between his personal worlds of law and poetry, he saw both as attempts at ordering, an idea that Bryant shared. We see this impulse towards ordering, an imposition on an otherwise chaotic universe, in “The Idea of Order at Key West“:

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

The centrality of interpretation to law and poetry is also explored by Wallace Stevens, most markedly in his poem “Metaphors of a Magnifico“:

Twenty men crossing a bridge,
Into a village,
Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges,
Into twenty villages,
Or one man
Crossing a single bridge into a village.

In addition to interpretation, we might also consider the role of metaphor in poetry and law. In poetry we find “a love is like a red, red rose,” and in law we find the metaphor of the “reasonable person” or a corporation as a legal person. Archibald MacLeish, 9th Librarian of Congress and lawyer-poet examines that metaphor in “Corporate Entity” when he writes, “The Oklahoma Ligno and Lithograph Co / Weeps at a nude by Michael Angelo.” MacLeish abandoned a career in law for the bohemian life in Paris in the 1920s where he took up writing poetry. Appointed to the position of Librarian of Congress by President Roosevelt in 1939, he is best known for reorganizing the library, promoting the arts, and introducing the idea of a United States Poet Laureate. MacLeish, upon the death of Wallace Stevens, penned “Reasons For Music,” in which he, too, contemplates the business of law and poetry to provide order:

The acropolis of eternity that crumbles
Time and time again is mine–my task,
The heart’s necessity compels me:
Man I am: poet must be.

The labor of order has no rest:
To impose on the confused, fortuitous
Flowing away of the world, Form–
Still, cool, clean, obdurate

Poetry and law are born of human ingenuity, trade in language, reflect the contemporary world, and provide structure and order. “Poets,” Percy Shelley wrote, “are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” MacLeish may have put it best in an address delivered at the 85th Anniversary Banquet of the Harvard Law Review in 1972:
“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. But what, then, is the business of poetry? 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.”

Main Reading Room. View of the statue of Poetry by J.Q.A. Ward on the column entablature between two alcoves. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. (Photo by Carol Highsmith.) (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,  //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.02084)

Main Reading Room. View of the statue of Poetry by J.Q.A. Ward on the column entablature between two alcoves. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. (Photo by Carol Highsmith.) (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.02084)

One Comment

  1. Ernesto
    April 28, 2015 at 10:13 am

    “If you want tot learn a language, read the lawyers and the poets.”

    I’ve said this my whole life it seems. As a person who enjoys writing, that phrase “the lawyers and the poets” has been repeated in my head too many times to count. But I have never put ‘two and two together,’ as it were. Thank you for doing so! I thoroughly enjoyed this blog post!!

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