What is the relationship between law and literature? The Law Library of Congress and the Poetry and Literature Center recently explored that question during an evening event on Thursday, October 20. The event featured lawyer and poet Monica Youn, who read from her new book of poetry, Blackacre, and participated in a discussion with law and literature professor Martha Dragich from the University of Missouri School of Law.
In her opening remarks, Law Librarian of Congress Roberta I. Shaffer quoted the 2016 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction winner, Attica Locke, who described law and literature as “fraternal twins.” Shaffer agreed and described how both disciplines share an oral and written tradition. “Law and literature find common ground in their reliance upon storytelling, in their heavy use of analogy and metaphor, and in their predilection for form and format,” she said. She also added with a sense of humor that they “take great liberties with their reliance upon history and precedence and use of fiction.”
Monica Youn opened the program with several poetry readings that she described as “employing legal settings and concepts.” For example, she read a poem titled, Sunrise Foley Square, which she explained is a place that is familiar to litigators because it is the setting of New York’s state and federal court houses and to fans of the police television show, NYPD Blue because it is also where the opening credits of the show are filmed. Youn expounded that when she wrote the poem, Foley Square was the site where Ferguson protests were occurring, thus a cacophony of chants and sirens emitted from the area, until sunrise when the noises finally ceased. The silence according to Youn made her reflect on when someone else might die from a police shooting.
Youn also read a poem titled Landscape with Deodand, which she explained reflects her passion for legal history, particularly early legal English history. The word “deodand” she shared is an old English term for an instrument of death. For example, she said if a person is killed by a tree branch, then the branch becomes the deodand. “Under the laws of deodand, deodands were forfeited to the crown, and destroyed,” said Youn.
In addition to these poems, Youn also read several of her “acre” poems, which she described as ekphrastic poems that describe works of arts or landscapes. Blackacre, in the Anglo-American legal tradition, is “a legal placeholder term for a piece of property or estate as John Doe is a placeholder term for a person,” said Youn. These terms in property law and trust and estate law texts can follow in sequences such as blackacre, whiteacre, blueacre, and brownacre.
Before leading the discussion with Youn, Professor Dragich shared her insight about the objectives of law and literature courses, which law schools began offering about 20-30 years ago according to Dragich.
“There is great variety in how law and literature courses are taught in law schools, thus it is difficult to generalize,” said Dragich. “There are, however, several main objectives to the courses,” said Dragich. One main objective she explained is to contextualize law. Dragich explained that law schools teach the law through appellate opinions, which are narrow in focus, but literature provides “a richer picture of details, events, circumstances, personalities, and motivations,” she said. Therefore, one main objective is “to build context back in,” she added.
Secondly, law and literature courses help students recognize how different individuals and groups of people understand legal concepts, according to Dragich. For example, she said “the legal concept of self-defense may be understood and felt differently depending on a person’s age, gender, race, and so forth,” she said. Additionally, Dragich explained that law and literature courses “humanize law” to help law students relate to people and “opens a conversation about the relationship between justice and mercy,” she said.
In closing, Dragich held a discussion with Youn about her dual academic and professional experience as a lawyer and poet. Youn stated she was always enamored with both subjects. She shared that as an undergraduate she majored in political science with a focus on legal theory and minored in creative writing. In fact, to complete her creative writing minor she wrote a poetry sequence based on Chief Judge Benjamin Cardozo‘s decision, Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Company.
Youn also remarked on the commonalities between law and poetry; discussing how both disciplines focus on grammar, syntax, and style particularly the use of repetition and brevity. As a lawyer, Youn worked as an advocate for constitutional law cases, but as a poet she said she was able to find her own voice and set her own rules. Poetry she said, offered her “freedom to find rules herself.”