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Allen Mendenhall Interviews James Elkins about Law, Literature, Poetry, and Teaching

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Creativity, Humanities, John William Corrington, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Michael Blumenthal, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Philosophy, Writing on February 26, 2014 at 8:30 am
Jim Elkins

James Elkins

AM:  Jim, thank you for doing this interview.  You recently came out with a book, Lawyer Poets and That World We Call Law.  You’ve been researching and writing about lawyer poets for some time now.  What is it about lawyer poets that fascinates you, and what is it about this type of person that makes him or her unique?  In other words, what makes a lawyer poet different from a doctor poet like, say, William Carlos Williams, or a banker poet like T.S. Eliot?

JE:  I first got interested in lawyer poets about 12 years ago when I was introduced to the work of a southern writer, John William Corrington. I found Corrington’s life and work fascinating, and was puzzled by the fact that he was an accomplished poet—as well as a novelist—when he took up the study and practice of law. I had trouble getting my mind around the fact that Corrington was a poet and a lawyer. One reason was that I held some of the usual stereotypes of lawyer and poet. These endeavors—poetry and law—don’t look, at least according to the stereotypes, as if they have much in common. Lawyers and poets appear to us as different as day and night. I was intrigued by this idea of one person embracing such different—or seemingly different—endeavors. When I decided to write about Corrington, I knew I needed to think through this idea of being a lawyer and a poet, a poet and a lawyer.

My fascination with lawyer poets lies in how our iconic images of lawyer and of poet are put to the test when we think about one person writing poems and practicing law. There is, I think, something intriguing about the joining of such differing enterprises in the life of a single person. I don’t want to claim that there is anything unique about lawyer poets, or that the joining of law and poetry creates a unique kind of person. What is unique is how the idea of a lawyer poet changes our sense of who we are as lawyers (that is, those of us who are associated with the legal profession), and how, when our legal colleagues turn out to be poets, we have an open invitation to read their poetry, and for many of us, that means a pursuit of a genre of literature we thought we had no need to pursue.Lawyer Poets

AM: I want to come back to Corrington in a minute.  He’s someone I’ve grown to admire, and I have you to thank for introducing me to his work.  First, though, I’d like to discuss your book, Lawyer Poets and That World We Call Law.  You published several lawyer poets in it.  How did you decide which poets and poems to include? 

JE:  I discovered the work of all the lawyer poets whose poems appear in Lawyer Poets and That World We Call Law during the decade that I tried to identify all the lawyer poets in the U.S., from the first days of the republic. It got to be something a bit more than a research project. I simply wanted to know every lawyer I could identify throughout our history that had taken up with the muse. Along the way, I began to collect a rather substantial list of contemporary lawyers who write and publish poetry. I started reading the poetry and then began to publish the best of what I found in the Legal Studies Forum, a journal I’ve edited for over 15 years now. I might note that most lawyer poets do not write poems about the law and the practice of law and I did not seek out law-related poems. We have a long history of legal verse and most of it is rather bad. What I found in the work of the lawyer poets I was publishing was an occasional poet and an occasional poem about the practice of law that sounded right to me. After publishing the work of lawyer poets for a decade, I found, looking back on what we had published, that the lawyer-related poems held up quite well. And, I found that they looked still more interesting when they were collected and laid out poem to poem. It dawned on me that I had published the best lawyer-related poems in the past 50 years, and that the poems deserved their own anthology.

AM:  One of the poets in the anthology is Michael Blumenthal.  Is he still teaching at West Virginia University College of Law?  I don’t think I ever heard the story about how you two connected.

JE:  When I first got started on the lawyer poets work, I was corresponding with Marlyn Robinson, a reference librarian at the Tarleton Law Library at the University of Texas School of Law. Marlyn compiled a short list of lawyer poets for me, and she mentioned that a poet named Michael Blumenthal, who was then living in or around Austin, had once been a lawyer.

Blumenthal was one of those lawyers, like Archibald MacLeish and John William Corrington, who become lawyers and then realize that what they really want to do is to follow their literary pursuits. I began reading Blumenthal’s poetry and it became clear that he was by no one’s estimation an amateur. In fact, his poetry was so good and his abandonment of the legal profession so apparent, that I didn’t try to connect him for fear that as a major poet he would have little interest in being identified as having any association with the legal profession. And to complicate matters, whenever I did give thought to contacting Blumenthal, I found that he was a poet who seemed to have no permanent home.

I continued to read Blumenthal’s poetry, and then moved on to a collection of his essays, a novel, and a memoir. There is, I think, something rather daunting, at least for me, in trying to contact a major writer. Then, one day, I was working with a Canadian writer on an introduction to a memoir of Roma Goodwin Blackburn, a Canadian lawyer, when she happened to mention Michael Blumenthal. I asked her how she knew him, and she said she had recently corresponded with him to obtain permission to quote one of his poems in a book she was writing with her husband. I told her that I had been wanting to contact Blumenthal but could never quite track him down (not adding that I hadn’t really tried all that hard). She told me he responded to her request promptly and seemed a pleasant enough fellow.

If I have the time right, that was probably in 2005. I sent off a note to Blumenthal and found not only that he was pleasant but seemed interested in the fact that I had found my way to his poetry by way of the fact that he had once been a lawyer. We continued our correspondence, and I decided to devote an issue of the Legal Studies Forum to Michael’s work.

In 2007, we published Correcting the World, an issue of over 440 pages of Michael’s poetry, essays, and fiction. Michael had not, in 2007, when we published the LSF issue devoted to his work, fully addressed, in any of his writings, his decision to leave the legal profession and take up his life as a literary man. I asked if he’d be willing to do that in an essay for the LSF issue, and to my surprise he agreed to do the essay. I talked the powers that be at the law school into inviting Michael to the law school to present his essay, “The Road Not Taken-Twice.”

At this point I still had not met Michael, although we had been working on the LSF collection of his writings for over a year. Michael’s presentation was quite engaging, and it dawned on me that we needed a stronger literary presence at the law school than I was able to provide; what we needed was a poet-in-residence. And now, the delicate part: Would Michael have any interest in thinking about a visiting appointment at the law school? I knew that he was moving from university to university as something of an itinerant professor holding endowed visiting positions, and I thought we might interest him in a stop at the law school. To my surprise, he seemed intrigued by the idea, and the next thing I knew, Michael Blumenthal was a visiting professor at the college of law. He has now been a colleague for several years, and I’m now even more convinced that every law school needs a lawyer poet in residence.

AM:  Do you ever try your hand at poetry?  I’ve found that, for me, it’s hard to read a lot of poetry without trying to write it myself. 

JE:  I will have to admit that I am not a poet. And yes, there are times, when I’m reading poetry, that I imagine that in some reincarnation I will end up, somewhere down the line, as a poet. I’ve written a few poems, and I’ve written just enough to know that poetry requires experience and skill that I do not have. I admire the poets I read enough to know that I need to leave poetry to those who are driven or led, in some way, to be poets. My friend and colleague, James Clarke, a rather prolific poet and retired judge in Canada, has encouraged me to write poetry but I take his suggestion to be a gesture of friendship that discounts the steep learning curve that I’d face as a poet.

AM: I can relate.  I once hoped to gain the experience and skill to become a poet, but I gave up at some point.  Do you ever feel lonely working on poetry and the law?  What I mean is, do you ever feel as if you’re going against the grain, doing something different and even unappreciated by some in the legal community?

JE:  My work with lawyer poets has, from the beginning, been an exhilarating endeavor. And I must say, I have not experienced the work in a lonely way. Initially, when I began to identify the hundreds and hundreds of lawyers who had turned to poetry throughout history, I had the sense that I had descended into a vast underground cavern populated by the most exciting unknown persons you could imagine. John William Corrington (who died well over a decade before I discovered his work) was only the first of these exotic—and yes, I think, initially it felt like I was dealing with some exotic creature, something like a hilltribe elder from a remote village in Burma. I felt like I had stumbled onto a new world and a new way to think about “law and literature.” Law and literature had become, in my discovery of the lawyer poets, an introduction to lawyers who practiced literature, just like they practiced law. One doesn’t feel lonely living amidst these wonderful ghosts!

Then I began corresponding with contemporary lawyer poets. I didn’t have all that much success in inducing them to talk about their lives as lawyer poets (with a few notable exceptions, Michael Blumenthal being one of them), but I did find that lawyers were interested in talking with me about their poetry. If I had not started publishing the poetry of lawyers in the Legal Studies Forum, things might have taken a turn toward the lonely. I began to spend considerable time reading poetry and trying to figure out how to think about what I was reading and how to talk to poets about their work. Keep in mind, I did not grow up reading poetry, and with the exception of Wendell Berry and Robert Bly, had really not read poetry. So, novice that I was, I was entering a new world and that produced its own excitement. As the years rolled along, I found that I had been befriended by poetry, and that poets were becoming my friends. I mentioned my friendship with Judge Clarke, and this is a friendship that arose from my efforts in publishing his poetry. A similar thing happened with Michael Blumenthal, who is, as you know, now a colleague. There are countless other friendships of just this kind—built around our regard for poetry—that working with lawyer poets has made possible.

Do I think of my work as going against the grain? In all honesty, I don’t. I see my work with lawyer poets as being another expression of the rich history of lawyers engaged in literary enterprises. My work is not against the grain, it is the grain.

Am I concerned that this work is unappreciated by the legal academic community? I can’t say that I am. In an essay, “Why Write?” that appeared in the Journal of Legal Education last year, I noted that “Law teachers dance to the beat of different drummers. We are driven by different visions of legal education as we adopt, adapt, and advocate a law school’s regime of training.” I’ve never let what my colleagues do (or think they are doing) confine my vision of what a lawyer’s education might be, or what it should be. If I had sought appreciation for any of my work as a teacher, I would have given up writing many years ago. In fact, if it were appreciation that drove me, I would never have undertaken my work with lawyer poets.

AM:  You’re right: it is the grain.  I agree completely.  And I’m glad you mentioned your essay “Why Write.”  I read it recently and was planning to ask you about it.  In fact, it was that essay—and in particular the line about “a note of sadness”—that brought about my previous question.  What I wanted to ask you about, from the essay, was your colleague’s assumption—I think you refer to him as “Randy”—that everyone in the legal academy is writing for the same reason.  Your point, I think, is that all writing has a rhetorical purpose: sometimes it’s to persuade; sometimes it’s to explain; sometimes it’s just a tedious exercise to gain tenure; and sometimes it’s to delight and explore.  Some of us can’t help writing.  I sometimes find myself at the kitchen table, and instead of enjoying my meal I’m panicking because this is time I could spend reading and writing.  I was wondering if you could say a little more about this colleague’s assumption and whether it’s systemic or shared by many others.

JE:  In my Journal of Legal Education essay “Why Write?” I was puzzled by a colleague’s notion that he had somehow failed as a scholar because legal colleagues didn’t pay what he thought was enough attention to his writing. My colleague assumed that if you write about a legal doctrine in an informed way the world—that is judges, legislators, law professors—would take note of the work. I found my colleague’s assumption that when we write the world should pay attention to us a bit puzzling. I had always assumed that for the most part what we publish in law reviews gets little or no attention. Most of us don’t write law review articles that are celebrated for changing the law or offering new perspectives on the law.

In my case, much of my writing has been about legal education. I never had any notion that in writing about legal education my colleagues were going to change the way they think about legal education and legal training and begin to rely upon me for guidance. Consequently, I had the sense that in my writing—and I’ve written far more than most of my colleagues—I wasn’t trying to change the world, so my writing did not depend on an appreciative audience. Why, then, should I bother to write? I remember talking with one of my law school professors about writing—who was both prolific and recognized—when I first went into teaching. I knew when I decided to teach that I’d have to write and publish law review articles. I knew, following the scholarship of the professors that I had in law school, that some of them were scholars (and writers) and some of them were not. I was curious, when I talked with Robert Sedler, who had been my teacher in conflicts and in constitutional law, what prompted him to be so prolific as a writer. Bob Sedler told me something I’ll never forget: “Jim,” he said, “the reason I write is that I’ve been puzzling over something and I’ve been reading what has been written about it, and I realize that what I really want to have said about the subject, said in a way that responds to my concerns, has simply not been written. I write to compose something that I would have found valuable and interesting if someone other than I had written it.”

I think Bob Sedler’s notion has left an indelible imprint on my thinking: I write to say something in a way that I think it should be said. Now, does this mean that all of my writing is exquisite, and the answer is clearly no. When I revisit my older work, I have no doubt that what I wrote could have been said better. But that isn’t really the point. The point is that I said it as best I could; I made a down payment in the writing in living up to Bob Sedler’s notion that you write because you want to say something in a different way than what you find that has already been written.

I don’t think I said, and I didn’t mean to imply in my essay, “Why Write?” that my legal colleagues all write for the same reason. Quite the opposite. I assume that my colleagues write for many different reasons. There are undoubtedly some colleagues who write only because the job requires it (and, unfortunately, after they get tenure, some colleagues manage to get away with writing little or nothing at all). Other colleagues write because they want to think of themselves as scholars. This idea of being a scholar never quite caught on with me. For the first decade or so after I started teaching, I wrote to address a particular problem or concern, often something in or about my teaching. Then, somewhere along the way—and I think this came as I began to teach literature and narrative jurisprudence courses—I began to think about writing as writing, or as you put it, writing as a rhetorical endeavor. I wasn’t writing in the rhetorical sense of trying to persuade anyone to adopt my ideas (and yes, there is always something of that whenever we write), but writing as an experience of writing and writing in furtherance of the idea that if I paid particular attention to how I write, I might actually be a writer. I confess that I am far more drawn to the idea of trying to be a writer than to the fantasy of being a scholar.

AM:  There is no doubt in my mind that you are a writer, and I’ve always enjoyed the way you locate readers in particular settings, no matter what the topic of your essay is.  There’s one essay you wrote that begins by talking about how you’re sitting at home waiting for the mail to arrive, and then you head out to the mailbox once the mail arrives.  It’s that sort of thing—very subtle—that I’ve always admired in your work. 

One of the reasons I went to West Virginia for law school was because I had read your essays when I was an undergraduate trying to figure out what to do with my life.  I was an English major, so it didn’t take me long on Google—or whatever interface or browser we were using in those days—to find your work.  I remember thinking, “law school can’t be all bad with people like this in it.”  I even remember emailing you before I went to law school, and you and I talked about a number of things. 

As for scholarship, there are those who write about others, and those who write so that others will write about them one day.  You fall into that latter camp, I think.  One day, people will be writing about your essays and thinking about your approach to pedagogy. 

We should probably be wrapping up soon, so just a couple more questions.  Since we’re on the topic of pedagogy, I’m wondering about your thoughts on the future of legal education.  It seems that every week now there’s a major article lamenting the decline of law schools or highlighting some law school “scam” or scandal.  Many people are predicting that several law schools will cease to exist in the not-too-distant future, and there can be no doubt that there is an overabundance of lawyers, that law school and law school textbooks are too expensive for most young people, and that the legal job market is very tough today.  How does all this impact the future of the legal academy?   

JE:  Allen, I remember quite well our correspondence before you took up the study of law. That kind of personal interaction with a prospective student is unusual. In other disciplines, students often seek out particular teachers and attend schools because of a desire to study with a particular teacher. Law is unusual in that sense. Students go off to law school with the idea of studying law and becoming lawyers; they don’t think all that much about who their teachers will be and the differing conceptions that their teachers have about law and the practice of law. I know that you came to law school with the idea of studying both law and literature, and I know just how rare that situation is. Most students with a literary interest expect to put their literary work on hold while they are in law school. If they made me King of legal education for a day, I think I’d mandate that every law student be exposed to the idea that the law too is a literary enterprise and can be viewed from a literary perspective, and that a literary perspective might be a prism through which we can see our lives as lawyers with better clarity.

I’m afraid I can’t offer anything new, startling, or subversive on the future of legal education. My focus in the past fifteen years has been on my own teaching, writing, and the make-over of the Legal Studies Forum as a literary journal. Some semesters I have almost no students sign up for my courses, and other semesters they arrive in plentiful numbers. I have never quite been able to figure out how that works. I am still intrigued by how my own teaching works (and what to do when I admit to myself it sometimes does not work). I am still writing about what I teach and how I try to teach it. The more I focus on teaching, the less I think about the future of legal education. I sometimes think we’ve lost our bearings in legal education, but we have been so hell-bent on doing that for some 60 plus years now I no longer see it as a problem that awaits us in the future.

AM: This has been a fascinating conversation, and I hope we get a chance to have another one like it.  It’s been so long since I’ve been back to West Virginia that I’d like to ask about the changes to the law school and how the weather and a few friends have been, but I’m mindful that we’re doing this interview not for my personal benefit, but for the benefit of readers, so I’ll hold off.  We can have those other conversations another time. 

I’ll finish by asking if you could say a bit about what Legal Studies Forum has published lately, and what it has in store for upcoming issues.  Since you mentioned your role in transforming Legal Studies Forum into a literary journal, I’d also like to ask you about the history of the journal.  It strikes me that the journal itself probably hasn’t told its own story, and the journal is so interesting and has been around for so long that its story needs to be documented. 

JE:  Allen, I noted earlier in the interview that I had transformed the Legal Studies Forum into a literary journal, and I think that is also a fair description of where the journal is at today. We publish poetry and fiction by and about lawyers, and we have also published memoirs, autobiographical essays, and traditional literary essays (for example, a 2013 issue was devoted to Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). This year we are publishing two collections of poetry (two issues of the journal, each issue devoted to a single poet), a novel, and an issue of miscellany that focuses on “Lawyers and Literature.”

You asked about the history of the Legal Studies Forum. I have been tempted for a good many years now to write what I know of the history of the journal, and having failed to do so, I have tried to encourage some of those who were involved in the founding of the journal to write the history and have been unsuccessful on that front as well. The history of the Legal Studies Forum is of interest to me because the journal has played a rather central part in my life as a writer and as a teacher. Maybe this interview will get me back in the notion to work on the history.

The Legal Studies Forum (LSF) got its start in the mid-1970s as a newsletter of a newly formed organization called the American Legal Studies Association (ALSA). ALSA has, unfortunately, been defunct for a good many years now, and the remaining remnant of that old organization is the journal.

LSF first appeared as an ALSA newsletter in 1976. In 1977, the newsletter became the ALSA Forum and was published under that title until 1984 when it was retitled the Legal Studies Forum, the title the journal still carries. I have given thought on several occasions to changing the title of the journal to reflect its present literary bearings, but I have a fondness for the old title and have never been able to bring myself to give the journal a new name.

The journal slowly evolved from an organizational newsletter into a “forum” that in its published form looked like it had been printed in someone’s basement. It most definitely had a homemade look and that sense of being marginal has followed the journal to this day (and I have done little to have it otherwise). So, the journal didn’t begin as a journal, it began with ALSA, an organization created by colleagues in the Department of Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The UMass department of legal studies was created by Ron Pipkin, John Bonsignore (now deceased), and Peter d’Errico, who were trying to escape the business school where they were teaching business law.

The early 1970s was a time when the antinomian streams flowing in the academic disciplines—sociology, anthropology, and psychology—were subjecting the disciplines to challenging changes. We had begun to hear talk of breaking down the barriers between disciplines, and we were beginning, in the mid and late 1960s, to see the appearance of new interdisciplinary programs: women’s studies; African American studies; environmental studies. Bonsignore, d’Errico, and Pipkin developed the idea for a stand-alone Department of Legal Studies that would make it possible for UMass students to major in law the way they would philosophy or sociology. Their approach to legal studies was interdisciplinary, critical, and humanistic. They wanted to establish a beachhead for legal studies that would stand apart from the kind of vocational training and empty philosophical posturing they associated with legal education. ALSA and the Legal Studies Forum represented legal studies as one of the liberal arts; the study of law was viewed as being a humanistic discipline. Bonsignore, d’Errico, and Pipkin, with uncanny foresight, viewed legal studies as an interdisciplinary crossroads with law being a central focus. What the founders of ALSA could not foresee is that legal scholarship (and to a far lesser extent, legal education) would undergo the same kind of sea-change with the arrival, in the late 1970s, of Critical Legal Studies, feminist jurisprudence, and law and literature (with variant strains of legal storytelling and narrative jurisprudence).

ALSA was founded as a home away from home for colleagues who were teaching law in the various social sciences (anthropology, sociology, psychology) and in the humanities (philosophy and history) who had some reason to identify their work with law as well as with the core discipline that defined their university existence. Some of these teachers were law-trained, and some were not. The folks at UMass begin to think that the legal studies program they were pioneering might be the basis for legal studies programs around the country. The late 1970s was also a time when paralegal programs were beginning to appear in undergraduate studies, and teachers in these programs were looking for an intellectual home base. Interestingly enough, in the early days of ALSA there was a concern that the legal studies movement—and yes, there was some notion that a “movement” was underway—might drift in the direction of paralegal programs, and you can be sure that Bonsignore, d’Errico, and Pipkin had no desire for that to happen. They didn’t discourage paralegal teachers from participation in ALSA, but the ALSA mantra for their own Department of Legal Studies—and for the journal—was always: interdisciplinary, critical, and humanistic. That was enough to keep the paralegal folks at bay.

I should note that while the UMass-Amherst folks were always thinking about teaching law outside law schools, indeed, they argued that it was the very fact that law was so often taught only in law schools that underscored the need for a legal studies movement, they were always more than welcoming to the few law teachers that became involved in the organization. I was one of the early “outsiders” to cast my lot with ALSA, but not the first. Wythe Holt, the Marxist legal historian, and a law professor at the University of Alabama, is the only known legal colleague who attended both the first ALSA conference in 1977 and the first Critical Legal Studies conference held at the University of Wisconsin, also in 1977. Wythe published several articles in LSF, with one article appearing in the second volume of the journal when it was then the ALSA Forum. I attended the second ALSA conference in 1978 at Rutgers, and gave my first paper at an ALSA conference in Pittsburgh the following year. J. Allen Smith, at Rutgers law school, one of the old “law and literature” men, was also involved in the early conferences and published several articles in LSF in the early years. (We were doing law and literature articles in LSF before “law and literature” picked up momentum in the early 80s.) David Papke, who obtained a Ph.D. in American Studies (University of Michigan, 1984), now on the law faculty at Marquette University, attended the early ALSA conferences, and served as editor of LSF (1990-1996) before I took over as editor. Judith Koffler, another widely-respected law and literature scholar, appeared at most of the early ALSA conferences.

ALSA failed to survive but it did succeed in one sense: The ALSA conferences were lively affairs, with a degree of informality and a sense of collegial extended family, that made it possible for me, and colleagues like Judith Koffler and Wythe Holt to find like-minded colleagues. (I should note that both Koffler and Holt ended up as visiting professors at West Virginia and both would have remained on the faculty if it had not been for the short-sighted decision-making of my colleagues.) ALSA, and now LSF, have been most successful in helping to create a community for colleagues who think of the study of law as a liberal art.

Is there a “legal studies movement” in existence today? I don’t think so. Have the ideas and ideals associated with the “legal studies movement” found their way into legal education? I think they have. This immigration of ideas has taken different forms: the humanistic legal education movement (1977-1985), the law and literature movement (now commonly attributed to James Boyd White’s The Legal Imagination published in 1973, a movement that gained more attention in the late 70s, early 80s, and has now gained the status as a “school” of contemporary jurisprudence); Critical Legal Studies (CLS arrived in legal education at the same time ALSA was founded, and is now, so far as most of us can see, given up its corporeal existence).

I don’t see anything these days to suggest that anyone is talking about a “legal studies movement.” The one person that persists in writing about “legal studies” is Austin Sarat at Amherst College. In the last 20 years, Sarat, writing about the teaching of law as a liberal art in undergraduate schools, has been a one-man legal studies movement!

Did the “legal studies movement” spearheaded by ALSA change law school training? I think the literal answer is no. What happened in legal education, as I have alluded to here, is that legal scholarship (law reviews/law journals) now routinely publishes interdisciplinary work. In the past four decades (that happen to span the years that I have been teaching), there has been, shall we say, a “greening” of legal scholarship that encompasses the interdisciplinary, critical, and humanistic approaches that my UMass-Amherst colleagues and LSF tried to focus on. Unfortunately, the UMass model for legal studies did not find widespread adoption, and the liberal arts perspective in legal education, notwithstanding the greening of legal scholarship, is still a marginal enterprise.

AM:  Jim, thanks so much for this very interesting, very informative interview.  I’ve really enjoyed this.

JE:  Allen, I greatly appreciate your continued interest in my work and this rare opportunity to present in more detail what I have been trying to do as a teacher, writer, and editor. Thanks for all the effort you have put into making this interview possible.

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“Constructing a Canon of Law-Related Poetry,” by Alexandra J. Roberts

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Humanities, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Poetry, Writing on November 15, 2013 at 8:45 am

Alexandra J. Roberts has published “Constructing a Canon of Law-Related Poetry” in the Texas Law Review (Vol. 90).  Her abstract reads as follows:

Law and poetry make a potent, if surprising, pair.  Poetry thrives on simultaneity and open-endedness, while legal writing aspires to resolve issues decisively, whether it advocates or adjudges.  The law and literature movement has traditionally focused either on law as literature, applying literary theory and techniques to legal texts such as judicial opinions and legislation, or law in literature, i.e., law as portrayed in literary and artistic works.  Poetry and poetics have garnered relatively little attention under either approach.  While some scholars blame that omission on a supposed dearth of law-related poetry, the poems collected in Kader and Stanford’s Poetry of the Law: From Chaucer to the Present belie that claim.  This essay considers the place of poetry in legal studies and advocates incorporating it into both the dialogue and the curriculum of the law and literature movement.  It identifies themes that emerge from the juxtaposition of the poems in the anthology, examines the relationship of fixed-verse forms to law in the poems, and draws attention to those voices that are underrepresented in the collection and the movement.  It relies primarily on the process of close reading several of the hundred poems included in Poetry of the Law and, in so doing, it practices law in literature while it models precisely the type of critical approach that would serve those participating in the study of law as literature.  It prescribes a canon of law-related poetry and illustrates how the inclusion of poems and techniques of poetic interpretation stand to benefit students, lawyers, and theorists alike.

The paper may be downloaded here at the Texas Law Review website or here at SSRN.

Service in St. Paul’s

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Creativity, Humanities, Literature, Poetry, Writing on November 6, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

 

This poem originally appeared in The Echo.

Service in St. Paul’s

 

            —London, 2003

 

Acrophobia turned

upside down:

fear floating away,

gravity deciding

to suddenly

give up.

 

There’s a dome

overhead, a glowing

Jesus over the altar,

and too much space

to pray

comfortably.

 

Imagination

among the scaffolding,

eye to eye with Joseph,

now falling facing up:

heaven does

not seem so high.

“Fairy Tale Mail,” Poems by Margery Hauser

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Humanities, Law, Law-and-Literature, Poetry, Writing on May 29, 2012 at 8:59 am
Margery Hauser is  a New york City poet whose work has appeared in Poetica Magazine, Möbius, The Jewish Women’s Literary Annual, Umbrella and other journals, both print and online.  Excerpts from “Fairy Tale Mail” (which she published here at The Literary Lawyer) have appeared or will soon appear in Ides of March and The First Literary Review. When she is not writing poetry, she can often be found dancing, knitting,  practicing yoga or working out with her tai chi broadsword.  She is a member of the Parkside Poetry Collective, for whose encouragement and support she ever grateful.
 
 
 
Subject: Civil suit
 
We’ve read the facts pursuant to the case
regarding your late husband’s sad demise.
Regretfully, a lawsuit has no trace
of merit and therefore we do advise
that evidence a-plenty proves his fall
occurred while in commission of a crime.
No fault accrues to Pig and Pig, et al.
No damages are due you at this time.
        His huffing and his puffing further show
        a pre-existing illness and although
        this wasn’t cause of death it surely must
        support that bringing suit would be unjust. 
        Your husband died attempting a break-in
         and so this suit is one you cannot win.
 
 
 
To: NRimer@mere_l’oye.net
Subject: Pumpkineater v. Pumpkineater
 
My client in an affidavit swears
that he confined his faithless wife because
she had indulged in numerous affairs –
he didn’t think he’d broken any laws.
Her infidelities made him so sad
and left him feeling helpless, in disgrace;
in fact, you might say that she drove him mad
by throwing her amours smack in his face.
These acts diminished his capacity
        to tell right from wrong. Her audacity
        impelled him to this deed.  He does regret
        his rashness and hopes she can just forget,
        forgive and drop the charges that she brought.
        He simply was distressed and overwrought.
 
 
 
Subject: re: Pumpkineater v. Pumpkineater
From: NRimer@mere_l’oye.net
 
Mrs. Pumpkineater’s life was hell
when Peter, in a fit of jealous rage,
confined her in a fetid pumpkin shell
no better than a jail cell or a cage.
She swears that she was faithful, always true
and kept her marriage vows although her mate
treated her most harshly in our view.
He threatened violence if she came home late.
        She’s willing to drop charges and agree
        to just divorce the beast, let him go free.
        She wishes he would suffer as she did
        but asks for nothing more than to be rid
        of this abusive, cruel and jealous spouse.
        Oh, by the way, she wants the car and house.
 
 
 
Subject: State v. Farmer’s Wife
 
Regarding claims by Mouse and Mouse and Mouse:
details of their de-tailing do support
the charge against the farmer’s vicious spouse.
We demand this case be tried in court.
The victims all are visually impaired
and wandered by pure chance across her path.
Under oath they all have so declared, 
but she responded with unbridled wrath!
        It’s clear she meant to take each Mouse’s life,
        her WMD a carving knife.
        We know that rodents often are maligned.
        We know society neglects the blind. 
        The only way the Mice will be requited
        is if their assailant is indicted.
 
 
 
Subject: Name Change
 
The miller’s daughter to my great surprise
has ruined my business plan – a sort of game
that asked contestants to vie for a prize
by guessing my most strange and secret name.
How that was managed she would never tell –
it’s not as if I bandied it about.
But she’s the queen and my plan’s shot to hell.
It looks as if my luck has just run out.
        I had ideas – big ones – they’re all a bust.
        She found me out so I must now adjust.
        I’ve given it much thought and I’ve assessed
        the possibilities that won’t be guessed. 
        Please amend the records; let them show
        that my last name is Stiltskin, first name Joe.

Some Poetry by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Humanities, Law, Law-and-Literature, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Poetry, Writing on May 2, 2012 at 8:00 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following lines come from two dissents by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.  I have rendered the lines in poetic form to suggest that Holmes’s writing is poetic, perhaps even inspired by Modern American poets such as William Carlos Williams.

Black & White Taxi & Transfer Co. v. Brown & Yellow Taxi & Transfer Co.[1]

A Poem[2] (1928)

It is very hard to resist the impression

that there is one august corpus

to understand which clearly is the only task

of any Court concerned.

If there were such a transcendental body of law

outside of any particular State

but obligatory within it unless and until changed by statute,

the Courts of the United States might be right in using

their independent judgment

as to what it was.

But there is no such body of law.

The fallacy and illusion that I think exist

consist in supposing that there is this outside thing to be found.

Law is a word used with different meanings,

but law in the sense in which courts speak of it today

does not exist

without some definite authority

behind it.

 

Gitlow v. New York[3]

A Poem[4] (1925)

Every idea

is an incitement.

It offers itself for belief

and if believed

it is acted on

unless some other belief

outweighs it

or some failure of energy

stifles the movement

at its birth.

The only difference

between the expression

of an opinion and an incitement

in the narrower sense

is the speaker’s enthusiasm

for the result.

Eloquence may set fire

to reason.

But whatever may be thought

of the redundant discourse

before us

it had no chance of starting

a present conflagration.

 


 

[1] See 276 U.S. 518 (1928) (Holmes, dissenting).

[2] My addition.

[3] See 268 U.S. 652 (1925) (Holmes, dissenting).

[4] My addition.

Three Poems by Troy Camplin

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Humanities, Poetry, Writing on March 30, 2012 at 2:00 am

Troy Camplin holds a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Texas at Dallas. He has taught English in middle school, high school, and college, and is currently taking care of his children at home. He is the author of Diaphysics, an interdisciplinary work on systems philosophy; other projects include the application of F.A. Hayek’s spontaneous order theory to ethics, the arts, and literature. His play “Almost Ithacad” won the PIA Award from the Cyberfest at Dallas Hub Theater.

 

Transcendence

Descending from the mountains, down the plain,

Into the valley, I have found a cave

To live in and to contemplate my pain

And joy, the love and strife designed to save

Me from my selfishness, to be reborn.

Do not mistake my constant strong desire –

The animal is transformed to adorn

The unity whose friction brings the fire

Of love out of apparent fleshly lust,

Erecting a true temple to embrace

The higher life of love and joy and trust

That life will lead me right and bring me grace.

When I want to make love to you it’s so

Our spirits can emerge and merge and grow.

 

Made, and Made Anew

The stones are worn with even, weary waves –

The ships are rusting by the rotting dock

That constitutes their cold, collective graves –

As weather runs down every object’s clock.

I look at you, your each new crease and gray –

The sand swirls, eddies up around your feet

With waves which wash so no sand, stone will stay

The way or where it is with every beat.

And yet our children play and chase the birds

That live with what the waves stir up. The seals

Are nursing pups. Sea grass will feel the herds

Of deer who make for cougar mothers’ meals.

Destruction is a part of nature, true –

But first things must be made, then made anew.

 

Lost Girl

She had the words. She knew she had the words.

They forested her, dimmed the light. Her limbs

Spread, palms outstretched to block her movement. She

Had no idea which way to go. She cut

The roots, expecting she would float away –

She tumbled, crushed the touch-me-nots. Brown seeds

Shot out from curling pods. Forget-me-nots

As blue as bluets made mere scents of crushed

Herbaceousness the moment her trunk landed.

So certain, she set out, discovering

New lands – she named new things – but she will not

Return to tell us what she saw. No blaze

Was ever made. She’ll be forgotten, turn

To soil, become the forest floor, mere food F

or fungi. The words will mould, fertilize

A future poetry upon her bones.

She had the words – for one of future’s branches –

Should other poets trim the tree just right

With all their wind and lightning, rhythmic storms

That shape the art by felling forests. Then

She’ll be discovered, newly unforgotten.

Agrarianism vs. The Life Well-Lived

In America, Arts & Letters, Conservatism, News and Current Events, Politics on January 16, 2012 at 12:05 am

James Banks is a doctoral student studying Renaissance and Restoration English literature at the University of Rochester. He also contributes to the American Interest Online. He has been a Fellow with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute Honors Program; in addition to The Literary Lawyer, he has written for the Intercollegiate Review, First Principles and The Heritage Foundation’s blog The Foundry. A native of Idaho’s panhandle, he lives in upstate New York and serves in the New York Army National Guard.

Agrarianism has been an organized antagonist of American capitalism for longer than Marxism has, and it provides a welcome avenue for those who reject the gospel of a bourgeoisie paradise but are averse to the cosmopolitan and authoritarian tendencies of Marxism. It has occasionally found its way into public policy, such as the Second Bush Administration’s efforts to turn all Americans into property owners (though, by that point, “the family farm” had become a suburban home with a two car garage and white picket fence). Most recently, a debate boiled up in the blogosphere over a comment made by First Things editor Joe Carter arguing that Agrarianism was essentially utopian in nature.

Front Porch Republic—which, from what I can make out, is not explicitly Agrarian but is highly sympathetic to its tenets—was quick to come back with a number of repartees. Nonetheless, these repartees (for this reader anyway) only accentuated some of the problems with the ideology that they sought to defend. Front Porch Republic’s best contribution to the debate is Mark T. Mitchell’s. Professor Mitchell is an author of considerable ability and one who—in as far as I can make out—comes pretty close to living the philosophy that he advocates. I would not question the consistency of his views, just the correctness.

In his discussion of Wendell Berry’s Agrarianism, Mitchell writes:

The agrarian is guided by gratitude. He recognizes the giftedness of creation and accepts the great and awful responsibility to steward it well. Such a recognition “calls for prudence, humility, good work, propriety of scale.”[3] In the use of the land, soil, water, and non-human creatures, the final arbiter, according to Berry, is not human will but nature itself.[4] But this is not to suggest that Berry is some sort of pantheist. Instead, “the agrarian mind is, at bottom, a religious mind.” The agrarian recognizes that the natural world is a gift, and gifts imply a giver. “The agrarian mind begins with the love of fields and ramifies in good farming, good cooking, good eating, and gratitude to God.” By contrast, the “industrial mind “begins with ingratitude, and ramifies in the destruction of farms and forests.”

I can sympathize with the desire to live close to the soil (and would purchase a farm could I afford it). The problem with the argument, though, is that it implies a fundamental distinction between the “agrarian mind” and the “industrial mind”; in truth, the difference between the two is one of degree rather than fundamental difference. Perhaps the agrarian mind “recognizes that the natural world is a gift,” but does it recognize it as such more than does the mind of the hunter/gatherer? And, if not, why should we not go further and work to incorporate elements of the hunter/gatherer’s economy into our postmodern existence? Read the rest of this entry »

The Emersonian Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

In American History, Art, Arts & Letters, Emerson, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Poetry, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, The Supreme Court, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on October 26, 2011 at 9:16 am

Allen Mendenhall

Writers on Holmes have forgotten just how influential poetry and literature were to him, and how powerfully literary his Supreme Court dissents really are.  The son of the illustrious poet by the same name, young Holmes, or Wendell, fell in love with the heroic tales of Sir Walter Scott, and the “enthusiasm with which Holmes in boyhood lost himself in the world of Walter Scott did not diminish in maturity.”[1]  Wendell was able to marry his skepticism with his romanticism, and this marriage, however improbable, illuminated his appreciation for ideas past and present, old and new.  “His aesthetic judgment,” says Mark DeWolfe Howe, author of the most definitive biography of Holmes and one of Holmes’s former law clerks, “was responsive to older modes of expression and earlier moods of feeling than those which were dominant at the fin de siècle and later, yet his mind found its principle nourishment in the thought of his own times, and was generally impatient of those who believe that yesterday’s insight is adequate for the needs of today.”[2]  Holmes transformed and adapted the ideas of his predecessors while transforming and adapting—one might say troping—milestone antecedents of aestheticism, most notably the works of Emerson.  “[I]t is clear,” says Louis Menand, “that Holmes had adopted Emerson as his special inspiration.”[3]      

Classically educated at the best schools, Wendell was subject to his father’s elaborate discussions of aesthetics, which reinforced the “canons of taste with the heavier artillery of morals.”[4]  In addition to Scott, Wendell enjoyed reading Sylvanus Cobb, Charles Lamb’s Dramatic Poets, The Prometheus of Aeschylus,[5] and Plato’s Dialogues.[6]  Wendell expressed a lifelong interest in art, and his drawings as a young man exhibit a “considerable talent.”[7]  He declared in his Address to the Harvard Alumni Association Class of 1861 that life “is painting a picture, not doing a sum.”[8]  He would later use art to clarify his philosophy to a friend: “But all the use of life is in specific solutions—which cannot be reached through generalities any more than a picture can be painted by knowing some rules of method.  They are reached by insight, tact and specific knowledge.”[9]     

At Harvard College, Wendell began to apply his facility with language to oft-discussed publications in and around Cambridge.  In 1858, the same year that Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. gifted five volumes of Emerson to Wendell,[10] Wendell published an essay called “Books” in the Harvard undergraduate literary journal.[11]  Wendell celebrated Emerson in the piece, saying that Emerson had “set him on fire.”  Menand calls this essay “an Emersonian tribute to Emerson.”[12] 

Holmes had always admired Emerson.  Legend has it that, when still a boy, Holmes ran into Emerson on the street and said, in no uncertain terms, “If I do anything, I shall owe a great deal to you.”  Holmes was more right than he probably knew. 

Holmes, who never gave himself over to ontological (or deontological) ideas about law as an existent, material, absolute, or discoverable phenomenon, bloomed and blossomed out of Emersonian thought, which sought to “unsettle all things”[13] and which offered a poetics of transition that was “not a set of ideas or concepts but rather a general attitude toward ideas and concepts.”[14]  Transition is not the same thing as transformation.  Transition signifies a move between two clear states whereas transformation covers a broader and more fluent way of thinking about change.  Holmes, although transitional, was also transformational.  He revised American jurisprudence until it became something it previously was not.  Feeding Holmes’s appetite for change was “dissatisfaction with all definite, definitive formulations, be they concepts, metaphors, or larger formal structures.”[15]  This dissatisfaction would seem to entail a rejection of truth, but Emerson and Holmes, unlike Rorty and the neopragmatists much later, did not explode “truth” as a meaningful category of discourse.  Read the rest of this entry »

Poetry by Troy Camplin

In Art, Artist, Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Creativity, Humanities, Poetry, Writing on September 20, 2011 at 7:58 pm
Troy Camplin holds a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Texas at Dallas. He has taught English in middle school, high school, and college, and is currently taking care of his children at home. He is the author of Diaphysics, an interdisciplinary work on systems philosophy; other projects include the application of F.A. Hayek’s spontaneous order theory to ethics, the arts, and literature. His play “Almost Ithacad” won the PIA Award from the Cyberfest at Dallas Hub Theater.
 

 

Introduction

In the unbelievable and unknown –
In the unrefined and those without thought –
In the unremarkable and unwise –
We find our leaders
We find our heroes
We find our artists
I see it – there is a sun on the horizon –
The rosy fingers of an ancient dawn –
A rebirth of everything from everything we have torn apart –
A world in fragments – no longer a world –
Fragments gathered up –
A world reborn from the fragments –
A world reborn from the past, the ancients –
Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Africans, Arabs, Indians, and aborigines –
Yet –
I am not a postmodernist
And I am not a classicist
And I am not a romantic
And I am not a modernist
And I am not a naturalist
No –
I am each of these – and none
I am the moon and the sun
I am the earth and the sea
I am woman and man
Seriousness and fun
Fragments and unity
Plurality and one

An Astrology

I stand, stare at the Cantor dust of stars,
Stand alone in the open field of grass
That glows in the silver of the moon brass
And dark emerald under a rising Mars.
I wage a silent war within my mind
As I wait in vain for a happiness
These stars cannot bring me. My loneliness
Soaks into the ground to be left behind.
I turn away from Mars and search the sky –
The false-star Venus must be out among
The stars and darkness, a beacon for me
To connect my life to, so I can fly
And leave this lonely-soaked ground a far-flung
Memory. I want to love and to be.

 

Etre Sartre

In France was an atheist, superb
At finding new ways to disturb –
A communist brand,
A Nazi’s friend, and
Philosophy based on a linking verb.

Power Made Perfect in Weakness

In Art, Arts & Letters, Communication, Creative Writing, Emerson, Essays, Humanities, Law, Literature, Poetry, Shakespeare, Teaching on August 28, 2011 at 1:30 pm

Allen Mendenhall

I wrote the following piece about three weeks ago, while I was vacationing in Destin, Florida, with my family.

If we expect others to rely on our fairness and justice we must show that we rely on their fairness and justice.

Calvin Coolidge

My wife and I are on vacation in Florida.  Yesterday morning, over a cup of coffee and a doughnut, sitting on the balcony and reading the newspaper amid sounds of seagulls and the grating roll of morning waves, I noted that one Michael Stone—a blind man, XTERRA champion, and 10-time Ironman triathlete who recently published a book, Eye Envy—will speak at the University of North Florida on August 13.  I haven’t read Stone’s book, but it’s apparently a resource not only for those suffering from vision-loss any degenerative disease.

Stone began to lose his sight in 2004.  His blindness is a result of a rare disease called cone-rod dystrophy.  Despite his handicap, he has accomplished amazing things, but not without the help of others.  During races, he relies on guides, who shout directions and warnings to him.

I’ll never understand why God makes some people handicapped and others not, why some must rely on others, and some must be relied on.  Someday and for a time, everyone relies on someone or something and is relied on by someone or something.      Read the rest of this entry »

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