Versus to Verses
April 05, 2004
More news on the "Lawyers and Poetry" front. Sunday's Los Angeles Times reported on the efforts of the Daily Journal -- a law-oriented newspaper with editions in Los Angeles and San Francisco -- to highlight attorneys' attempts to serve the muse with a new weekly column alliteratively entitled "Barristers and Bards."
In his introduction, Martin Berg, the San Francisco edition's editor in chief (and now poetry editor), writes, 'Both lawyers and poets often deal with conflict and complex emotions, in the context of precise language and form.' The poetry column, he notes, is a way to show readers 'another dimension of the lives of lawyers.'
Lawyer-poets have a strong lineage in American history. Wallace Stevens, Edgar Lee Masters and Archibald MacLeish all practiced law; Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
There's a myth that lawyers' briefs and articles are 'badly written, verbose and in Latin,' says the L.A. edition's legal editor Jordan Elgrably. Another misconception, he adds, is that lawyers are 'not good with language, except for arguments.
'So the Daily Journal is a perfect forum to expose the work [of lawyer-poets] to a wider public.'
The column's inaugural poem, 'Commonwealth v. Wright' by Philadelphia attorney Richard S. Bank, describes a young girl's tragic death in language as eloquent as many a closing argument: 'A few days before the incident / Lorraine, age thirteen / had come to Mrs. Fanning's apartment/ in the middle of the night / with her brothers and sisters still in bedclothes / explaining that the appellant had attempted / some sort of sexual contact….'
Although Bank's poem has a legal focus, 'Barristers and Bards' is not limited to court sonnets or blank verse from the bar. Anyone with a law degree can submit a poem.
Realistically, the "wider public" to which the versifying advocates will be exposed is a public made up almost entirely of other lawyers: the Daily Journal's usual focus on purely law-related news does not attract a particularly broad audience outside of the profession, and the ability of interested readers to track down the new poetry column will be hampered more than somewhat by the Journal's backward-looking policy of making none of its content available to non-subscribers online. Not that there's anything unusual about lawyers speaking mostly to one another.
[Earlier installments on this topic available here and here.]