MEREDITH CALIMAN Reviews
Poetry of the Law: From Chaucer to the Present Edited by David Kader and Michael Stanford
(University Of Iowa Press, Iowa City, 2010)
In law school, one of my professors compared doctors and lawyers by saying, “Doctors bury their mistakes; lawyers publish theirs.” I have found that doctors don’t watch movies and television shows about medical matters while lawyers are willing to watch both comedies and dramas about the law. Someone has taken the time and effort to place us at center stage, for which we are both grateful and not surprised. Assuming that the ready-made audience for this first selective anthology of poetry about the law is lawyers (like the editors themselves), Poetry Of The Law: From Chaucer to the Present should be an absorbing experience to lawyers if to no one else.
Unlike legal briefs or judicial prose, the poems in this anthology are not written by lawyers (with some exceptions) but about lawyers or the law. The task of lawyers is to be “mouthpieces” for others, yet in many of these poems the writers are serving as the spokesmen of society, providing an opportunity to see our profession from a different perspective. What, then, are the poets trying to say about their subject? What is the presumed audience to take from the words? And what right have these untrained outsiders to speak about matters which we imagine to be beyond the understanding of most non-legal mortals?
As the editors inform in the Introduction, the poems fall into six categories: poems about lawyers and judges, poems about citizens in the legal system, poems about historical trials, poems about punishment, poems exploring legal concepts and poems applying legal metaphors to non-legal subjects. The 100 poems are organized chronologically, with approximately two-thirds written by authors from the Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries. The earlier poets have names that are easily recognized, such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Donne, and even William Blackstone – who is familiar to legal professionals if not the general public. In the middle section are offerings from equally well-known artists including Byron, Shelley, Browning, Dickenson, Carroll, Kipling and Wilde. Blunted by rhyme and traditional poetics, the criticism of the earlier poems are more gentle in delivery.
The tone turns much sharper beginning with Edgar Lee Master’s “Butch Weldy”, which is the first of the modern poems. It, and the majority of those that follow, accuse the legal system, those who practice in it and those who take knowing advantage of it of callousness, soulessness and cynicism. If one were trying to influence a sensitive or civic-minded person whether or not go to law school, sentencing him or her or hir to read the later poems would likely turn their thoughts to something more productive, like learning plumbing.
Reproachful as they might be collectively, the later poems also introduced me to Charles Wright’s “What I Am Trying To Say”, twelve lines of hope for a still-idealistic advocate; Brad Leithauser’s “Law Clerk, 1979" who stands for the too-many of my lawyer friends who hate what they do (but unlike Brad have not the courage to try something else), and Glyn Maxwell’s “The Sentence” which reminds that injustice works in both directions.
When asked to write this review, I first wondered that enough poems had been written about the law to have warranted a book of them, and I imagined them to be about the majesty of legal principals and the nobility of its practitioners. Almost unanimously, the poems collected here say that encounters with lawyers and the law are miserable experiences for those who do not willingly seek them. Justice may be blind and the system is undoubtedly brutal. It is a system that does not belong to those who work in it for a living – it belongs to those who may encounter it only briefly or rarely, and it treats its owners badly.
Doctors have increasingly impressive toys to do their jobs and receive training in bedside manner. Lawyers, like poets, have only words to practice their craft. Lawyers should therefore read poetry to be reminded with their own tools of their impact on others. The poets have spoken. It was tough to listen. It was a depressing but enlightening read.
Meredith Caliman is a native of Los Angeles who has not been able to escape except for four years at Princeton University where she obtained an AB in Politics and a year in San Diego as a law clerk to the Honorable Earl B. Gilliam of the United States District Court for the Southern District of California following her graduation from UCLA School of Law. For 15 years, Ms. Caliman worked at small, medium and large law firms in the Los Angeles area before starting a solo practice focused on small business in 2002. She received training as a mediator from the Strauss Institute of Pepperdine University. Currently, she attempts to terrorize business and paralegal students as an adjunct professor of law at El Camino College. Ms. Caliman lives in Torrance, California with her husband and son, both of whom are fond of golf. The whole family is involved in Little League Baseball either as coach, scorekeeper, team mom or player.