Earlier this week in my Research: Deep and Wide post, I wrote about the importance of reading for breadth as well as depth. I referenced quotes from two poets, Susan Howe and Kathleen Ossip, as examples of both kinds of research. It turns out (small world!) that someone forwarded my post to Ms. Ossip, and then this happened:


Of course I immediately whipped up a scathing but hilarious response that alluded to Bukowski’s “poetry readings” and taunted academics about needing to get out a little more. Then I put it aside for a bit while I cooled off; that’s the advice I give my clients when they’re busting down barn doors and I try to abide by it myself.

I’m glad I did, because I’ve revised my response some and this is it.

First, permit me to point out, Ms. Ossip, that I never held you up as a role model for lawyers. For one thing, lawyers work really hard, even during the summer. (So this is still a bit snarky, but much, much less than it was originally.) I used your quote to suggest that good ideas often originate from disparate information absorbed over time. I drew it from a longer quote in which you were discussing how you researched your collection, “The Cold War,” a copy of which I actually have on a shelf in my living room. I liked it, which is part of the reason I was so pleased to see you quoted in Jeff Skinner’s book. Here’s proof:


I included Mary Ruefle’s “Madness, Rack and Honey” in the photo so that a) it would be clear that I wasn’t using a stock photo and b) it would be clear that I am an actual, honest to God consumer of poetry. I go to work, earn money, pay my mortgage and use what’s left over to buy books of poetry and the Kenyon Review. And stuff.

If you read any of the other posts on my blog, you saw that I use literature and poetry pretty frequently. I’ve managed to cobble together a little knowledge of poetry despite not having obtained an M.F.A., I enjoy it, and I like to share it. I believe there is a place for poetry outside of academia, or at least I hope there is. Maybe I should ask you that question. Is it still okay for folks like me to say things about poetry? Or is that a privilege reserved to the faculty room?

Also, maybe you forgot that there are lawyers (and doctors, and clerics, and spinster women in Amherst) who write poetry. Maybe you are even familiar with some of them: Wallace Stevens, Lawrence Joseph, Edgar Lee Masters, Archibald MacLeish. Joseph doesn’t practice, but he’s not an academic either because he only teaches at a law school. And let us not forget Ernest Hemingway, who was not a lawyer or a poet but who did, I understand, chase ambulances at one time. I don’t include myself in that company by any stretch of the imagination. I’m just saying that there is some precedent for lawyers mixing themselves up with poetry. We’re not as boorish as you might think. We don’t even require animal sacrifice at ABA-accredited law schools anymore, although it’s still available as an elective.

My earlier draft came from an insecure, defensive place, because, yep, I do write poetry myself, and it isn’t pleasant when someone you look up to mocks you on Twitter. (Although in fairness and for the record, my post went out to my 2,200+ followers, and yours to your 250. I’m resonating with somebody, apparently.) Then it dawned on me: I’m a rarity in the world of poetry. I have money to buy stuff. And it’s my actual money, not a grant or a fellowship or a gift from Yaddo. I get to write what I want without using up the limited financial resources available to support writers based in academia. The fact that I have built a little audience for my writing means that I get to share poetry – not mine, because I’m not that arrogant, but poems and poets that I really like – with people who don’t subscribe to the Kenyon Review. The last time I checked, that is a good thing, as Martha would say. I’m going to keep doing it. That’s WTF.

The great myth about the good old days – of law practice and in general – is that there were good old days at all. 

The media has of late been declaring Biglaw dead.  Downward pressure on the hourly rate is encouraging partners to depart for smaller firms.  Even white shoe firms are talking about alternative fee arrangements.  The notion that clients should not be billed for the time of inexperienced associates is understandably gaining some traction.  Firms have laid off and deferred associates, slashed summer programs, and cut back on hiring.  A vocal if disorganized bunch of law students and never-associates are grumbling online about the law school “scam.”    

But realistically nothing has changed.  That’s what I think when I read Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology

Masters was a prolific writer with novels, biographies, and plays under his belt, but he is best known for his collection of poems memorializing the residents of a fictional town.  Spoon River was set in Fulton County, Illinois, not far from where Masters spent most of his life practicing law.  For about five years – well before the Scopes or the Leopold and Loeb trials – Masters partnered with Clarence Darrow.  (Darrow himself, despite his reputation today as a hero of labor and the underdog, once represented a Chicago landlord in his effort to have a tenant committed to an insane asylum because she had not paid her rent.  Not really relevant, but an interesting fact.)  During this time, most biographies of Masters report simply that he “defended the poor.”

But as lawyers we know this means he probably collected very little money.  The two quarrelled; Darrow’s indictment for perjury and jury tampering didn’t help things (although Masters conducted depositions in Darrow’s defense.  See the transcript here: http://darrow.law.umn.edu/trials.php?tid=17 .)

Masters and Darrow parted ways and Masters formed his own firm.  During this time Masters began writing the poems that would become Spoon River Anthology

The poems were serialized before they were collected and published.  It’s not the sort of thing you read in a single sitting.  Although Masters befriended the likes of Carl Sandburg and Theodore Dreiser, his own poems, I think, reflect a wry lawyer’s pragmatism about the people he represented.  No modernism here.  The voices of Spoon River sound like the voices of the people who flow in and out of any law office, as clients or otherwise. 

Keep in mind that while Masters was practicing law and writing his poems, the Bolsheviks were seizing control of Russia, the Boer Wars were being fought in South Africa, Standard Oil was under antitrust scrutiny and unionized labor was transforming the American economy.  Women in the United States and Britain were demanding the right to vote.  The Constitution was amended to permit a federal income tax.  The Federal Reserve was created.  The Lusitania was sunk.

It was a time of unprecedented change.  But what concerned Masters in his poetry were people like “Jack McGuire”, who would have been lynched if his lawyer hadn’t struck a back room deal with a judge – http://spoonriveranthology.net/spoon/river/view/Jack_McGuire.  Or Lydia Puckett, whose spurned lover “stole the hogs and went to war” – http://spoonriveranthology.net/spoon/river/view/Lydia_Puckett.  Or Doctor Meyers, who went to prison for performing an illegal abortion –http://spoonriveranthology.net/spoon/river/view/Doctor_Meyers.  Personally, I imagine each of these characters sitting in a chair on the other side of Masters’ desk, although that probably isn’t fair to him as a writer. 

There are plenty of parallels in our modern world to the early twentieth century.  I like to think that Masters’ focus in the midst of all this social and economic turmoil was in the right place.  Lawyers have seen change before.  It comes in cycles.  We call it outsourcing or contract lawyering or what have you, but what matters now is what mattered to Masters: the relationship between lawyer and client, lawyer and lawyer, lawyer and community.  We bring boats to the sea change, we adapt, and we go on.