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.

Angus was resting his bones in the warm sun, watching the man and the boy.

The man was deeply tanned, his face wrinkled, his hands work-worn but strong.  He looked too thin to be lugging baskets and tools, but that was what he was doing, and the boy was helping.

A little boat rocked gently in the water nearby.

Around him other fishermen were also working: tending to their boats, loading and unloading, cleaning equipment.  The men returning from a day on the water and who had been lucky strutted proudly to the stalls at the end of the pier.  From time to time the sounds of engines and clatter and sea birds quieted enough that Angus could hear the virile strains of haggling at the stalls.  The men who argued best – or loudest – would eat well that evening, with their whole families.  The men who protested timidly, or who returned from the water empty handed, might not eat at all.

Angus watched the man and the boy.

From time to time they paused and looked up at the pier, to the marlin carcass hanging from a post.  Much of it had been eaten away, Angus guessed, by sharks as whoever had caught it towed it to shore.  It was a shame.  Judging by the size of the bones that remained, it had been an enormous fish, possibly the largest Angus had ever seen.  To have caught it would have been an impressive feat.  He wondered who had.

A man strode quickly across the sand now, to where the old man and the boy were working.  He spoke briefly to the boy, and the boy nodded his head and began to gather belongings.  The boy waved at the old man as he turned and walked away with his – what?  Angus thought the boy’s father had probably come to collect him.  Perhaps to begin their day’s work together.  The old man finished his work alone, climbed into his little boat, and began to row.

At first Angus thought he wouldn’t, couldn’t, make his spindly arms a match for the pounding surf, but the old man expertly guided his boat over and through the waves until he reached the calmer water.  Then he sat for a moment and took a drink of something.  As he put down his bottle he must have seen Angus watching him from the pier.  Their eyes met, even across that distance, and finally the old man raised his hand and waved.  Then he took up his oars again and went on rowing, until Angus could only barely make out the boat, a speck now against the water.

The sun beat down on both of them.  The hours passed.  The sun set on both of them.  They dreamed of lions.

*Characters “borrowed” from Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

And that’s all for my tribute to Angus this month.  I hope you liked it.  Check out the October 2012 edition of the ABA Journal, wherein other people honor Professor McElhaney and Angus’ twenty-five year run.