Toughen your legal writing with a poetry lesson

Posted on 02-12-2016 by
Tags: writinglegally , writing , Top Stories


Are you too lawyerly to wield a little poetry? If so, you’re neglecting a legal writing weapon. Even the Supreme Court understands the persuasive strike of verse. In Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, 514 U.S. 211 (U.S. 1995), the majority said:

Separation of powers, a distinctively American political doctrine, profits from the advice authored by a distinctively American poet: Good fences make good neighbors. [citing Frost’s “Mending Wall”]

To which Justice Breyer replied in his concurrence:

As the majority invokes the advice of an American poet, one might consider as well that poet's caution, for he not only notes that "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," but also writes, "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know/ What I was walling in or walling out."

And in Browning-Ferris Indus. v. Kelco Disposal, 492 U.S. 257 (U.S. 1989), Justice O'Connor summoned Shakespeare (poet & playwright) for her dissent:

William Shakespeare, an astute observer of English law and politics, did not distinguish between fines and amercements in the plays he wrote in the late 16th century. In Romeo and Juliet, published in 1597, Prince Escalus uses the words "amerce" and "fine" interchangeably in warning the Montagues and the Capulets not to shed any more blood on the streets of Verona ….

Justice Blackmun, in a footnote to the opinion, poetically replied:

As to the partial dissent's reliance on the Bard, … we can only observe:

Though Shakespeare, of course,

Knew the Law of his time,

He was foremost a poet,

In search of a rhyme.

Poetry’s Power for Professionals

The poet is defined as a “person possessing special powers of imagination or expression.” Many lawyers and businesspeople are imaginative and expressive. These qualities aren’t limited to the Frosts and Angelous of the world.

You’re making a mistake if you wall off poetry, afraid to pluck it from the poet’s domain. In the Harvard Business Review, John Coleman spotlights several ways in which poetry serves professionals. In terms of writing, he says:

Reading and writing poetry also develops creativity. …  Dana Gioia says, “As [I rose] in business … I felt I had an enormous advantage over my colleagues because I had a background in imagination, in language and in literature.” … Clare Morgan, in her book What Poetry Brings to Business,” cites a study showing that poems caused readers to generate nearly twice as many alternative meanings as “stories,” and poetry readers further developed greater “self-monitoring” strategies that enhanced the efficacy of their thinking processes.

The Lawyerly Poet / The Poetic Lawyer

Poetry, as noted above, can kindle your legal creativity. Or if you’re as daring as the Supreme Court, poetry can pump up your legal persuasion. If all this rings a little too “poetic,” poetry, at the very least, can teach you a few lessons on better legal writing.

Try these two poetry books to better your legal writing:

#1. A Poetry Handbook, by Mary Oliver

Oliver’s Handbook  offers a terrific overview of poetry and poetic techniques. She dives into things like imagery, diction, and form. Of particular importance to the legal writer, Oliver expands on the use of sound and sound devices.  While maybe too granular for some, word-sounds, like typography, can impact legal readers. For example, in discussing the difference between synonyms “rock” and “stone,” Oliver says:

Both [rock and stone] use the vowel o (short in rock, long in stone), both are words of one syllable, and there the similarity ends. Stone has a mute near the beginning of the word that then is softened by a vowel. Rock ends with the mute k. That k “suddenly stops the breath.” There is a seed of silence at the edge of the sound. … In my mind’s eye, I see the weather-softened roundness of stone, the juts and angled edges of rock.

#2. The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong, by David Orr

Orr’s book is part Robert Frost biography, part deep dive into the dangers of interpretation. Like a trademark that’s been genericized, Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken has been “interprecized” into something it might not be - so much so that it’s erroneously referred to as “The Road Less Travelled.”

Orr dissects The Road Not Taken, offering an in-depth study on Frost’s word selection and his intent behind those words. For instance, Orr examines:

· Frost’s choice of “road” instead of “path” or “trail”;

· the effect of the “sigh” in “I shall be telling this with a sigh”; and

· the meaning of the undefined “Road Not Taken”.

Legal writers can benefit from Orr’s lessons on word choice, ambiguity and interpretation.  For example, consider the possible interpretations of “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood”, the first line of Frost’s poem. As pointed out in the New York Observer:

it’s not that clear what Frost meant. While he [Orr] assumes Frost meant a fork, the poet could very well have meant a crossroads, though it’s unlikely you would come upon one in a wood (let alone a yellow wood).

Poetry and the Law Can Play Nice

Poetry, on the surface, reflects the law’s opposite: that which is laid-back, unshackled, and unstructured.

Maybe so, but opposites can complement each other.

Poetic writing can complement and enhance legal writing. However, it’s not a one way street. Poets might be surprised to know that the law can enhance poetry and literature – even the writings of Shakespeare.

It was Shakespeare who penned the oft-quoted line: ''The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.'' (Henry VI, Part 2). Of this perceived jibe, the Supreme Court - our highest court of literary criticism - had this to say:

[The] statement ("The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers") was spoken by a rebel, not a friend of liberty. … As a careful reading of that text will reveal, Shakespeare insightfully realized that disposing of lawyers is a step in the direction of a totalitarian form of government. Walters v. Nat'l Ass'n of Radiation Survivors, 473 U.S. 305 (U.S. 1985)

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