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Lawyer Poets

While researching the paint chip poetry exercise, I was amused to come across the “Lawyer Poet” version of the Magnetic Poetry Kit.

Like many bookish college students of my time, I too had the original Magnetic Poetry Kit (along with a handmade version made by friends in my first-year dorm that enabled us to use our inside jokes). However, I hadn’t realized the extent of the franchise now 25 years later: there are themed kits for Bacon Poets, ‘Merica lovers, and hedgehog enthusiasts.

The description printed on the Lawyer Poet box muses: “What other profession is more concerned with the nuance of language, the intricately-crafted sentence, the passage that needs to be re-read a dozen times to be even remotely understood?” Well, leave it to me to let one cheeky bit of marketing copy send me on a thoughtful journey. What well-known poets have also been lawyers? I wondered. For the curious, here’s what I found (along with links to their poetry):

Probably the most well-known Lawyer Poet was the German polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I had always thought of prominent 20th century poet Wallace Stevens as an insurance executive, but it turns out he also has a law degree (which may be no surprise if you’re more of a Stevens fan than I am). The later modernist Archibald MacLeish (“A poem should not mean / But be”) was also a lawyer.

Going a little further back in American poetry, we also have James Weldon Johnson (active in the Harlem Renaissance and also an early leader of the NAACP), Edgar Lee Masters, William Cullen Bryant (whose “Thanatopsis” was a curriculum staple when I was in high school), and James Russell Lowell (while he graduated from law school, it’s not clear that he ever practiced).

John Donne was perhaps the most famous English Lawyer Poet, though his classmate, the lesser-known Sir John Davies, is a more colorful example. He was expelled from law school for bad behavior, but after his poetry earned him the attention of Queen Elizabeth I, she requested he continue his studies. About four years later Davies ended up disbarred for hitting a former law school classmate with a cudgel, apparently but was readmitted to the bar a few years later after a public apology. Sir Walter Scott is another Lawyer Poet who clearly deserves mention.

If you’re feeling glum about your own accomplishments and productivity, I recommend you skip the next two paragraphs on contemporary Lawyer Poets. Either the legal career or the literary career of Lawrence Joseph (not to be confused with another lawyer, Lawrence J. Joseph) would be enviable on its own. The progression of the titles of his poetry books is interesting: Shouting at No One; Curriculum Vitae; Before Our Eyes; Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos; Into It; So Where Are We?; A Certain Clarity (that last one published in 2020).

Somehow, the career of poet Seth Abramson hits harder (perhaps because he’s about my own age). He has not only published six books of poetry, but also served as founding co-editor for the series Best American Experimental Writing (2014-2020), put out five electronic music albums (all in 2023!), maintained a listing of creative writing MFA programs from 2007 to 2014, is a long-time journalist who was a CNN legal analyst during the Trump administration (Playboy called him a pioneer of the Twitter thread), and published four nonfiction books critical of Trump. He’s made a number of controversial steps and taken a number of controversial stances (and I only have a Wikipedia-level understanding of his work, so I can’t weigh in on any of that), but you can’t deny he’s gotten things done and gotten attention.

Other contemporary Lawyer Poets include Martín Espada and Mary Leader (see an interesting inteview with her here). I know I’m missing many. If you want more, Professor James R. Elkins has compiled an impressive, extensive list.

I was going to include some musings on writing legal documents vs writing poems: my career and life experience has involved an above-average amount of tangling with contracts, and I once, without professional help, rewrote an indemnity clause sent to me by a freelancing client (which to a lawyer I imagine sounds something like, “Hey doc, check it out, I set my own broken leg!”). However, I have never even given much thought to applying to law school, let alone enrolled and attempted to pass the Bar. I’ll admit I don’t know what I don’t know before I’m schooled on the finer points by someone who does. But, lawyers who end up coming across this post, I’d love to hear your own thoughts on these different kinds of writing and of the intersections and differences between lawyers and poets. Lawyer Poet Harold Anthony Lloyd has one answer in this essay.

Are there commonalities, I wonder, in the way Lawyer Poets approach their poems? I suspect not, but I’m curious whether anyone has a theory!

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