A Lawyer and A Poet

April is National Poetry Month and to celebrate, I did a little research into attorneys who made a name for themselves as poets. There were dozens who cropped up in my searches, but the four below intrigued me the most. Please enjoy this small sampling of truly outstanding poetry.

Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982)

On the day he was promoted to partner in his firm, attorney Archibald MacLeish resigned. He felt that the practice of law was detracting from his ability to write poetry. Can you imagine the chagrin of his parents when they got that phone call? But MacLeish went on to have an illustrious career as a poet, winning two Pulitzer Prizes, serving as the Librarian of Congress, the director of the War Department’s Office of Facts and Figures, Harvard’s Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory and Simpson Lecturer at Amherst College.

Ars Poetica

BY ARCHIBALD MACLEISH

A poem should be palpable and mute

As a globed fruit,

Dumb

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone

Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless

As the flight of birds.

*

A poem should be motionless in time

As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases

Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,

Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time

As the moon climbs.

*

A poem should be equal to:

Not true.

For all the history of grief

An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love

The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean

But be.

 

Pauli Murray (1910-1985)

Reverend Dr. Pauli Murray was an American civil rights advocate, feminist, lawyer and ordained priest. She founded the National Organization for Women and was the first African American woman to be awarded the J.D.S degree from Yale University. Quite the impressive resume on its own, but it takes on a whole new significance when you understand the era in which all of this occurred – the 1930’s. She also received law degrees from Howard University and the University of California. She taught at the University of Ghana and served as president of Benedict College before deciding to tackle sexual discrimination by becoming a priest in the Episcopal Church.

Prophecy

BY PAULI MURRAY

I sing of a new American

Separate from all others,

Yet enlarged and diminished by all others.

I am the child of kings and serfs, freemen and slaves,

Having neither superiors nor inferiors,

Progeny of all colors, all cultures, all systems, all beliefs.

I have been enslaved, yet my spirit is unbound.

I have been cast aside, but I sparkle in the darkness.

I have been slain but live on in the river of history.

I seek no conquest, no wealth, no power, no revenge:

I seek only discovery

Of the illimitable heights and depths of my own being.

 

Francis Scott Key (1779-1843)

Perhaps one of the best-known lawyer poets is Francis Scott Key, who penned The Defense of Fort M’Henry, which would later become our national anthem. Key studied law at St. John’s College and set up a private practice in his home county in Maryland. Though he objected to the hostilities that would later be known as the War of 1812, Key nonetheless served in the Georgetown Light Field Artillery. British forces captured Washington D.C. in 1814 and Key was sent to help negotiate the release of several prisoners. While in D.C., Key witnessed the British day-long bombardment of Fort McHenry, which lead to his iconic poem. The poem was named the official national anthem on March 3, 1931 by President Herbert Hoover.

Defence of Fort M'Henry

BY FRANCIS SCOTT KEY

O! say can you see, by the dawn's early light,

What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming,

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,

O'er the ramparts we watch'd, were so gallantly streaming?

And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there —

O! say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave

O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?

 

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,

Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,

What is that which the breeze o'er the towering steep,

As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?

Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,

In full glory reflected now shines on the stream —

'Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave

O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

 

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore

That the havock of war and the battle's confusion

A home and a country should leave us no more?

Their blood has wash'd out their foul foot-steps' pollution,

No refuge could save the hireling and slave,

From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave;

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave

O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

 

O! thus be it ever when freemen shall stand

Between their lov'd home, and the war's desolation,

Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the heav'n-rescued land

Praise the power that hath made and preserv'd us a nation!

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

And this be our motto — "In God is our trust!"

And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave

O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

 

 

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

Wallace Stevens had literary ambitions from an early age. He attended Harvard University for several years, not working toward a degree but simply soaking in the literary atmosphere. He wrote for the Harvard Advocate and eventually became president of the Harvard Monthly. In 1900 he left Harvard due to a lack of family funds and agreed to pursue a “more prudent line of study”, entering the New York School of Law in 1901. After joining the New York Bar in 1904, he settled into the field of insurance law, whose financial stability allowed him to focus on his writing in his free time. In his lifetime and after, he was credited as one of America’s most famous poets.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

BY WALLACE STEVENS

I

Among twenty snowy mountains,

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird.

II

I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.

III

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.

It was a small part of the pantomime.

IV

A man and a woman

Are one.

A man and a woman and a blackbird

Are one.

V

I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.

VI

Icicles filled the long window

With barbaric glass.

The shadow of the blackbird

Crossed it, to and fro.

The mood

Traced in the shadow

An indecipherable cause.

VII

O thin men of Haddam,

Why do you imagine golden birds?

Do you not see how the blackbird

Walks around the feet

Of the women about you?

VIII

I know noble accents

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;

But I know, too,

That the blackbird is involved

In what I know.

IX

When the blackbird flew out of sight,

It marked the edge

Of one of many circles.

X

At the sight of blackbirds

Flying in a green light,

Even the bawds of euphony

Would cry out sharply.

XI

He rode over Connecticut

In a glass coach.

Once, a fear pierced him,

In that he mistook

The shadow of his equipage

For blackbirds.

XII

The river is moving.

The blackbird must be flying.

XIII

It was evening all afternoon.

It was snowing

And it was going to snow.

The blackbird sat

In the cedar-limbs.