Michael P. Maslanka, assistant professor of law, UNT Dallas College of Law. (Danny Hurley)
Feeling down as a lawyer? Seeking transcendence? Needing a mindset transplant? Here’s a suggestion: read poetry. It’s an ideal partner: short, portable, accessible. And here’s the bonus room: read a poem dozens of times and come away with a new and fresh understanding each time. A gift that keeps on giving. Here are three lawyer dilemmas and three poems from Jack Gilbert to illuminate resolutions.
We absorb the sorrows and pains of our clients. The battered spouse in the shelter; the unjustly convicted in a prison cell; the wrongly terminated facing eviction from their home. In “A Brief for the Defense,” Gilbert argues persuasively that we must not crater to despair. The dilemma is put starkly: “Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere/If babies are not starving someplace, they are starving somewhere else with flies in their nostrils.” But Gilbert asserts that we must, as Auden advised, “stagger onward rejoicing.” Why? Because that is what God wants “otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not be made so fine/the Bengal tiger would not be fashioned so miraculously well.”
So, his antidote for despair is to “risk delight” in this wonderfully fashioned world. We must have “the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.” I love that line. For if we fail, and ignore Gilbert’s reasoning, then we are “[making] injustice the only measure of our attention” and that is “to praise the Devil.” And that, fellow lawyers, we must not do. And while lawyers fixate on the sad present, we also fixate on the glorious past: the great cross, the devastating closing, the genius brief. War stories as education are useful. Much less so when they are spliced into an endless loop of ancient highlights. We are practicing lawyers, not insects stuck in amber.
In “The Lost Hotels of Paris,” Gilbert addresses this dilemma with a universal formula: “The Lord gives everything and charges by taking it back. What a bargain.” He initially anchors this principle in love: “We are permitted romantic love with its bounty and half-life of two years.” He then segues into his old life in Paris, mourning the places he stayed as a young man. Then the genius punch line: “But it’s the having/not the keeping that is the treasure.” Yet then another—and indeed, more important—bargain. Gilbert closes with an arresting request spanning the immediate with the infinite. “We look up at the stars and they are/not there. We see the memory/of when they were, once upon a time/and that too is more than enough.” Isn’t it though?
And a poem for new lawyers: “The Danger of Wisdom.” They powerfully seek acceptance, desire approval, crave competence. And so they avoid risk and eschew experimentation preferring the safe and holding fast to the proven. Gilbert advises otherwise: “We learn to live without passion/To be reasonable. We go hungry/amid the giant granaries/this world is/we store up plenty/ For when we are old and mild.” And then Gilbert delivers the hinge line of this poem: “It is our strength that deprives us.” He pivots again to a metaphor based on love: “Emerson and his wife decided to make/love sparingly in order to accumulate/his passion.” As Shakespeare observed, “in delay there lies no plenty.”
Watch the “Tapestry” episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Captain Picard dies during heart surgery. His ticker is bad because he was stabbed in a fight by some nasty aliens. The Afterlife grants his request to wipe out the fight. He returns to the Enterprise but not as her captain, but rather a meek and timid midlevel officer. Lesson: Do not try to be too wise, too soon. To become what you can become, don’t wait to live your life. Live it.
Give poetry a whirl and waltz it through your life. Or as Billy Collins put it in “Introduction to Poetry”: “I ask them to take a poem/and hold it up to the light/like a color slide/or press an ear against it/I say drop a mouse into a poem/and watch him probe his way out/I want them to waterski across the surface of a poem/waving at the author’s name on shore.” So do I.