Strangers to Us All
Lawyers and Poetry

Carl Reisman

(1961- )

[Photo compliments of Carl Reisman]

Carl Reisman was born at Rochester, New York in 1961 and was educated in the public schools in Rochester, Memphis, Tennessee, and Evanston, Illinois. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Illinois, Reisman author cooked in New Orleans, Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, Eugene, Oregon, and Iowa city, before returning to school in 1993 to pursue a law degree from the University of Illinois. Since 1996 he has worked as a lawyer in Urbana, Illinois, where he maintains a solo practice in an old Phillips 66 service station. His legal practice focuses on personal injury and worker's compensation.

Reisman is the author of a collection of poetry, Kettle (Hot Lead Press, 2005), and two collaborations with his artist brother, David Reisman, the first, a children’s book, Peppertree Joetop and the Magic Frogs (which remains unpublished) and an introduction to his brother's book of dream drawings, Foreign Objects, published in 2004 by Hornbill Press. [David Reisman's art work]

Carl Reisman's Poetry


When we informed Mr. Reisman that we were teaching a course on lawyers and poetry at West Virginia University, he graciously provided us with the following biographical statement [August 18, 2006, personal communication with Carl Reisman] :

I was a poet long before I was a lawyer. My grandfather was a poet, so maybe it was his quiet influence that set me on my way. I remember a poem that I wrote in third grade:

The rain falls in silence
as it falls
onto treetops,
onto walls.

The rain falls on trees
and onto grass,
and soon
the storm will pass.

I called my eighth grade collection of of poems was called, "Death in Poetry." Poems about death easily morphed into poems of frustrated love, poems which I carried around in my pocket until the ink blurred. I was too nervous to give them to the objects of my desire.

I was never especially serious about writing poems. They came into my head, I wrote them down. I didn't realize that they might be shaping me or having some effect on me. Yet, poetry demands that the poet be true to themselves. In an odd way, I think that's what caused me to drop out of law school the first time around.

I had enrolled at the University of Oregon College of Law in 1984. I was 23, had a one year old daughter and a two year old marriage. I went through the motions the first six weeks of law school, reading everything dutifully, outlining cases, putting in the usual nervous 1L days that stretch into the night. A fellow classmate, who lived on the McKenzie River, invited me to his home for one night. We fished for trout that afternoon and my classmate told me that he was quitting law school to go back to blowing glass. We caught six trout as the sun set using crickets as bait. We took them back to his mother, who cleaned them and put them in the freezer. We ate freezer burned trout for dinner.

The next day I didn't go to school. I don't recall doing any serious thinking about what I was going to do. I simply realized that law school wasn't what I wanted to do, at least not at this point in my life. Not that I had a plan for something else. After I quit I went back to cooking for a living, which I did for another nine years.

It was after the birth of our second child, that I began to steadily write poetry. The poems were no longer sonnets or couplets or tongue in cheek. They were pared down the way I felt that I'd been. Maybe it was the influence of Gary Snyder and the beat poets, or of the Chinese and Japanese poets I'd read in Kenneth Rexroth's translation that made me want to write down to the bones. I never thought about publishing the poems. They were simply reminders to me of where I'd been, where I wanted to go.

About the time I was 30, I realized I didn't want to keep cooking for a living. I thought about going back to school, and looked into psychology, anthropology, English, and social work. Then, on a whim, I applied to law school again.

Before I got started that first semester at the University of Illinois College of Law, I painted myself an ID card. I was anxious about the possibility that I might somehow lose myself in law school-that in becoming a lawyer my soul would take flight. I continued to write poetry in law school, poems about my children and my wife, just things that came into my head as I would wake up or come into mind as I walked around; fragments that seem to demand with urgency that they be written down.

I've been practicing law for ten years now, and I sometimes wonder if I'm a lawyer poet or poet lawyer. Both poetry and law are callings which inform each other, both shape the way I live. As a poet, I try to see the heart of things and write about what moves me in the clearest way I can muster. As a lawyer, I'm engaged with people and their troubles which throws us together in great intimacy; my clients demands are as insistent and real as the thoughts that compel me to write a poem. I think my work as a poet lends compassion and perspective-a calmness-to what I do as lawyer. My work as a lawyer provides a world of experience that enriches my work as a writer. Both my poetry and my work as a lawyer connect me deeply to the place in central Illinois where I've made my home for the past 20 years.

On a recent trip to Ireland we stayed for three weeks near the tip of Sheep's Head Peninsula, within a half mile of the ruins of a medieval bardic school that had been built of stone high on a hill above Dunmanus Bay. The school provided an education in poetry, literature, the Irish language, Irish history, and law. The young bards were taught to write poems in the dark and commit them to memory before they put them on paper, oral recitation being so important to their society. The bardic school seems to me a model for what a legal education might be. Lawyers have tremendous power in our society and with that power comes responsibility. An education in the humanities, that encouraged a love of literature, the native language and soil, that taught the value of sitting in the dark and finding one's own peculiar truth, might produce happier, more thoughtful and caring lawyers, than does a legal education based on intimidation, competition, and conformity. Poetry might be the essential part of such a curriculum, a means of helping the law and the lawyer find their songs. [commentary as published in the Legal Studies Forum]

Research Resources: On bardic schools & ancient Irish law and poetry (and more)

The Role of the Bard

Celts & Bardic Schools — Wikipedia


Brehon Law

The Poetic Brehon Lawyers Of Early Sixteenth Century Ireland

The Brehon Laws — Catholic Encyclopedia

The Definitional Problem with Brehon Laws

Irish Poetry — Wikipedia

Skald — Wikipedia

Snorri Sturluson — Wikipedia