Lawyers | Poets | Poetry

Professor James R. Elkins
College of Law
:: West Virginia University
Fall, 2017


Lawyers, Poets, and Poetry was first presented as a course in the Fall, 2006, and made a second appearance in the Fall, 2012. To my knowledge, no course resembling this one has ever been taught in an American law school. That you have chosen to be in the course is, in my estimation, a tribute to your willingness to do something different, to get off the well-trod path that most students follow in law school.

I will not attempt to set forth in the syllabus the origins of the course, and will do little more than offer some heady assumptions about the purpose of the course. The conventional thinking these days about what belongs in a syllabus suggest that stating the "purpose" of the course is essential. I'm not convinced that telling you that the purpose of Lawyers, Poets, and Poetry is to introduce you to poetry—the impetus to read poetry occasioned by the fact that it was written by lawyers—and that poetry can be an important aspect of your education as a lawyer is going to provide a shining halo for the course that will fully light the path ahead. I can already hear you ask: "is this your only purpose in the course?" I'm tempted to respond: "what more could you want or need?" I might supplement my terse response by noting that, in some quarters, legal education is viewed in a critical light for its focus on legal training with too little attention given to the education we announce in calling what we do in law school—legal education. In Lawyers, Poets, and Poetry the focus is on education, and on the implicit curriculum that accompanies the traditional law school curriculum and culture. (I will, here, stay clear of any effort to describe or define this rather interesting term—implicit curriculum. The term is, in one sense, self-explanatory, and to the extent that it is not, I'll post some notes about the term on the course website so you can put some meat on this bony phrase.) Pausing here, to think about Lawyers, Poets, and Poetry inviting you to address the implicit curriculum and the part of your education that legal training leaves out—where it leaves off—reminds me of an observation made by my colleague Joseph Tomain, who was for some years dean of the law school at the University of Cincinnati Law School: "[S]tudents are left to feel their own way through the unlit halls of professional socialization" [Joseph Tomain, Epilogue, 38 J. Legal Educ. 629, 631 (1988)]. To make a lofty claim for poetry and the poetry you will read in Lawyers, Poets, and Poetry, we might say, poetry is a way to install new lighting in the unlit halls of professional socialization. Bold claims of this sort are just the kind of thing you would expect in the "purpose" section of a syllabus. Claims of this kind may establish, for the record, my stated intentions for the course but I am confident the course will have a life of its own, a life, the character of which cannot be determined until you become a reader of poetry and with the help of the poems establish your own purposes.

And yes, I have other purposes in mind in offering the course: I want you to be aware that lawyers have always been poets. A good many of the lawyers who dance with the muse have turned out to be rather good poets. If lawyers were not good poets, I don't think there would be much of a justification for reading their poetry. That a good many lawyers happen to be good poets is, in my mind, a sufficient reason to read their poetry, and to begin to think about what we get from poetry we may not get anywhere else. I must leave to you whether this idea of reading the good poetry of lawyers simply because it is written by lawyers will hold sway with you, that is, whether it makes any sense. I confess that my proposition is something of a gamble. Reading poetry because it was written by lawyers may not make good sense to you. If it doesn't, then we must hope that the poetry itself saves the day. I want to think that in reading enough good poetry, you will find, somewhere in the heap of poetry you will read, poems that you will find worthwhile. What makes poems "worthwhile"? Poems you will want to reread, poems that you can carry with you. Poems that speak to some part of your own life and the life you envision for yourself. Poems that you find intriguing/compelling/ insightful/haunting/lyrical.

Most of the poetry you will read in the course was written by lawyers, and most of this poetry appeared in the Legal Studies Forum, a journal that I edit. The primary collection of poems that you will be using is "A Legal Studies Forum Poetry Anthology"—41 Legal Stud. F. 1-657 (12017). The anthology will be provided to you at our first class meeting (or you can pick up a copy from my secretary, Karen Feather, in Rm. 117).

There is a Lawyers, Poets, and Poetry course website. It can be found at:

The historical foundation for the course and my resource on lawyer poets, historical and contemporary, can be found on the website:

Strangers To Us All: Lawyers and Poetry

Reading poetry—the poetry of lawyers—is a significant part of this course. We will talk about this poetry and try to figure what purpose poetry might serve in the life of a lawyer, a lawyer who has come to realize that knowing the law is not enough.

You do not need to be a student of poetry, or have studied poetry, to take—and one might hope, enjoy—the course. I am not a poet and do not pretend to be one. I have not studied poetry and thus cannot be of help in understanding the formal, technical aspects of the poems we read. Before I undertook my work on the lawyer poets, I confess that I had little interest in poetry. I did, however, follow the work of a couple of poets. I met the poet Robert Bly in the mid-1970s in Chicago, and later studied mythology with him on a travel-study program in Greece and Sicily. I read Bly poetry with considerable interest over the years, but for some reason, this reading did not spark an interest in poetry more generally. Long before I began my work on the lawyer poets, I read Wendell Berry's poetry. Wendell Berry happens to be from Kentucky, a place that I have always know as home. I was drawn to Wendell Berry's writings because he happens to be from Kentucky, and, he is a farmer. I know that it means something, maybe more than I can account for, that I raised on a Kentucky farm. Some part of what it might mean, I have learned from Wendell Berry. Wendell Berry, an acclaimed essayist and novelist, also happens to be a rather good poet. Wendell Berry, more than anyone else I can name, has helped me understand, through his poetry, novels, and essays, how I have carried Kentucky—and a sense of that place—with me as I meander through life. I read Wendell Berry's poetry because Wendell Berry wrote it, not because it was poetry, and I had any great love for the work of poets.

I don't know whether this poetry that I stumbled on, that I found by falling into a deep cavern only to find that the cavern was a vast library that had, by some miraculous means, been created out of the glare and noise of our everyday lives, will have anything like the excitement for you that it has for me. I know that an interest in poetry must be found—it must be discovered. And, I suspect that a sustained interest in poetry—the kind of sustained interest that will get you through the semester—depends upon what you find in the poetry you are invited to read.

We discover poetry that matters to us, one might think, in the way we find the music we want to listen to. We find, become attentive to, and regard poetry, in this same kind of personal way, the way we find music. I turn on the radio in the car and move from station to station. I hear virtually no music that I am willing to listen to. Yet, I love music; the problem is quite simple: finding music that sounds like music to me. When I read poems in The New Yorker, I don't read them and proclaim, "I want to read more poems." I faithfully peruse the literary journals that come my way, and will sometimes read a poem or two. The poems often disappoint me, more accurately, I have erased the poem the minute I finish reading it. I usually find it quite easy to find things I want to read, things I can take pleasure in reading, or things that create the illusion that I am learning something (adding to what I want to know, or helping me reconfigure what I know). Poetry didn't work this way for me, not until I learned that lawyers were poets, that some of them were quite good poets, and that I wanted to publish the best of the poems I was finding in the Legal Studies Forum. I had, finally, found poetry I can read. I became a reader of poetry. The question now is whether any of this poetry I will present to you is poetry that you will want to read.

Let me, again, make clear: I did not grow up on poetry and I have come to it relatively late in life. I am not a poetry guru. What I bring to the course is something else: I am a reader. What I bring to poetry is the curiosity of a reader. I read everyday. I have made a life of reading. I now find, and at first it was something of a surprise, that I was reading poetry and found a good many poems intriguing, compelling, puzzling, mystifying. Poems pull me down into myself and away from self; they sometimes push me off from what feels familiar; they sooth and ruffle my feathers; they authenticate and and reawaken my interest in language and the power of language. With the discovery of the lawyer poets, I found poetry that I can read. My hope is that in this course, you will find poems that mean something to you, poems you actually want to read, poetry you can say you enjoy reading. What it means, how you read it, and the enjoyment it makes possible will be the subject of our conversations and what you write for the course.

Course Evaluation: Following long-standing practices, we must settle on a way to evaluate your work in the course. I propose that the evaluation be based on a composition/writing project: a poetry anthology with an introduction.

By reading poems, creating your own anthology, introducing the anthology, you must find a way to talk about poetry, say something about what you have learned about poetry, and why you and others might want to pursue poetry.

Alternative: If you find the idea of introducing and creating your own anthology, a problem or an obstacle to using the course for your own purpose, I will accept a proposal for an alternative writing project.