Thomas C. Grey


Reality is a cliche from which we escape by metaphor.

-Stevens, "Adagia"

Trace the gold sun about the whitened sky
Without evasion by a single metaphor.
Look at it in its essential barrenness
And say this, this is the centre that I seek.

-Stevens, "Credences of Summer"

A few years ago I was in charge of deciding when students could receive credit at my law school for "law-related" outside courses. Once when I somewhat uneasily approved a petition for credit in a course on Latin poetry, a colleague reinforced my doubts by suggesting that according to my ruling, no subject could possibly failto win approval. Recent developments in legal scholarship have recalled the episode, and prompted these belated reflections on the "law-relatedness" of poetry, here the poetry of a lawyer. I am still not of one mind on the subject.

In his recent book defending law against literary incursions, Richard Posner criticizes Robin West for using Kafka's stories to make a legal point. Even if Kafka was trained and worked as a lawyer, that does not mean that his writings addressed legal issues, Judge Posner says; after all, "Wallace Stevens was also a lawyer . . .but no one supposes that Stevens's . . . poetry is about law." Actually, with the recent rise of the very law-literature movement that troubles Judge Posner, some lawyers do now seem to suppose that Stevens's poetry is "about law," in the sense that it might properly influence legal theorists, if not judges and lawyers. For just one example, in a recent defense of the law's specialized professional language, Mark Yudof, Dean of the University of Texas Law School, quotes extensively from Stevens, who he says was "not only a poet but also a lawyer." Conversely, some literary commentators seem to suppose that Stevens's legal training or work as a lawyer bears on his poetry; thus a valuable recent critical work begins with the observation that the poet Stevens often argues "with the rigor of a good lawyer."

How could this difficult lyric and meditative poet possibly speak to lawyers as lawyers, or speak as a lawyer in his poetry? The standard lawand- literature manifestos suggest some possible though very general approaches to making the connection between law and poetry. James Boyd White urges us to assimilate "the judicial opinion" to "the poem," and to substitute a "poetic" for a "theoretical" form of writing and reading in our legal education and practice. But it takes great effort-Judge Posner would say wasted effort-to make this law-literature claim plausibly concrete. The judge proposes instead that, with certain exceptions, "[t]he literary should be a sphere apart" from the legal.