In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote “don’t be confused by surfaces; in the depths everything becomes law.”
Few poets understand this sentiment as poet and longtime lawyer Lawrence Joseph does. Joseph, who teaches at St. John's School of Law, has published five books of poems, and the Rilke quote serves as an epigraph for his book of prose, Lawyerland, which humanizes lawyers – for better or worse – by recreating their intimate conversations.
Joseph spoke at a New School forum last week about his decision to follow the path of poets who earned their living outside the literary world. And he read several poems from his books Into It and Codes, Precepts, and Taboos: Poems 1973-1993.
Imagine Perry Mason reciting verse in lieu of a closing argument and you have an idea of what it’s like to hear Joseph read. He offered an intense and authoritative reading of Some Sort of Chronicler I Am, which describes a panhandler on the 3 train with scant sympathy for the man’s spiel about contracting AIDS.
“Specified ‘underclass’ by the Department of Labor/ —he’s underclass, all right: no class/ if you’re perpetually diseased and poor. … —blessed , indeed; he’s definitely blessed. His wounds open here, on the surface:/ you might say he’s shrieking his stigmata.”
Tidy couplets counterbalance the tough tone of this poem. As in so much of his work, Joseph captures the beauty and brutality of life through an unflinching lens and applies order to it. Everything becomes law.
Chronicler also alludes to famous writers who witnessed life through other professions, including Wallace Stevens, a lawyer, and William Carlos Williams, a physician.
“I’m an obsessive note taker, as Stevens was. Lawyers take notes,” Joseph said about his process. “I put them in files.”
He added that most lawyers don’t understand his drive to write poetry. “Most lawyers – most people – have no understanding of what poetry is, the foreground it has in our brains,” he said. “It’s hard for us to imagine that to some people, it means nothing at all. I’ve never met another lawyer who gets what I’m trying to do, critically, in poetry.
“We think about it because we have to think about it. They don’t have to think about it, so they don’t.”
Unlike Stevens, who “never injects his lawyer side into his poems,” Joseph invites his day job into his art.
“I thought, I’m going to inject the lawyer self. I’m going to create a poet-character and go out of my way to put it in,” he told the audience.
Poets are form-makers, Joseph added, and poetry is an aesthetic act. He keeps files of shapes that he likes and thinks of a poem as a painting.
Politics and violence capture his imagination, and he’s written about family since his early work. Lebanese and Syrian Catholics, his grandparents were among the first Arab emigrants to Detroit. They were a family of grocers, and Joseph knew he didn’t want to be a grocer.
He excelled in literature and poetry at the University of Michigan and Cambridge University, where he struck up a friendship with Lehman. It was a difficult time to find work in academia, so he decided to go to law school with the example of Wallace Stevens as his guide. The lawyer-poet was born.
“I think about poetry in part of my brain all the time,” he says.
In the depths everything becomes law. And for Joseph, in the deepest depths, law becomes poetry.