The Friday Fillip: Les Mots Justes and Justice

I’ve long thought that law and poetry share a number of interesting features, or, to put it another way, live on the same language axis. Look at what’s valued in both:

  • concision: indeed a parsimony, a precisely “shaped charge,” if you will, brought about in law’s case by the notion of relevance and the wish to do as little harm as possible, and in the case of poetry brought about by the poet’s wish to capture and express something real and true and specific.
  • precision: by this I mean taking very great care, word by word, to choose the very best words for the job. Legal drafters and poets are not alone in this, of course; one imagines that novelists fuss each phrase, as do advertisers, journalists, and scholars, I assume. But long form writing simply is more forgiving than the ultra-short forms of poetry and legislation (or contracts), and allows for some waffle, cliché, and approximation.
  • ambiguity: not quite the flip side of precision, perhaps, and clearly one of the engines that drive the movement described immediately below. Readers and writers of law and poetry must love (or at least come to terms with) ambiguity or be inept. Literalists fail at both disciplines.
  • movement from the particular to the general: truer in judgments in law, where though the writer is tightly focused on this very slice of reality, a reader’s ability to generalize gives it wider, subsequent application; and a poem’s ability to move us — emotionally or intellectually — relies on a similar and almost magical ability to read meaning into a good collection of words though purportedly directed at the Dark Lady some four hundred years ago.
  • form: anyone interested in getting the biggest or best bang for the buck out of a limited number of words will want to have an eye to form, and both legislators and poets fall into this category; it might be that in law the attention to form is part of the desire to express meaning clearly and in poetry it’s for the kick to creativity that constraint can provide — the frame around the painting, as it were.
  • orality: both law and poetry are now, and have been for a long time, essentially written forms, yet each has an oral past that refuses to die. In law orality finds its home in the courts and other rooms of persuasion. Poetry should be read aloud; you’ll probably find yourself subvocalizing anyway, so best to let ‘er rip and simply utter. The voice is human and reminds us that both law and poetry strive to meet profound human needs.

How comes it then that law is burgeoning in volume while one hardly ever sees a poem anymore? Reason and emotion, the typical emphases in law and poetry respectively, have increasingly been polarized, with reason positioned above the fold. And that’s part of the explanation, perhaps, along with a curious development that has poetry seen as somehow “old fashioned” and no longer cool.

Two hundred years ago Shelley wrote that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Back then there were a good many acknowledged poets whose works appeared in a wide variety of media. Yet, even at that time, Shelley felt the need to call his essay “A Defence of Poetry” and to complain that:

 . . . poets have been challenged to resign the civic crown to reasoners and mechanists, on another plea. It is admitted that the exercise of the imagination is most delightful, but it is alleged that that of reason is more useful.

He goes on to tackle that and other arguments against poetry in a short essay well worth reading.

Lawyers certainly are “reasoners and mechanists,” though their civic crown is slipping somewhat. Even so, I’d suggest that lawyers could benefit in a professional way from reading poetry. To that end, I’m closing with a few links that might encourage readers to give it a try. But if this achieves nothing more than an increase in pleasure for two or three of you, I’ll be satisfied. It is, after all, a fillip, where things needn’t be so earnest.

So a little fun to begin with: try a recent post at The Morning News, in which Adam Bertocci creates a raft of “Alternate Forms for Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18” — the “shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” sonnet. (I think Bertocci means “alternative” — but then no one ever said accuracy was important in the poetry biz.) Here you’ll find the bard transmogrified into a villanelle, a haiku, a clerihew, and so forth.

When you’re warmed up, go on over to the Atlantic for a good piece on “Reading a Poem: 20 Strategies. A guide for the perplexed“. See how much of the advice would apply to reading law. For instance, strategy #7 tells you that a poem (like legislation) cannot be paraphrased (or, as I’d put it re law, to paraphrase is to interpret).

Then get yourself some poetry and roll around in it. The Poetry Foundation is a good place to start. You can browse through a universe of verse and, if you like, you can subscribe to a poem a day via email or RSS. But if daily is too much — and I can see how it might be — poems take time — you could try The Guardian’s “poem of the week” column, though you’ll have to take a bit of prose with your poesy, which may or may not be a good thing for you.


  1. The nexus between law and poetry is nowhere better illustrated than in life and achievements of Frank R. Scott – , constitutional scholar, Supreme Court of Canada litigator, law dean, political activist and Governor General’s Literary Award winning poet.

    Here is his poem, “This is a Law”

    Who says Go
    When the Green says Go?
    And who says No
    When the Red says No?
    Asked I.

    I, said the Law, I say Go
    When the Green says Go
    And don’t you Go
    When the Red say No
    Said the Law.

    Who are you
    To tell me so
    To tell me Go
    When the Green says Go
    And tell me No
    When the Red says No?
    Asked I.

    I am you
    Said the Law.

    Are you me
    As I want to be?
    I don’t even know
    Who you are.

    I speak for you
    Said the Law.

    You speak for me?
    Who told you you should?
    Who told you you could?
    How can this thing be
    When I am not the same as before?

    I was made for you
    I was made by you
    I am human too
    So change me if you will
    Change the Green to Red
    Shoot the ruling class
    Stand me on my head
    I will not be dead
    I’ll be telling you Go
    I’ll be telling you No
    For this is a Law
    Said the Law.

    And here is 4 line poem that represents all he believed in


    The world is my country
    The human race is my race
    The spirit of man is my God
    The future of man is my heaven

  2. A very perceptive and entertaining fillip, Simon. Those of us who do legislation seldom aspire to poetic justice, but perhaps we should.

    The variants on Shakespeare are wonderful! I see that the author omitted the double dactyl:

    Summery, flummery,
    Shall I compare thee to
    Summer though seasons are
    Subject to death?

    Better write poetry –
    Verse of the Bard will last
    While men draw breath.