My Life as Poet Laureate (of a Law Firm)
Elizabeth Bales Frank on the Pleasures and Perils of Introducing Attorneys to Poetry
Dana Gioia, the former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, worked for years as a businessman while writing poetry at night, later calling himself “a spy in the house of commerce.” Twenty years ago, I was a poet in the house of law. I needed an income, and I needed to write, and sometimes the writing leaked into my day job—I wrote little rhymes in the communal office cards celebrating birthdays and betrothals. Sometimes, at office gatherings, I read them aloud, particularly after a glass or two of wine. At one farewell party for two paralegals, I delivered an original, multi-verse poem detailing their life at the firm. The managing partner responded by declaring, “I name you poet laureate of this office.”
Once a small posh boutique law firm, we had just been acquired by a California-based global firm. We were splashing in newfound cash like a toddler in the bath, so, pleased though I was at being named a laureate, I was feeling bold enough to step into the partner’s office afterwards and tell him, “Poet laureates get a stipend.”
A dapper former prosecutor who, when with the Southern District of New York, had convicted members of the Mafia, the managing partner was fond of negotiation, brevity, and T.S. Eliot. Go on, he nodded.
I asked for $50 a month in poetry-related supplies. In return, I promised to produce original poems for office occasions and distribute emails to the New York office which illustrated various poetic forms. Those were different times, the heady height of the dot com boom, when whether a service needed to be provided (pet food delivery straight to your door, for example) weighed less as a factor than the fact that it could be provided, and that people might invest in it, once they developed a taste for it. A poet laureate in a law firm? The T.S. Eliot fan and I decided that this would be an excellent use of our new overlords’ money.
We had a deal.
I had never taken a class in reading poetry, let alone writing it. But I love it because of my lack of education. I was never forced to write college papers explaining the use of metaphor, repetition and rhyme. My high school English classes, where I regurgitated the teacher’s theories in tidy pyramid paragraphs, drove any desire I might have once entertained for such exercises straight out of me. I never took another poetry class. I was a free-range poetry lover, eager to graze, roaming without guidance. I caught phrases and played them in my head, rolled them around on my tongue, dropped them casually into conversations. “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” I said when asked if I knew why a certain associate was no longer with the firm.
Neither poet nor teacher, I was the blind leading the blind, or, in this case, the enamored leading the disdainful. Literature demands time. To lawyers, time is billable, not malleable. Time spent on novels, plays or poetry is time wasted. And the greatest waste is poetry.Both lawyers and poets manipulate language, but lawyers do it to win a conviction or a favorable deal. Poets do it to evoke the ephemeral—an emotion, a moment, a mood. Poets embrace nuance. Lawyers seek to crush it.
Both lawyers and poets manipulate language, but lawyers do it to win a conviction or a favorable deal. Poets do it to evoke the ephemeral—an emotion, a moment, a mood. Poets embrace nuance. Lawyers seek to crush it.
One partner, a Swiss-born polyglot who spoke eight languages and loathed the poetry of all of them, bitterly recalled the teenage rage evoked by a high school English assignment on Robert Frost (“but I am through with apple-picking now. . .”).
“The instruction of poetry is to poetry as sex education is to sex,” I explained, failing to mollify his outrage at this squandering of his unmonetized boyhood time.
I played with language and sometimes evoked faint smiles from numb screen-starers. My original poetry was mere doggerel designed to amuse the corporate herd. But using poems from actual poets, I presented form: the pantoum, the heroic couplet, the sonnet, in emails to “NY Office-All.” In April, National Poetry Month, I addressed “NY Office-All” daily, selecting an excerpt because the whole poem was always too long for a nine-to-five attention span. If this sounds easy—distributing for a tribe of 50, five days a week for a month, engaging bits of poetry neither too esoteric nor too controversial, while you remain accountable to attorney outrage (“This is just nonsense!”) —I suggest that you try it.
My original poems mocked the foibles of partners, who, being partners, had forgotten how to accept an original document and would return the poems to me, marked up for revision, as though I were an associate delivering a draft. Other original poems lamented the departure of associates. Others mocked the dress code and other culture clashes experienced by the newly-merged firm.
The laid-back collegiality professed by our new California overlords was superficial in every sense of the word. They claimed Levi Strauss as a founding client, wore jeans in the office to prove they were, like, down with it, yet were so rigidly hierarchical that a legal secretary audacious enough to commend a California partner by saying “You make a good point” was reprimanded for insubordination. At the former boutique, we had dressed formally, because our clients did. Yet we had toiled as one late into the night, partners and staff eating dinner together in a conference room, spiritedly debating the latest episode of The Sopranos.
“‘Appearances count,’” concluded the dress code poem. “‘Still, the whole thing is moot / if deep in your heart, you still think like a suit.’”
A partner called this a “low blow.” He made a good point. Depth of heart in a law firm is not a poetic subject.
Regardless of author, be it Pablo Neruda or the humble poet laureate, each time a poem was released into the ether of “NY Office-All,” confusion followed. The associates kept their heads down and worked and the secretaries mostly ignored the missives, but the partners wanted the poems parsed. Some of them stood before my desk, stomping out the scansion until they mastered it, like a dance step: iamb, iamb, I AM, cha cha cha! They demanded explanation of meter, ambiguity, and most of all, rhyme. The Frost-hating polyglot visited upon the release of every poem fragment, including the mild couplet, “For all the sad words of tongue and pen / the saddest are these, ‘it might have been.”
“’Pen’ does not rhyme with ‘been’!” he snapped, waving the offending printout.
“I’ll tell John Greenleaf Whittier.”
“Who’s he? Is he new?”
“No, in fact, he’s quite old.”
The poet laureate couldn’t fault him. The population of the office grew faster than its paperwork could be processed. New hires poured in weekly, as did transfers from California, until no one knew everyone, and many knew no one. The poet laureate strove to sing the song of her combined people, but the people were reluctant to combine.
Though bemused, the Californians assumed a resident office poet was a New York thing, like wintertime darkness falling at four o’clock and Edward Gorey-faced associates dragging in at ten. Newcomers could protest my words (“you make a good point”), but not those of the poet laureate. The managing partner indulged the poet laureate as King Lear did his Fool.If this sounds easy—distributing for a tribe of 50, five days a week for a month, engaging bits of poetry neither too esoteric nor too controversial, while you remain accountable to attorney outrage (“This is just nonsense!”) —I suggest that you try it.
The poet laureate would have loved to enlighten these fluorescent-lit souls to the foul rag and bone shop of the heart of poetry, but alas! I could distribute nothing bleak, dark, or sexual. Seamus Heaney was sometimes safe. Philip Larkin never was. I gave them e.e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Billy Collins, Marie Howe, Stanley Kunitz, and the dreaded Robert Frost. I gave them Emily Dickinson because, you know, there’s a certain slant of light. On Opening Day of the baseball season, I gave them Marianne Moore (“Writing is exciting / And baseball is like writing.”) On September 11, 2001, I gave them Auden.
When I gave them Carl Sandburg, some accused me of authoring the lines myself: “Why does a hearse horse snicker / Hauling a lawyer away?”
And the stipend? I subscribed to a poetry magazine. I bought anthologies. I bought James Fenton, Mary Karr, Mark Strand, and Deborah Garrison. I bought slim volumes by poets published by small presses. I handed the receipts, with a flourish, to accounts payable. From the stipend, I earned $1,200 in two years. Not bad for a not-poet.
And then, there was a new managing partner. He cancelled the stipend with a stroke of his pen. And the firm went out of business.
Post hoc ergo propter hoc, “after this, therefore, because of this,” is known as the post hoc fallacy (not to be confused with pathetic fallacy, which is a literary term meaning—oh, never mind. It’s over now).
I left the firm. And the firm failed, for myriad business reasons. But also, possibly, the firm failed because the collection of souls which comprise the corpus of a corporation lost the spirit to go on without a poet to sustain it.