Poets and critics oftencomplain that most contemporary American verse is beautiful but pointless. It is introspective, limited to the poet’s experiences or lack thereof, sometimes shrill, at times unintelligible. On Tuesday, October 20, 2015, four U.S. federal judges read a selection of poems at a reading organized by the Federal Bar Council at Poets House in Lower Manhattan. The event was suggested by Circuit Court Judge Dennis Jacobs and the reception that followed was sponsored by the poet and former investment banker John Barr and his wife Penny Barr. For just over an hour the transcendent power of poetry was self-evident.
Sitting in Poets House one is always tempted to compare the works of contemporary poets to the likes of Sappho (as recently translated by Anne Carson), Tennyson, Yeats, Frost, Housman, and Langston (not Ted) Hughes, among the many that were read that evening. Perhaps that is an unfair comparison. Applying Eliot’s definition of “classic” (simultaneously embodying the qualities of a mature mind, mature manners, and a mature language), many of the poems selected by the jurists clearly illustrated the timelessness and “richness” of certain heightened expressions of human thoughts and observations, even those poems of more recent vintage.
District Court Judge Colleen McMahon read selections from each American poet laureate throughout the decades, reaching to the present laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. Judge Jacobs read such celebrated contemporaries as Thom Gunn and Billy Collins. The aura in that well-lit small auditorium was not that of historical academic standards nor of an art form groping for meaning in this overwrought and bloody early twenty-first century. Instead, the judges appeared to be personally extending the reach of poetry: paraphrasing Ulrich Baer’s guide to Rilke, each individual poem (no matter how old or where and when composed) appeared to be individually written for the man or woman who now was reciting it.
Audibly and poignantly, everyday experiences became more momentous, both individually and collectively,including of course love and infatuation throughout the centuries, one of Circuit Court Judge Gerald E. Lynch’s chosen historical themes. In an era when billions of people have electronically befriended billions of others indiscriminately, and when everyone everywhere appears to click away at their small screens incessantly, suddenly, in the interior of one’s mind, extended, crafted language was again consequential.
One wishes that all contemporary poets, when they read aloud at poetry events, could read as well as these judges. That too may be an unfair wish because the law, unlike the empirical sciences, is built upon words and their fluid intended meanings. Despite all the self-promotional muckraking in the incensed media, any high-schooler would recognize that a sitting trial or appellate judge in the federal courts occupies a significant public position and has experience verbally presenting arguments, images, and events.
Why then do some poets seem incapable of reading as well? Is poetry a less significant mode of expression than the law? Or does poetry like law require a degree of devotion and concentration that many poets in this age of fleeting attention cannot muster in their readers?
Like law, the foundation of poetry is built upon the intentional use of words. I have suggested in past essays that the isolation of poets in universities or writing academies contributes to a paucity of experience that in turn deflates the public meaning and significance of their works. There is less connection with lived experiences because the poets are less capable of reacting to the events and concerns of the American public except through the narrow prism of their livelihoods. But poets in the past, such as Dickinson and Hopkins, both of whom were recited by the judges, have written in isolated circumstances.
Perhaps the answer lies not in the personal inexperience of the contemporary poets but in the limits of their historical knowledge. The law, of course, is founded on historical precedent. American judges and lawyers always look into the past, especially when they are forging forward towards a newer interpretation. Though references abounded in the poems read this evening to earlier historical and to mythological events, and to preceding epics and lyrics, a casual reader of such contemporary anthologies as the Best American Poetry series (a volume that appears annually like Zagat) will find in those collections mostly self-absorbed therapeutic expressions of dismay.
It is almost as if the poets, despite the abundance of poetry online, are still groping for any increased audience; and to do so, they now try to find the lowest common denominator in their poems, like the animated manikins on broadcast media who scowl and laugh on cue. To reuse Senator Moynihan’s astute cultural observation in The American Scholar, has contemporary poetry defined itself down?
Starting with District Court Judge William F. Kuntz of the Eastern District in Brooklyn, one after another the judges delivered poem after poem in sonorous yet accessible tones. I closed my eyes at one point to test the poetry aurally and to separate the figures of the readers from the words. I know little about the workload of the federal courts but I must assume that these four representative jurists were reading poems that they admired, that poetry had personal significance in their lives, and that in turn had contributed to their ability to enthrall that evening. Perhaps poetry made them better judges too.
Sadly, I then wondered if the average New Yorker could appreciate these same poetic works, much as I sometimes wonder if many Americans but for those admitted to the bar and dedicated journalists and scholars can possibly grasp the nuances of legal decisions.
This evening’s selected poems did not all celebrate the best experiences in life but they did celebrate centuries of living and the processes andhappenstance of human interaction. Like the church and the state, other institutions created by mankind in its efforts at self-governance and self-betterment, institutions such as Poets House house the promise of a more meaningful future.
The immediate question is whether the contemporary poets across this nation truly appreciate their public responsibility. Four federal judges in New York clearly do.
Eugene Schlanger, the Wall Street Poet, is the author of September 11 Wall Street Sonnets. He also practices law on Wall Street. His essay on the award of the 2012 T. S. Eliot Prize to Sharon Olds, an American, first published in The University Bookman, was recently republished in Contemporary Literary Criticism (Vol. 361) in the UK.
The Wall Street Poet reflects on a recent evening in New York where four judges extended poetry’s reach and made evident—for a time—its transcendent power.