Musings #9

Some find it surprising that a poet can also be (or have been) a criminal defense attorney. I think that comes from the view that creativity is confined to poetry, painting, music – the “arts.” But I have never thought that to be the case. It seems to me that creativity is a way to be, not confined to what we do – and yet, manifesting in all that we do. Likewise, while the left side of the brain is more linear and the right more spatial, the synapses that spark and catch fire cross over, go hand in hand.

When I taught legal writing to young lawyers, I sought to inspire them to be creative in writing their legal memos, motions and briefs. (That being said, I cautioned that including a poem as part of a legal argument would probably go too far on the part of a lawyer – leave that to the Justices and judges!)

Legal writing has form, structure and rules. So too does poetry – not just rhymed or forms like the sonnet and villanelle, but the best poetry pays attention to rhythm and image, alliteration and assonance, best words and line breaks.

When I was still at the Federal Defender Office, I would start a brief just as I do a poem. Oh, the fear of the blank page! On my computer I would enter the standard headings – STATEMENT OF THE CASE, STATEMENT OF THE FACTS, ARGUMENT, CONCLUSION – just to feel I’d begun. Then I would get down facts and legal arguments quickly, without editing at that stage.

That is also what I do with a poem. Whether I jot down a bit of stream-of-consciousness prose or broken lines for a poem in a leather journal, a drugstore composition book, a legal pad, or on the computer – at the start, the Editor is off. Otherwise, the words emerge so hesitantly, I lose the flow, miss the train, before getting halfway down the stream, track or page.

Not everyone writes this way in whatever genre. I have witnessed how precisely some attorneys in my former office would write their first drafts. Some poets compose in their minds, have lines memorized before setting them down on a page.

But all of us need to learn how to edit. Some may need little. Given my way of writing, thorough editing is crucial. I think about what Stephen Armstrong taught at the national defender seminars, based on his book, Thinking like a Writer – thinking and editing are synergistic (like thought and language, chicken and egg), in the sense that editing clarifies thinking and, in turn, clarified thinking results in clear and precise writing.

As I face a rough, rough draft of a poem, I ask – What does the poem want to say? What is its focus? Where are the heart and pulse lines? Is this the most right word? Have I overadjectivized? Are the verbs strong, the images fresh? Are the linebreaks open to possibility, do they mimic the rhythm of the spoken word with an extra half-breath? What form does this poem want to assume – no stanza breaks or couplets, triplets, long or short lines? Am I, as Robert Frost has urged, as surprised as I hope the reader will be? Have I earned, as Stephen Dunn says, any wisdom line that comes through?

I believe it is only the rarest of poems that does not require editing. I cringe at readings when an erstwhile poet steps up to the microphone to introduce his poem as “just written that day.” Some say a poem is never finished. I don’t quite agree with that. True, I can see how, as we grow and deepen in our art, as we become another self from moment to moment shaped by experience, we bring a new pair of eyes to our poems. But that may simply mean that a new poem should be written, not that an old one should be changed again.

At the same time, as in all things, striking the right balance is paramount. I could tinker with a poem to the point of losing its essence, its initial pure flame – like a too-hasty blow of a hammer to the marble. But I will risk this in order not to leave the wing, the torso, the flared nostril buried under layers of sediment and caught unemerged in the stone.