Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Poetry, Literature, and Justice for All

Poetry, literature, and law may not seem like they go hand-in-hand, but printed words can actually help ease judges’ stress from their day jobs as well as improve their work/life balance.

Last year I taught a webcast for the National Judicial College called “Poetry as Judicial Medicine.” Poetry can provide a source of inspiration and comfort to the day-to-day routines we have on the bench. It may also involve judges being more empathetic and better serve those who come before them in court.

One of my favorite poems is from Billy Collins, about a teacher talking about students:


Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

What poetry “really means” may be something I discuss with my judges next week, when, for the seventh time at the NJC in Ashland, Oregon, I’ll be presenting “Law and Ethics: A Novel Approach.”

This program is an innovative method of considering judicial ethics by using a variety of literary forms. The curriculum is designed to allow judges to discuss and analyze their own life experiences with respect to that of works of literature. While in Ashland, we will be attending several plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and discussing ethical dilemmas posed within the plays and relate them to the judiciary.

As a former English teacher, I’ve always had a love of reading and writing, but I wasn’t too sure about poetry. But poetry is much more than rhyme, rhythm, meter, and metaphor. The feelings that I had before that “poetry makes no sense,” “it has no value,” “I don’t have time to read it,” have changed.

Judges are legal readers and writers; words are their stock-in-trade. They must interpret ambiguous statutes and contracts filled with tedious legal clichés.

It’s too easy to be so finely focused on legal issues that the world is seen only through the limited abstract lens of the law. If nuance, the messy irresolution of life and all of its feelings are forgotten, judges may give up too much and forget how to be human.

My work as a judge for more than 31 years now gives me a different perspective. Poetry is fresh and opens up the mind to experiences in a new way, leading judges to become more empathetic and better able to serve others.

And I see all aspects of literature as an intellectual way to show how the judicial system and the written word can join to bring comfort to those who sit on the bench, while also encouraging the highest ethical behavior.


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