Friday, March 2, 2007


I knew this endeavor would soon lead me into the fuzzy territory of all those poems that are not explicitly “about” law on their faces, but may resonate with readers/lawyers as relevant to the project. When I described the idea—an anthology of poems about law—to Yale Professor Kenji Yoshino, he promptly retorted, “aren’t they all?”

To me, Larkin’s “Ignorance” is not just a law poem, but a law school poem. As in the Dugan poem I posted yesterday, the unmediated logic of “things” and the natural order seems strange and unattainable to the self, here a more fumbling and noncommittal self that the id-driven self of “Internal Migration.” While Dugan’s speaker is reigned in physically and emotionally by rules and the threat of discipline, Larkin’s speaker is estranged (“strange,” “strange,” “strange”) from an outside world that ticks on (“punctual”) organically, without fear or hesitation. Organs without language function, thrive, adapt, reproduce, and evolve, without the crippling self-doubt that plagues the thinking being.

The speaker sounds a lot like a law student or young lawyer to this law student. We come to the law and it appears to have an authority and a “shape,” one that “works” and “find[s] what it needs” while it nonetheless remains elastic, “willing[] to change.” There purports to be a “way things work” but we are ignorant to it as we are plunged into its unwelcoming depths. Like the speaker, we are fascinated, perhaps jealous, certainly estranged and “[un]sure/ of what is true or right or real”: the Socratic method at its best. I don’t know, but “someone must know”! We live inside the law and “wear” it, it becomes our “flesh,” but law students and young lawyers so often feel like frauds.

Advocacy says: argue that your client must win according to the law, regardless of “what is true or right or real.” Larkin’s speaker is twice ignorant: ignorant of the means by which “things work” and work together in the outside world, and ignorant too to the piece of the self that is the physical body. The poem’s closing two couplets align on the page the “decisions”/”imprecisions” that divide and distinguish flesh from intellect. I have heard many young lawyers speak of pretending to be lawyers, playing a role prescribed by title and trappings (suit, briefcase, shiny new vocabulary) and hoping to grow into it from the outside-in. What does that disconnect suggest about us and the profession—“That when we start to die/ Have no idea why”?

Philip Larkin

Strange to know nothing, never to be sure
Of what is true or right or real,
But forced to qualify or so I feel,
Or Well, it does seem so:
Someone must know.

Strange to be ignorant of the way things work:
Their skill at finding what they need,
Their sense of shape, and punctual spread of seed,
And willingness to change;
Yes, it is strange,

read the rest of the poem

and find a whole slew of Larkin poems

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