Poet with a steady job

An introduction to Lawrence Joseph

I first met Lawrence Joseph nearly thirty years ago. I was a sophomore in high school, with verses in hand and trouble in mind. He was a young professor at the University of Detroit School of Law, where my father served as dean. A serious poet with a steady job, Joseph struck my father as a good role model for his freshly literary son, so he sent us out for lunch at a diner near campus. Two memories stick with me from that afternoon. The first is a line of mine about “sun-burnished ice,” from which Joseph diagnosed a chronic inflammation of my diction, to be brought down by exercises in the American Idiom. The second? The dazzle of names, mostly modernist and European, that lit up his voice as the lunch went on. Brecht, Baudelaire, Alberti, Montale, Celan: my health and growth as a poet, he felt, would depend as much on lessons from such international masters as it would on acquiring a taste for the Coney dogs and ice-cold Vernors of Detroit vernacular.

Since the publication of his first book, Shouting at No One (1983), Joseph has been introduced to readers as an poet of working-class Detroit, an Arab American poet, a Catholic poet, and most of all as a “lawyer-poet” — “the most important lawyer-poet of our era,” according to Legal Affairs. Although his work has been widely reviewed and acclaimed, it has not received the kind of sustained, detailed attention that its international scope and aesthetic ambition both deserve and demand. No American poet knows the linguistic “codes” of money, power, and the law as intimately as Joseph; none brings these into such deft, intricate dialogue with the languages of beauty and terror, violence and the sacred. As for identity poetics, we do well to keep in mind this poet’s repeated assertion, against journalistic oversimplifications of his work, that the “I” in his poems is a fictive, modernist construct, shifting from poem to poem and volume to volume as his work evolves. “Poet of heaven,” son of Detroit, lawyer, prophet, flaneur: each “I” we encounter in Joseph is, at least in part, Rimbaud’s “I is another,” composed and refracted through a remarkable array of lyric and juxtapositional techniques.

On February 29, 2008, the complexity of Joseph’s art took center stage at the University of Cincinnati Law School symposium “Some Sort of Chronicler I Am: Narration and the Poetry of Lawrence Joseph.” The focus on narration was strategic, linking Joseph’s work to issues that have shaped the field of “law and literature” for nearly thirty years; the papers presented, however, also explored the poet’s relationships to modernism and trauma, to urban history, to arguments over lyric and Language writing in the 1980s, and to other issues of interest to readers, scholars, and fellow poets with no ties to law. The following year, the University of Cincinnati Law Review published those conference papers, along with some additional contributions. As one of those published, I was delighted to see the pieces in print, but I also immediately hankered to get the best of them out to a wider readership, and to use the opportunity that this symposium had opened to bring new voices into the critical conversation.

This feature in Jacket2 gathers the most widely useful and provocative of the University of Cincinnati symposium papers, including the poet’s own commonplace book, “Notions of Poetry and Narration.” Some of these essays have been revised or remixed: Frank D. Rashid, for example, has taken material from his 2008 PMLA essay on Joseph’s internationalism, published in a special section on “Writing While Arab,” and set it in conversation with his Law Review piece on Joseph’s Detroit. In addition, the feature offers two groundbreaking essays by poet-critics: Norman Finkelstein’s “Ground Zero Baudelaire,” which explores the “poetics of shock” behind Into It, Joseph’s first collection after 9/11; and “Before the Laws,” Tyrone Williams’ expansive account of the secular, sacred, and aesthetic modes that cut across the poet’s career. Offering a host of new readings of, contexts for, and approaches to Lawrence Joseph, this feature lays the foundation for future study — and future reading, simply for pleasure — of a still-serious poet, still with a steady job chronicling his and our time.