Articles - February 2012

New life writing

From Tan Lin’s "Insomnia and the Aunt."

It was a Thursday in 2003 when Jackson Mac Low and Anne Tardos were giving a reading and conversation at the Buffalo Poetics Program — billed as an eightieth birthday celebration for Mac Low — and someone asked him about his early poem “Sonnet of My Death.” I don’t recall exactly the question, but most of us in the room were disconcerted by it. It wasn’t really about his work, but rather about his views on the afterlife, ostensibly meant to square the content of his poem with his Buddhist devotion to notions of impermanence. Later, alone in a car with Mac Low and Tardos, without thinking it through but with great conviction, I blurted out, “It wasn’t a question about death, it was a question about life,” and that seemed to alleviate lingering frustration. We all agreed, maybe just in consolation, that all questions about death are really questions about life.

Before the laws

The secular, sacred, and aesthetic cases of Lawrence Joseph

Outside those poems constrained by explicitly procedural and chance operations, a lyrical impulse, which is not to be confused with the lyric per se, dominates almost all the modes of contemporary poetry. Whether explicit or implicit, this impulse, apparent in narrative-, image-driven, and paratactic poetics, is irreducible to any specific subgenre or mode.[1] Though the lyrical impulse differs from the lyric, which can be defined as “a relatively short poem in which the sensual and musical qualities of language are heightened in order to present a subjective, emotionally charged moment, an interior event with lasting resonance,”[2] it functions, like the genre from which it derives, as a “law of poetics,” imposing constraints during the composition of poetry, the judgment of what to publish and what not to publish, the judgment of what is and isn’t poetry, etc. The various practices of poetry under this law habituate authors, publishers, and critics to its apparent inevitability, naturalizing the lyrical impulse, if not the lyric per se, as the sine qua non of poetry in general. These practices tend to calcify into irrepressible, complementary habits of writing and reading which function as “local” laws in relation to the general law of the lyric. These “laws” explain why readers and critics can “trace” or follow motives and motifs in a poet’s career; the final suppression of the lyrical (not the lyric) impulse rarely occurs.[3] The poet returns incessantly to the scene of instruction which is, of course, the scene of the crime, the enabling trauma that enters public life under the mask, in the cage, of the law of the lyric.[4]

Embedded chronicles

Lawrence Joseph's poetry of urgency

What follows are two lawyer jokes widely distributed on the internet:

Your attorney and your mother-in-law are trapped in a burning building. You only have time to save one of them. Do you: (1) have lunch? or (2) go to a movie?[1]

A man was sent to Hell for his sins. As he was being taken to his place of eternal torment, he passed a room where a lawyer was having an intimate encounter with a beautiful young woman. “What a ripoff,” the man muttered. “I have to roast for all eternity, and that lawyer gets to spend it with a beautiful woman.” Jabbing the man with his pitchfork, the escorting demon snarled, “Who are you to question that woman’s punishment?”[2]

What’s important in any joke is not so much the punch line as the uprush of recognition that occurs after the punch line, as compressed subtextual connections come to us with the surprise of a vulgar epiphany, but an epiphany no less.

'Telling the time'

Narrative and lyric in the poetry of Lawrence Joseph

Here is one version of Lawrence Joseph, an excerpt from the profile that appears on the St. John’s University School of Law website:

Joseph was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1948. His grandparents were Lebanese and Syrian Catholics, among the first Arab emigrants to Detroit. He was educated at the University of Michigan, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with High Honors in English Language and Literature in 1970, and received first prize in the major Hopwood Award for Poetry; Cambridge University, where he received both Bachelor and Master of Arts degrees with First Honors in English Language and Literature, in 1972 and 1976 respectively; and the University of Michigan Law School, where he received a JD in 1975. He then served as law clerk to Justice G. Mennen Williams of the Michigan Supreme Court. From 1978 to 1981, he was a member of the School of Law faculty at the University of Detroit. In 1981, he moved to New York City, where he was associated with the firm of Shearman & Sterling. At Shearman & Sterling, his practice included securities, bankruptcy, anti-trust, mergers and acquisitions, products liability, and real estate litigation. Joseph has published and has lectured extensively in areas of labor, employment, tort and compensation law, jurisprudence, law and literature, and legal theory. He has served as Consultant on Tort and Compensation Law for the Michigan State Senate’s Commission on Courts, and as Consultant for the Governor of Michigan’s Commission on Workers’ Compensation, Occupational Disease and Employment, and has received a grant from the Employment Standards Division of the United States Department of Labor to write on workers’ compensation.

Several kinds of chronicler, he's been

The books and selves of Lawrence Joseph

Critics often introduce Lawrence Joseph through his biography. David Kirby’s 2005 review of Codes and Into It for the New York Times, for example, musters geography, ethnicity, religion, and the law to make the poet seem at once exotic and familiar.[1] First we meet Joseph the lawyer-poet: a hybrid guaranteed, even now, to catch the reader’s eye. (Twenty years ago David Lehman introduced Joseph to Newsweek readers in just the same way: “Do poetry and the law make strange bedfellows? Lawrence Joseph thinks not.”)[2] Next, in a flashback paragraph, we learn that the poet “was born in Detroit in 1948, the grandchild of Lebanese and Syrian Catholics” and that his poems “speak of his family’s often trying experiences: the slights […] and the violence, especially the 1967 riot that left sections of downtown gutted and the wounding of his father, a grocer, in a 1970 holdup attempt.” After this appeal to pathos Kirby sketches Joseph’s literary career in chatty, even chummy language. “Not surprisingly, Joseph’s earlier writings include a lot of who-am-I poems,” the critic begins; over time, those evolve into the world-weary observations of an urbane attorney. “[A]s Joseph the lawyer makes his way up the ladder,” we learn, “Joseph the poet begins to use phrases like ‘financial markets’ and ‘decreased foreign investment’” and “the voice in the poems expresses malaise: ‘I make favors, complain, wear / a white shirt and blue suit. I’m tired.’”