Poets have been grouped with lunatics and lovers. But not with lawyers.
Lawyers are hard-driving, competitive, tough negotiators, cold as steel.
Poets are feeling, sensitive, introspective, solitary.
Lawyers resolve outer conflicts. Poets explore inner contradictions.
At least, that's the cliche.
So it may come as a surprise in this city of lawyers to discover that among the stacks of torts, motions, arguments, proceedings, briefs and other legal paraphernalia that Tennyson once termed the "dusty purlieus of the law," there are some lawyer-poets yearning to breathe free.
"The poetry is what keeps you sane when you get the time to write it," says Karl Carter, an attorney in private practice specializing in racial-discrimination law.
"Law has challenges and moments of exhilaration, but much of the actual work is dry and technical. After spending endless hours immersed in the rules and regulations of the Federal Civil Service System, I would dry up without poetry to turn to."
Carter, 36, has been writing poetry since law school at Howard University.
His poems present a sharp contrast to the weary, often discouraging complexities of modern urban life. They harken back to a simpler, pastoral time, though one fraught with racial injustice.
"I get to listen," he says, "to a different voice inside me than the one that goes on in my head every day."
Carter says poems will pop into his head at odd moments, even right in the middle of writing a brief. "When the muse calls, I answer."
His work has been published in "The Poet Who Lives Upstairs," an anthology funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, in "Understanding the New Black Poetry" (published by (morrow) and in various magazines. His upcoming book is "A Season in Sorrow."
Carter is one of a dozen or more area attorneys actively writing and publishing poetry. There are so many that the Glen Echo Writers Center has now recognized a new sub-specialty of writing: The Center will sponsor on Sunday a reading titled. "Poets Who are Lawyers."
One of the attorneys who will be reading -- and dancing -- his poetry that day is Peter Noterman, 38, a graduate of Cornell University Law School and now in private practice.
"When I was younger, I thought that law killed your soul," admits Noterman. "It took me years to resolve what seemed like a contradiction between law and poetry. I think I can be happy with both, especially since much of my legal work involves representing writers and artists.
"Now I am working on another contradiction, which is that most poets are afraid of their bodies. I will be dancing my poetry to incorporate myself into the poem."
In preparation for this unusual merger (which calls on a kind of courage far different from that needed in a courtroom), Noterman has spent a year studying Tai-Chi, an ancient Chinese martial art that combines body movement and inner meditation.
"In our society," laments Noterman "you are forced to emphasize one side of your personality, while in other times, such as Elizabethan and before, that wasn't true. Great poets such as Dante and Chaucer held high government posts while creating beautiful poetry. Milton was secretary of state under Cromwell, and still produced 'Paradise Lost.'
"Only in modern times have serious writers been driven out of the mainstream of society. It seems that you can't be serious in art and in work today. This is an unnatural situation."
When John McNally reads his poetry Sunday, he will be far away from the issues of money and power that he sees as central to the practice of law.
"Law and poetry," he says, "are two very different operations. Poetry enriches life, while law restricts it. Legal training sharpens your mind by narrowing it, while poetry enlarges other facets of your personality.
"But don't get me wrong, practicing law is very satisfying and I would not be happy without it. Nor without poetry. I need both."
McNally started writing poetry at the University of Virginia Law School. Now 36, he is a partner in an Arlington firm speciaalizing in federal court litigatin.
His poems have appeared in many small magazines.In 1977, he published a book, "Northern Lights," funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Attorney-poet Bethami Auerbach, who is on the staff of the General Counsel of the Environmental Protection Agency, finds that writing poems can be a great relief from writing legal documents.
"For one thing, you can finish a poem more quickly.It has a beginning and an end, which is sometimes hard to envision when producing a complex brief."
Auerback, 30, daughter of a California municipal court judge and a graduate of Stanford University Law School, has had her poems in the locally published anthology, "Rye Bread."
She also sees law and poetry as two very different worlds. "As a lawyer you must not show your feelings; you have got to be a good poker player to be a good negotiator. This leads to a bifurcation of your personality, which is not the best way to live.
"In law, you use lots of qualifying statements to hedge risks. If you carry such hedges over into your personal life, you tend not to take the necessary risks.
"Yet, law is deeply satisfying. My first argument in court gave me the biggest thrill of my life. It was sheer exhilaration."
Ironically, Auerbach says, "Law has helped my writing. It forced me to cut down on lushness and overwriting, to write more tautly, to be clearer, more sparse.
"Lawyers and poets are both wordsmiths."
David Bristol, a staff attorney at the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, will have his second book of poetry, "Paradise and Cash," published this spring by Washington Writers Publishing House.
"If I have no poetry I am working on, I get depressed," says Bristol, 31. "But poets can be just as one-dimensional as anyone else. Any of us too serious in one area will be too narrow. I wouldn't want poetry without law, nor legal work without my poems."
For Irving Wilner, 70, retirement from a hectic private practice meant the chance to return to a youthful infaturation with poems. His first book, "Poems of the Later Years," will be published this spring by Dryad Press.
"I learned a great deal about language while practicing law," observes Wilner. "In law, there is a lot of pressure. But through it I fell in love with words. I discovered beautiful legal literature. Justice Holmes and Cardozo had a great sense of language that was in an extremely poetical vein."
Are law and poetry two contradictory impulses?
Attorney Michael Blumenthal, who chucked law to write full time and recently won a national award for a first book of poetry, sums it up like this: r
"Law uses words recklessly, while poets want the maximum impact from the minimum number of words. Yet law is precise and analytical, qualities essential to good poetry.
"Perhaps it would do lawyers tood to have some poetry in their lives. And maybe it would do poets good to have some law in theirs." 'Share Cropper' His face was lined
with the years And he talked of the
Dry weather and
the tobacco harvest Of the new shoes for
his children And the piece of cloth
for his woman's
new dress He talked and I listened
simple things. Karl Carter 'Signs of Things to Come' (excerpt) If you were at all awake last night You must have seen the moon, The moon ascending to the twelfth
hour. Unable to comprehend the
assurance Whispered by the fog to the cradled
valley, You did not grasp the warning of
the breeze To the sheltered waters in the cove -- And you knew that you were sailing
out of time. Irving Wilner 'From the Pesticide Wars' (excerpt) There is no lyric in legalese nor poetry in pesticide prescription. This pen moves without palpitation, cleaves to a well-marked path without precipice or detour into madness. I do improbable battle of a refusal to share a secret, a clean safe way to kill bugs. In the process, a small civilian casualty: the magical winged words which used to soar from my head and return to be caught by my pen are felled by toxic fumes, smothered in the crush of enemy-
words (the herebys and heretofores), displaced into tiny confining
camps to grow thin and forlorn. Bethami Auerbach