The Judicial Opinion and the Poem: Ways of Reading, Ways of Life

This paper is an essay in what I want to call the poetics of the law. I begin with a largely autobiographical account of what seems to me a striking similarity in the ways in which poetry and law once were taught – and to some degree still are taught, though perhaps less comfortably so. My first object is to suggest some connections: between these two kinds of thought and expression; between the ways in which we are habituated to read texts of each sort; and between the dilemmas that confront readers and critics in each field. In doing these things I shall be pointing to connections between two branches of our culture that are often thought to have little to do with each other, and claiming that these connections teach us something about the way each branch can and should proceed. With particular reference to law, I mean to suggest that it can be best understood as a set of literary practices that create new possibilities for meaning and action in life and in doing so enable us to constitute human communities in distinctive ways. But my ultimate hope reaches beyond law, even beyond poetry: it is to work out some ways in which we who are engaged in the processes of cultural and communal life, lawyers and poets and critics among the rest, might better come to understand and to judge our own cultural situations and our own activities.