One of my high school English teachers tried to get us interested in poetry, and succeeded with me. He wrote on the blackboard four or five passages in verse and challenged us to guess which were honest-to-goodness poems written by poets, and which were written the day before by him (and the blonde volleyball player in whom he was taking a tutorial interest). I recall only one passage, four lines beginning: “Spring, the sweet spring, is the year’s pleasant king;/Then blooms each thing, then maids dance in a ring.”
It ended with “to-witta-woo,” so I immediately pegged it as hackwork written the day before. But I learned to my astonishment that it was written by a poet (Thomas Nashe, who can pass). I needed to know what validated this seeming doggerel, and what rendered phony the mawkish stuff written by my English teacher and his assistant. I came to the conclusion that it had to do with the sound of it, and that you could not make any such judgment unless you spoke the text aloud. That has remained for me a touchstone.
My liberal arts education gave me very little to work with in terms of life experience, but it did give me views on what to read next, to hear next, and to look at. I studied literature in graduate school and had a brief career teaching English—so for about ten years I read a lot of poetry, and a lot of everything else. Such are the habits of a lifetime that now, having been a federal judge for the past sixteen years, I think of myself as a graduate student with a terrific fellowship (and a modest stipend) that lasts for life.
My work as an appellate judge is insulated, donnish, and reflective, consisting of little else but reading and writing; but my career in law has cut me off for several decades from close connection with other people who need poetry. So I have become eccentric in my reading. Still, I retain a frame of reference, and my long interest in poetry has yielded a respect for the language that people should employ when they undertake to speak the law. It helps to be able to weigh words, to hear their resonance, and to pay attention to sound and rhythm.
Some judges cite literature in their opinions. I do not—except once I quoted Auden, and even that was in a footnote: legal doctrine contemplates a class of one, but I wrote an opinion in which I wished to deprecate the idea, and Auden furnished the text: “How fascinating is that class/Whose only member is Me!”
Few are the cases seen by an appellate judge in which poetry matters. In sixteen years on the bench, I have had only one, a copyright case. The plaintiff had tracked down all the poems he could find that Dorothy Parker had not collected in her four volumes of verse, and he published them in book form. The plaintiff had offered the uncollected poems to the publisher of Parker’s complete poems, and sued when that publisher—without payment—added the uncollected material (virtually unchanged) to a new edition of the complete poems. It was necessary to determine whether all of the items were poetry, and I was able to distinguish verse from prose. But the case turned on whether the plaintiff could copyright, as his compilation, all of Parker’s uncollected poems. We concluded that the selection—based on the principle of omission from Parker’s own published volumes of verse—was made in effect by Parker herself, not the plaintiff; so we dismissed the suit.
Poets I still read regularly decades after my first encounters include Tennyson (for music), Auden (for temperament and outlook), Pope (for the edge), Herrick and Herbert (for versification), Wyatt (for modernity, oddly), Cavafy (for worldliness), and Swinburne (a guilty pleasure). More recently, I have read Geoffrey Hill, Philip Larkin, early Ted Hughes, Miklós Radnóti, John Hollander (especially Reflections on Espionage), and David Wagoner (try him). My subscription to Poetry has heightened my interest in translation, kept me abreast of current writers I’ve admired, and introduced me to poets such as Alice Friman and Bob Hicok.
I’ve never been one who commits poetry to memory. I don’t have the knack. I need to take in the page, see the layout, and read aloud (if I can) or mumble (when that’s all that can be done). Still, after long reading of poems, there is a fund of lines and phrases that come to mind like snatches of music, sometimes sinuous, sometimes just insidious. As I drive to work through Chinatown, I often notice the Bank of Cathay, and I hear a line from “Locksley Hall”; passing a horse farm en route to my country home, I think of Dylan Thomas’s image of creation (“the spellbound horses”); reading a biography, I think of Larkin on parenting; and come the thaw, I think of Nashe.