Prose from Poetry Magazine

Language on Holiday

When lyric meets legal.

During a career of almost forty years in the law department of a large corporation, I have read a great many pages of legal writing. I also read poetry—including this magazine. Wittgenstein (I was a philosophy major in college) said that philosophical problems can arise when “language goes on holiday.” Wittgenstein wanted to make philosophical problems go away, but most of us look forward to holidays. I know I do.

I like to think of poetry as a holiday from my work and responsibilities even though it means more reading. Part of the pleasure of reading a poem for me is that I get to know it better than most forms of writing by taking my time and reading it more than once. I have re-read a few novels, but that is an exception. Greater familiarity does not necessarily mean greater understanding. I frequently find that the more I read a poem the less I understand it. I have read T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets many times. I have read books and articles about the composition of the poem and its meaning. But still, the poem continues, in some essential way, to defy me. And yet, I believe I do understand it. I don’t need to know all of the references and allusions Eliot employs to feel the emotional currents that flow through the poem. It seems to me that poetry speaks to the attitudes we hold about what we know.

Lawyers strive to make their written work clear and subject to only one interpretation. Eliot, however, wrote in “Burnt Norton”:

                                         Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

Lawyers know it is true. I’ve been around long enough to see agreements I helped draft earlier in my career interpreted and applied in new circumstances. The language I had tried my best to write had become unclear and imprecise. The lack of clarity and precision had been there from the beginning. I just hadn’t realized it.

In my work, large sums of money can hinge on what words mean. The legal system provides processes for resolving the meaning of words, and much of the practice of law involves these processes. In the end, the words mean what the final arbiter in the process says they mean. The process must come to an end.

Fortunes don’t depend upon the meaning of poems, and part of the enjoyment I take in poetry is the freedom to relax my vigilance. When I do, the words can work a kind of magic. Instead of narrowing my focus, poetry expands it. When I go on holiday, I can be more open to hear voices that I may miss in my day-to-day life. I may come to view things differently. The facts don’t change, but how I feel about them can. Poems can speak to me when I am less guarded. 

Wittgenstein famously said that philosophy “leaves everything as it is.” Unlike legal writing, which alters what is by changing outcomes, poetry also leaves everything as it is. What changes with philosophy and poetry is how we understand what is and our relation to it. Eliot can’t change the reality of loss, but if I can think with him through his poetry that

We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.

—then I feel all shall be well.

Originally Published: June 1st, 2012

John Seddelmeyer has been employed in the law department of ExxonMobil Corporation since 1974.

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