The poetry of the law

Ken Bresler//April 27, 2018

The poetry of the law

By BridgeTower Media Newswire

//Ken Bresler

//April 27, 2018

BOSTON – In honor of National Poetry Month, which is April, I offer you not poetry about law or by lawyers, but observations about the relationship between poetry and law. Some of the quotations are poetic in their own right.


“The law is not the place for the artist or the poet. The law is the calling of thinkers.”

— Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., “The Profession of the Law”

Ouch. That is a startling and extreme sentiment, especially from Justice Holmes, a noted crafter of words and the son of a noted poet.


“‘The law, like poetry, is the final resort of the lame, the halt, the imbecile, and the blind. I dare say Caesar invented the law business to protect himself against poets.’”

— William Faulkner, “Flags in the Dust” (the character Horace is speaking)

This takes some parsing, as does much of Faulkner. Poets and their art must indeed be powerful if law, an exercise in power, had to be invented to counter them. Faulkner, or at least one of his characters, was not saying that people with limited physical and mental abilities enter the law. “The final resort” may mean that law protects imbeciles and the disabled— that it’s their last chance.


“(P)oets … are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society. … Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

— Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry”

Wow. Who knew? But who am I to argue with Shelley? Or should I say, “Senator Shelley, world legislator”?


“The authoritative opinions of philosophers, physicians, and poets are to be adduced and regarded in causes.”

— Black’s Law Dictionary at 1901, Appendix B, Legal Maxims

Just what constitutes an “authoritative opinion” of a poet? Is it a poem? Black’s includes no citation to that maxim, and no cases cite it. However, court decisions do cite and recite poetry. For decades, judges quoted Bob Dylan, thinking that they were quoting folksong lyrics. When Dylan received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, dozens of decisions retroactively were citing poetry. Nunc pro tunc.


Finally, here is my favorite quotation about law and poetry. It’s by Archibald MacLeish, who among many things during his life was a poet, a Harvard Law School graduate, a Harvard Law Review dropout, a practicing lawyer in Boston, the librarian of Congress, and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry. In a 1972 address to the Harvard Law Review, he said:

“The Socratic spark … set insatiable fires where no flame was ever seen before. … But beyond the spark? Beyond the spark a vision — the vision of mental time, of the interminable journey of the human mind, the great tradition of the intellectual past which knows the bearing of the future. No one, not the most erudite or scholarly man (sic), who has failed to see that vision can truly serve the art of poetry or any other art, and by no study better than the study of the law can that great sight be seen. The law has one way of seeing it. Poetry has another. But the journey is the same.”

— Archibald MacLeish, “Apologia”

What do you think now, Justice Holmes? I move for reconsideration of your opinion.

Ken Bresler is a lawyer in Boston, the principal of, and author of “Poetry Made Visible: Boston Sites for Poetry Lovers, Art Lovers & Lovers.”


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