Roses are red
Violets are blue
There’s a lot poetry can do for you
Poetry is both beautiful and instructive. It captures sensations, and shows us the power of language. I use poetry for pleasure, mental health, and work.
I initially considered poetry an arcane language used by sadistic English teachers to punish students. Poetry at school was like the dissection of a beautiful butterfly; I lost sight of the beauty, and all I could see was the scalpel, tweezers, forceps, metaphors, alliteration, and pentameter. Although, in my opinion, we were also looking to dissect slugs… ugly poems for a different era. Not to mention that poetry was viewed as a distinctly un-masculine pursuit back when I was at school in Tasmania — the State where homosexuality was illegal at the time too.
Having my anti-poetry prejudice questioned in my 30s was confronting; my opinions were solid and long-held. However, my friend was persistent and patient and over beers (yes, you can drink and discuss poetry), he gifted me an anthology of contemporary poems, Staying Alive – real poems for unreal times. He had highlighted some of the poems and asked that I take it home and read them. I read the first couple of poems out of a sense of duty to our friendship and then I finished the entire 450-page book of over 200 poems a few days later out of pure delight. It was a revelation; contemporary poetry spoke to me, it could reduce me to tears, make me roar with laughter, and transport me to places from my childhood. It changed the way I looked at the written word — words have power!
Legal Drafting vs Poems
A lawyer uses words to bring order to chaos. To provide guidelines, policies, procedure, and legislation, and to reduce ambiguity and emotion. Language open to different interpretation is to be avoided and to make sure it isn’t misinterpreted, we had definitions and guidelines for interpretation; golden, mischief and literal. It didn’t matter how many words you needed to achieve those goals; just keep typing until it is done – ten, one hundred, one thousand pages if necessary. None of this is wrong, but just like you can use ink to create a technical blueprint or an impressionist painting, so too can words be used to create a contract or a poem. They each have their place, and in law you need to use both. While a contract tries to remove gaps for imagination, a poem asks you to draw on it, to fill the gaps with your experiences.
That is not to say there isn’t beauty in a piece of legal drafting. There is beauty in efficiency and precisely meshed gears, and every so often I see drafting that is so elegant in its simplicity and precision that it is a work of art. Turning the complexities of law into simple language is an art form in itself. It does not, however, touch me emotionally or utilise my imagination in the same way a poem does.
To me, poetry is an extension of the use of language. It’s like a ballet dancer performing a contemporary dance, a classical musician playing jazz, a skier going off-piste — mastery of the basics is essential before improvisation. Poetry is an extension of the classical rules of English; before you can break the rules, you need to understand them. I know I can affront most lawyers with a simple word, but I’ll tell youse later. Made your toes curl, didn’t it?
Formatting makes a difference and if you think it doesn’t then you’re wrong. Poetry shows us that formatting can induce an emotive response.
It can be as simple as a font or a colour.
How do you want the person to feel as they read your contract? The way you format can alter the way they feel about your content and you. Use it wisely, stop thinking of it as an admin task and start thinking of it as a way to communicate.
Your CV is a sample of your drafting ability. Is your CV a series of dense blocks of impenetrable text in comic sans, 9 point font, or is it set out in a calm, structured, accessible manner? Your drafting ability will be judged based on your CV, and rightly so. Why should anyone think your contract drafting style or skills will differ?
It is often overlooked that your CV also needs to present a human element. It is likely that you will spend more time with your work colleagues than your spouse. People want to know if they are going to connect with you on a personal level. Algorithms solve an increasingly larger number of our issues; however, the human connection is one that is beyond them, and emotional intelligence (EQ) is becoming a highly sought-after capability. To connect with your audience and demonstrate EQ, your vibe must come across in your CV. Read some poetry first to get into the mood and then give it a shot.
‘If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter’
Blaise Pascal, 1657
People value different things; some value antique French clocks (hat tip to Paul Keating) many value money, others value family, or fast cars, but there is one commodity that everybody wants, and no one has enough of… wait for it …… a little longer… here it comes … it’s time. See, you even found that slight delay frustrating, didn’t you? Now, imagine one of your contracts/pleadings. If you really want to engage with your audience, respect their time. To know whether your writing is concise, try comparing it to a Haiku. This one is a title and eleven words:
Endless: Text rolling paragraphs grow as pages turn Still cursor blinks on
Charlie Smirl, 2021
How long was your last e-mail? When was the last time you used ‘sic’ when referencing the other party’s drafting? Move on, your life and that of your audience are too short.
While there may be little room for poetry in legal documents, the same cannot be said for persuasive writing. And (conjunction at the beginning of sentence freak in’ you out?), in my view, a lawyer needs to be just as sk illed in persuasive writing as legal drafting. After all, you need to connect with your audience and persuade a person to sign, convince judge and jury that your opinion is worthwhile, and ultimately that your time is worth your salary.
Any marketer will tell you that to persuade, you need to appeal to emotions as much as logic, which is where poetry can teach us a thing or two. Mar tin Luther King Jr. didn’t say ‘I have a spreadsheet and a PowerPoint ’ nor did the White House turn to a list of ‘pros and cons’ or ‘stats and data’ when it sought to unite a divided country — they used our imagination and poetry to appeal to our better nature.
Excerpt from ‘I Have a Dream’
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal’.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
28 August, 1963. Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C.
Excerpt from ‘The Hill We Climb’
…even as we hurt, we hoped, that even as we tired, we tried, that we’ll forever be tied together, victorious
Amanda Gorman’s Inauguration Poem, 2021
I was asked to write 1,800 words, but I’ll respect your time, finish here and leave you with a couple of final suggestions:
- If you haven’t heard it yet, listen to poet Amanda Gorman’s full reading of ‘The Hill We Climb’
- Dip into a poetry book and see where it takes you