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Entries in poetry (5)

Sunday
Dec112011

Follow Up Connections: Human Rights, Science, and Literature

As this blog is about connecting ideas, this follow up post will do just that: provide some interesting connections between human rights, science, and literature.

As discussed yesterday, International Human Rights Day, celebrated yearly on December 10, recognizes the anniversary of the most influential human rights document: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For more on this, read yesterday's posting here.

December 10, is also the day in which the Nobel Prize Laureates receive their Prize in a ceremony fraught with history and solemnity. This year, the Nobel Peace Prize recipients are three courageous women: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, Tawakkol Karmen. According to the Nobel Committee, these three women won "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work". How apt these women received this prize on International Human Rights Day. Their inspiring lectures are a constant reminder that the struggle for human rights is ongoing, even though the Universal Decleration of Human Rights has been enacted for 63 years.

Yesterday was also exceptional for the lunar eclipse seen throughout many parts of the world. Historically, both solar and lunar eclipses, as an omen of fate, stopped wars, or, as in the case of the Peloponnesian War, changed the course of history. Thus, the lunar eclipse as a harbinger of peace, is a meaningful event on a day we celebrate human dignity.

Finally, December 10 was the birth date of a poet, who understood the power of words to express love and hate. Emily Dickinson was a shy and retiring poet, who wrote astoundingly simple yet breathtakingly beautiful poetry. In her 8 line poem from Part One: Life, Emily reminds us where our priorities lie:

HAD no time to hate, because
The grave would hinder me,
And life was not so ample I
Could finish enmity.
  
Nor had I time to love; but since         
Some industry must be,
The little toil of love, I thought,
Was large enough for me.
Wednesday
Nov162011

Judges As Poets?

The poet "judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling around a helpless thing." Walt Whitman - Preface to the Leaves of Grass (1855)

WH Auden - Law, Like Love:

...Law, says the judge as he looks down his nose,

 Speaking clearly and most severely,

Law is as I've told you before,

Law is as you know I suppose,

Law is but let me explain it once more,

Law is The Law...

Law is the clothes men wear...

From the two excerpts above, you have probably already formulated the premise of this blog: comparing and contrasting the differing viewpoints of poets through verse as opposed to judges through the formality of the law. Although that is the correct assumption, the bigger question is how did you come to that conclusion? Well, simply by reading the verses and extrapolating through their meaning. Thus, we come to the point: poetry can and does express in a few words what prose expresses in many. Law, by its very nature, tends to the prose side for that very reason. In other words, in law, verbosity reigns.

And yet, poetry does have a place in legal reasoning. As discussed yesterday, the complete versification of a judgment is frowned upon, but the use of relevant and timely excerpts of poetry or sayings of a poet to emphasize or illuminate a legal point, has an accepted place in the legal arena. The Honourable Justice Randall Scott Echlin, sitting on the Ontario Superior Court of Justice before he passed away, is a case in point. Although his practice area was employment law, his broad use of the wisdom of the poets in his judgments makes one wonder what his undergraduate degree was in. In three of his judgments, I found references to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Goethe, and Henri Frederic Amiel. Each of these excerpts provided an "opener" to the judgment and provide support and meaning to the reasons. 

Alberta is not immune either as Provincial Court Judge Ann Brown used the same quote of the poet Ovid in three sentencing cases. But the laurel wreath goes to British Columbia Provincial Court Judge Doherty who, in sentencing the accused, in a tragic manslaughter case, quoted Lord Byron from canto the third in Don Juan "All tragedies are finish'd by a death."

Upon reading that seven word phrase, there is a clear understanding by all of the immense impact a moment in time can have on a person's life and another person's death. And it is the poets and their poetry that can help us see this.

 

Tuesday
Nov152011

Poetic Justice Revisited

In a previous blog entitled Poetic Justice, I discussed the use of poetry in the courtroom. I referred to a recent Ontario case in which the Assistant Crown Attorney gave his submissions in rhyming verse. Subsequently, the Crown apologized for taking such poetic license. This case illustrates the uncertain role poetry has in the legal arena.

Often poetry is deemed incompatible with the legal precepts of the law and is frowned upon such as in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in Porreco V. Porreco. In that decision, Justice Eakin's dissent was written entirely in rhymed verse. The majority, which included the Chief Justice, was not so moved by the poetry and, in a strongly worded decision, disapproved of the unconventional dissent.

On the other hand, poetry has been used effectively in many decisions to provide guidance on an issue or as a meaningful metaphor for the case. In these instances, the Judge uses an excerpt or line from a poem to emphasize the point. In tomorrow's blog, I will continue the search for the poetic in law with a survey of the Canadian cases, which although not fully versified, do use the power of poetry or words to it's fullest effect. On that note, I leave you with the poem entitled Power of Words by the 19th century British poet Letitia Elizabeth Landon:

'Tis a strange mystery, the power of words!

Life is in them, and death. A word can send

The crimson colour hurrying to the cheek

Hurrying with many meanings; or can turn

The current cold and deadly to the heart.

Anger and fear are in them; grief and joy

Are on their sound; yet slight, impalpable:-

A word is but a breath of passing air.

 

Friday
Nov112011

Lest We Forget

Remembrance Day is a time of reflection. Every November 11 at 10:50 a.m., my family and I honour the day by sharing passages of poetry written by war poets. We then, at 11:00 a.m., observe a moment of silence. Last year we also went to Lunchbox Theatre in Calgary and watched the musical, In Flanders Field, based on the poet John McCrae's life. It was a moving production which left none of us with a dry eye. This year, we will repeat the observance and watch Lunchbox Theatre's play on World War II, entitled Jake's Gift

I have already decided which poems, I will present tomorrow and among them are three poems which exemplify the war poetry genre. The first poem is written by the World War One British poet, Wilfred Owen, entitled Dulce Et Decorum Est,  which refers to the words of Horace: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. The phrase translates to "it is sweet to die for one's country." Wilfred Owen uses the phrase in a stunning description of death by gas where he warns against teaching young children "ardent for some desperate glory" the old lie as expressed in the phrase. Owen, a friend of another famous British poet Siegfried Sasson, died only 7 days before the Armistice was announced.

The second poet, Keith Douglas, served for Britain in World War II in the Middle East and in North Africa. He was shipped back to England in time to participate in the Normandy invasion of D-Day where he died. There are two of his poems I will read: Vergissmeinnicht (Forget-me-not) and How To Kill. His poetry holds deadly visceral energy yet lands softly as he declaims that "A shadow is a man when the mosquito death approaches."

Finally, I will read a poem written by the Canadian poet, rights advocate, and previous Dean of McGill Law School - F. R. Scott. I have discussed Scott in my previous posting, which can be read here. His poem, entitled Lest We Forget  was written in contemplation of World War II, with the death of his brother during World War One in mind. It has a more cynical tone as he suggests:

And many a brave Canadian youth

Will shed his blood on foreign shores,

And die for Democracy, Freedom, and Truth,

With his body full of Canadian ores,

Canadian nickel, lead and scrap,

Sold to the German, sold to the Jap,

With Capital watching the tickers.

 We shall not forget this Remembrance Day.

Friday
Oct142011

Poetic Justice?

Does poetry have a place in the courtroom? An Ottawa Crown thinks so. In an attempt to convince a judge to convict an accused of an impaired driving charge, the Crown set his submissions to rhyme. Although the judge convicted the accused, she did not mention the use of the unusual literary device. My advice to the Crown: don’t quit your day job.

Poetry and the law are no strangers. Many eminent poets have also been trained in the law such as the American, Wallace Stevens and the Spanish poet, Frederico Garcia Lorca. In Canada, F. R. Scott was a legal scholar who also waxed poetic. He held the position of the McGill Dean of Law in 1961 and was a well-respected constitutional/human rights litigator. Indeed, he was a vocal proponent against the Quebec anti-communist statutes known as the “Padlock Laws.” His poems are beautiful. They are insightful reflections of a proud Canadian and are well worth reading.

But does poetry, for it’s own sake, have a place in the legal arena? It depends on the use. In the Emkeit case, the Crown read an inadmissible and inflammatory poem to the jury on a murder trial. Although the majority of the SCC did not overturn the conviction, the strongly worded dissent by Hall, Spence, and Laskin JJ. suggest they were not amused by the “so-called poem.”

On the other hand, in light of the contextual approach used by the SCC in Charter cases, poetry and other literary material may have a place in elucidating and interpreting Charter rights and values.

For those interested in further reading, there are suggestions at the Law and Literature blog from April.