Monica Youn: Poetry & Law

>>Narrator: From the Library
of Congress in Washington, DC.>>Roberta I. Shaffer: Good evening, my
name is Roberta Shaffer, and I have the absolute
pleasure of serving as the 24th Law Librarian
of Congress. Tonight is a particularly
exciting evening for me, because it represents the really
bringing to fruition a discussion and a dream that Rob Casper
and I had about five years ago, about somehow marrying law and
poetry; law and literature. And my dream at the time — although
I never shared this with Rob or my cartoon balloon at the time —
was to totally redefine the concept of poetic justice [background
laughter]. And so I hope that we will
be able to do that tonight. Because there is something
very, very important about the sibling relationship
between law and poetry. And in fact, Attica Locke, the 2016
recipient of the Harper Lee prize for fiction, has said that “Law and literature are
really fraternal twins.” And surely we can see that
they share the womb of words in both an oral and
a written tradition. But law and poetry, and law and
literature find common ground in their reliance upon storytelling. In their heavy use of
analogy and metaphor. In their conviction for form
and format, which they then love to take great liberties with. The reliance upon history
and precedent. And let’s not forget
the heavy use of fiction in both disciplines
[background laughter]. The immortal Shelly provides some
conformation in what I call an “Early amicus brief
to civilization”. His 1821 defense of
poetry — a legal term — calls poets the “unacknowledged
legislatures of the world”. And in a more contemporary
setting, the poet and songwriter, Leonard Cohen, who is now ultimately
legitimated by the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan, calls poetry
“the evidence of life”. So before I turn the podium over
to the true stars of the evening, I just want to make
some acknowledgements. And the first is to my wonderful,
extraordinary colleague Rob Casper. The head of the Poetry
and Literature Center. He wears, in my mind,
the triple crown. He is a colleague extraordinaire. He is an incredibly cool
guy [background laughter]. And he is so, so creative. Let me also do a callout to our new
head of the center for the book, Pam Jackson, who is
sitting in the audience. The center for the book — the Poetry and Literature
Center is nested within the center for the book. A perfectly wonderful pairing again. But let me just conclude by saying
that our goal for this evening is to provide clear and convincing
evidence [background laughter], beyond a reasonable thought that law and poetry share so
much in their DNA. And together they enrich the world. Indeed, they are wonderful
conspirators in helping us to better understand
our current times. And then help us to transfer
the enormous knowledge assets that we will leave as
a legacy to the future. So with that, I welcome
Rob to the podium. Thank you so much for being here. [ Applause ]>>Rob Casper: Wow I have a more
prosaic introduction to make after that wonderfully
lyrical welcome by Roberta. I should say that five
years ago I remember going to the Lollybrain’s [phonetic]office
and talking about a possibility of a program with Roberta and Robert
Newlan [phonetic] who’s now our Chief of Staff at the library. And afterwards calling my dad
up who is a small-town lawyer in Wisconsin saying, “I just met
the law librarian in the Law Library of Congress; we’re
going to do something. And I’m happy now we can tell him that we actually finally
did [background laughter]. With the proper pair, it really
took the right pair of people to get this program off the ground. So before we begin, let me tell
you to turn off your cell phones or any electronic devices
that you have that might interfere with the event. Second, please note that this
record is being recorded. And by participating in the Q &
A session, you give us permission for future use of this recording. This is the kind of event
we’re really excited about having a webcast to let the
whole world know about the ways in which we’re thinking
about law and literature. Finally, let me tell
you a little bit about the Poetry and
Literature Center. We are home to the US Poet Laureate. The Poet Laureate Consult of
Poetry established by a law — an act of Congress in 1985. And we put on 30 to 40 programs
like this throughout the year. To find out more about
our literary programs, you can sign on our sign-up
sheet which is in the foyer and we’ll send you emails
about what’s coming up. You can also visit our
website, There we go. So let me tell you a little bit about how tonight’s
event’s going to work. First, Monica Youn
will read from her book and discuss her book, “Black Acre”. It’s her newest book of poetry. Then as you’ll see, Martha Dragich,
the Emerita Professor of Law, from the University of Missouri
will give a presentation about teaching law and literature
in her many years as a professor. And then they will both come
up on stage to participate in a moderated discussion,
and we’ll have time for your questions afterwards. We also have copies of “Black
Acre” for sale in the back. I hope you buy a copy and
get Monica to sign it. You can read more about both of
our participants in the program that should be on your
chair or next to you. But let me say how much I
appreciate their willingness to bring this event to life. I’ve known Monica for
a good, long time. We’re New York buddies, and I
talk to her often about her work as a poet and as an attorney. No one I know is more capable
of connecting these two worlds with an understanding of what
contemporary poetry is doing. And her new book exemplifies
how poetry can employ concepts such as the legal fiction of “Black
Acre” to powerfully personal ends. I look forward to both of our featured speakers
begin this conversation about law and literature. So please join me in welcoming
Monica Youn and Martha Dragich. [ Applause ] [ Background Room Sounds ]>>Monica Youn: Thank you. Rob had asked me a couple of minutes
ago whether this was the first time I had read in a law library and I
had to tell him, “Of course it is.” I mean the law library — law libraries don’t usually
host poetry readings. And also, it’s I think maybe
the time I felt my legal career and my poetic career come together
most strongly, because I’m staying at the same hotel that I would
always stay in as a lawyer when I would come here
to lobby on Capitol Hill or to attend oral argument
at the Supreme Court. And so it’s — to be here as a
poet rather than as a lawyer. To be staying, you know, and
eating at the corner bakery around [background laughter], is
really very interesting to me. So I’m going to — you know, I’m
really looking forward to kind of getting a conversation
started, and some thinking started about the relationship
between law and literature. And, you know, and you know, I guess my bailiwick would be the
relationship between law and poetry. And so I was going to start
off with some shorter poems that employ some legal
settings; legal concepts. This first one is called
“Sunrise Foley Square”. Foley Square will be familiar
to anyone who’s ever litigated in New York as the setting of the
state and federal court houses. And will also be familiar to fans
of “NYPD Blue” [background laughter] because it’s where the
opening credits are shot. And this poem was set — you
know, it’s an odd little poem. And I’m not quite sure
whether it succeeds. It’s a poem that’s
notable for absence. Because it was written
when, you know, when the Ferguson protests
were taking place, and my son had literally
just been born, I mean he was a couple of weeks old. I was in that, you
know, new parent haze of nursing him around the clock. And we live only a couple
of blocks from Foley Square, which is where a lot of these
protests were gathering. And so pretty much this sort of
around the clock of, you know, of taking care of this
newborn coincided with around the clock
helicopters, sirens, and chants. And, you know, and one
morning, you know, before — right around sunrise I noticed
that all of the noise had stopped. And I was thinking about the absence
of that noise, and also how kind of the expectation that
there was always going to be another name added
to the list of those — of those who had been
killed by police violence. And so this poem contains a blank, which I’ll just kind of
indicate by stopping. “Sunrise Foley Square.” “One siren stained the
morning in concentric rings. Another starts up. Stops. Starts again. Stops. Little chips of sound,
like a climber’s hammer. Testing for handholds on
an upward-sloping face. Daylight floods the
soundscape with clear liquid. Thickening. Flowing over and around. A lack that could be displaced,
but not entirely dispersed. An air bubble trapped
in rubber tubing. Something cone shaped;
nearly discernable. Starting to resemble a cry.” And this poem is also — and
we have a handout of this poem, which we’ll discuss a bit later. This poem is also structured
around absence. It’s called, “Landscape
with Dayadand” [phonetic]. And I was a, you know, in
law school I was a huge — even before law school actually, I
was an enormous legal history geek. My favorite class in college was
British Constitutional History from 1060 — from 1066 to 1688. And, you know, and I took as much like very early English
legal history as I could. And so a dayadand,
on Old English law, is kind of this fascinating thing. It is the instrumentality
of a death. So if a tree branch falls off you
— falls off a tree and hits you, then the tree branch is a dayadand. If a wagon kills you, then
the wagon is the dayadand. You know, if a donkey
kills you, then you know, the donkey is the dayadand. And under the law of dayadands
— there was a law for this — all dayadands were forfeit to the
crown and were usually destroyed. In this odd, sort of
— you know, end. So this is a landscape
with dayadand. “A road in the trees
from the sound of it. A milky shift in the water
where the silt shelves down. And the wet branch,
beating for its life against the pages of that book.” So you can chew on that for a while,
and we’ll discuss it later [laughs]. And then the title poem — the
title sequence of the book — the title of the book
is “Black Acre”. And those of you who are — who attended law school in the Anglo-American tradition
probably know that Black Acre — and those — for those of you
non-lawyers in the room — Black Acre is a legal placeholder
term for a piece of property or an estate, the way John Doe is a
legal placeholder term for a person. So often times in your
property law class, and trust and estates you’ll get, you know,
John Doe transfers his property, Black Acre to Jane
Roe in consideration for her property, White Acre. And there’s a kind of
sequence to the hypothetical. So it’ll just spin out as, Black
Acre, White Acre, Blue Acre, Green Acre, Brown Acre — I
added Red Acre and Gold Acre just because I could [laughs]. Poetic license, you know? And so I thought — and
I was thinking about — I used the thought of the acre
to think about what is given and what is transformable. A piece of land is an
interesting metaphor. Because you have a
certain pied of land and there are things
you can do with it. You could sell it to a
shopping mall developer. You could build a house. You can plant a garden. You can make a home. You could dig a grave. You could make it into your legacy. But there are certain things
you can transform about it; there are certain things you
cannot transform about it. At some point in dealing with
a piece of land, you know, what we are allotted, we come up
against the concept of the given. You know, what cannot
be transformed. And what we pass on to
those who come after us. And so I was — you know, a
lot of these acre poems ended up being works of art,
or landscapes. What in poetry is called
an acrostic poem. You know, ways in which we can think
of these mini landscapes as types of — as pieces of land that
can or cannot be transformed. So this first mini landscape
will be familiar to you all. It is the back of the $1 bill,
which has the Latin motto, “annuit coeptis”, which is a phrase
from Virgil’s “Gorgics” about, you know, I think — I can’t
even remember, but like — oh God, I’m going to have
to look up the translation. I got very little — yes, it’s
“He favors our undertaking”. So — and it references
the myth of cadmos. A cadmos, for those of you
who are mythology buffs, is the legendary founder of thieves. So his sister, Europa, is
kidnapped by Zeus, the white bull. And so he goes off looking
for her, and he completely — and he fails to find her, but
instead he decides to found a city. He’s told by an oracle to do this. And so he kills a dragon, and
he sews the dragon’s teeth in the ground — this might be
starting to sound a little familiar. And these armed men spring up. And the — and he doesn’t —
he’s afraid of the armed men, so he throws a rock
into their midst. And I’m kind of using this to
think about the way in which — the unthinking way in which we want
money to be fruitful; to multiply. The judge I clerked for was
obsessed with the notion of usury. An sort of, so am I. Green acre. But what if a given surface is
coaxed into fruitfulness wrongfully? For instance, this
lushly verdant plane. Imagine it dialed back
to featurelessness. Each spiraling stock retracted. Each filigree rosette
slow-blinking shut. Dialed back to bare promise;
to smooth napped expanse. The forehead of an alien princess
might convey such tranquility. She surveys her ranks of suitors. Shakes her exquisite green head
in scarcely feigned regret. So thinks Cadmos, hands
still outstretched in a nation-building gesture. As if to freeze in
time this instant. Scatter of seeds still aloft. Arrayed like little dive
bombers information. Not yet puncturing the land. Not yet rooting. Not yet sending up terribly thin,
ambitious tendrils toward the light. Not yet trained onto
wire frame espaliers. Not combed into bombastic
pompadours. Not yet extruding seed pods
resembling pale grapes; resembling pearls. The root of remorse isn’t tooth,
he recalls abruptly, but to bite and then stoops, groping for
the biggest rock he can find. Here a Brown Acre is
just a landscape. Brown Acre. “After the clear plastic sheeting
has been pulled back; folded away. After each woody rhizome has
been pried loose from the soil. Each snarl of root traced
to its capillary ends. Twigs and petals tossed aside. Worms reburied elsewhere. After the soil has been
rubbed through a sieve. After the ground has been leveled
with rakes and stakes and string, no need for further
labor; further motion. Nothing has been sewn. Nothing is germinating
in the raw dirt. The light strikes each
granule the same as any other. A windlessness rises;
becomes a precondition. Why is it hard to admit
you couldn’t live here? No one could live here. This is not the texture of the real. Lacking attachment; lacking event. This is neither landscape
nor memory. This is parable. A caricature of restraint. But why does this shame you? Even now you’re trying to hide
that your gaze is drifting upward. This plainness cannot
hold your attention. You’re searching the sky for
some marker of time; of change. In a cloudless sky
the sun beats down. But if you observe that
the sun warms the soil. You must also concede that
the soil will grow colder. The sun stains only the body. And the body is what is
simply not an issue here.” And then this is another
poem called “Brown Acre”, which I think is pretty
straight forward. “Brown Acre”. “We were sitting, leaning
back against the house on the stone patio or terrace. Looking out over a steep
drop at the mountains arrayed in a semicircle around us. All expectant angles, like the
music stands of an absent orchestra. Summer colors; orangey
golds and dims blues. And there must’ve been
greens as well. I wasn’t paying attention. I was watching the thing
you had just said to me, still hanging in the air between us. Its surfaces beading up with
a shiny liquid-like contempt. That might have been seeping
from the words themselves, or else condensing from the
air its inscrutable humidity. The droplets rounding
themselves as they fall. Edging a darker patch
on the patio tiles. A deepening concavity, and
above it a roughness in the air. The molecules of concrete
coalescing grain-by-grain into a corrugated pillar
topped by a cloud. A tree form, not a
sapling or a mountain tree. But a tree that would look at
home in a farmyard or a meadow. Sheltered from winds. Branches stretching out with all
confidence toward the horizon. A shape that should have been an
emblem of sufficiency; of calm. But whose surfaces were teaming
with a turbulent rush of particles, like the inner workings
of a throat exposed. And whose dimensions were
expanding with shocking speed. Accumulating mass. Accumulating coherence
and righteousness. Pulling more and more of
the disintegrating teras into its form taller than
us, then shadowing us, and doubtlessly underground
a root system of corresponding complexity
and spread. Was funneling down
displaced nothingness from a hole in the upper air. And then it was time, and I stood up
and went inside and shut the door. Unsure what still anchored
us to the mountainside.” And I’ll end with this. This is a strange poem. It’s basically — I think
like a lot of poems; like a lot of legal
opinions, it brings a lot of contradictory things together. So partially, a memory
from junior high school where a Twinkie [background
laughter], we had come to understand,
or we were told, was not a baked good
[background laughter]. It was — actually, you know,
what we were told was it was like this kind of tube of paste
that was extruded, and then exposed to some sort of catalyzing
chemical so it’d grow this kind of golden foamy outer layer, right? You know, and then they sort of
tinted the bottom of it brown with some tints of some kind
to make it appear baked. And this is what I believed for
decades [background laughter]. Up until a couple of years
ago, actually [laughs]. You know, I just thought, “Oh,
okay it’s not a baked good. That’s why its shelf
life is so long.” And unfortunately, this
turned out not to be true. But, you know, Gold Acre
is also, you know, acre — when you’re thinking of acre
legacy, you’re also you know, obviously thinking about identity. You’re also, you know, obviously
thinking about identity. You’re thinking specifically
about race. And as I have a son and I’m
thinking of raising him, you know, as a Korean-American. And I think, well, you know, as
an immigrant who was born here, my own relationship to
being Korean-American is not exactly authentic. I don’t speak the language. I’m not the person who can tell
you what the best thing to order on the menu is at every
Korean restaurant. You know, and what does it
mean to be, you know — ? So that made me think of the other
junior high school sense of Twinkie, which is someone yellow on the
outside and white on the inside. I think, you know,
lawyers might enjoy — lawyers are always grammar nerds,
so the other thing to notice about this poem is it’s all cast
in the subjunctive, you know? The “as if it were”. The subjunctive is the mode
in which we express fantasy or the improbable. And one interesting thing about the
English language in particular is, our fantasy mode is
often indistinguishable from the past tense. So it’s, you know, you — so
sometimes we often tend to think of the past as if it were our —
you know, the past becomes a kind of fantasy, and often
a racial fantasy. “Gold Acre”. “As if you were ever wide-eyed
enough to believe in urban legends. As if these plot elements
weren’t the stalest of clichés. The secret lab. The anaerobic chamber. The gloved hand. Ex Machina. The chemical infused fog. As if every origin’s
story didn’t center on the same sweet myth
of a lost wholeness. As if such longing would seem more
palatable if packaged as nostalgia. As if inner and outer were merely
phases of the same substance. As if this whiteness had
been your original condition. As if it hadn’t been
what is piped into you. What seeped into each vacant cell. Each airhole. Each pore. As if you had started out skinless. Shameless. Blameless. Creamy, as if whipped. Passive as if extruded. Quivering with volatility
in a metal mold. As if a catalyzing vapor
triggered a latent reaction. As if your flesh foamed up a hydrogenated emulsion
consisting mostly of trapped air. As if though sponge-like, you could
remain shelf-stable for decades. Part embalming fluid. Part rocket fuel. Part glue. As if you had been named
twin, a word for likeness. Or wink a word for joke. Or ink, a word for stain. Or key, a word for answer. As if your skin oxidized to
its present burnished hue. Golden, as if homemade. Thank you. [ Applause ] [ Background Room Sounds ]>>Martha Dragich:
Good evening everyone. My immediate task is to talk just a
little bit about law in literature. Responding to the question that may
be latent in many of your minds, what do the two have
to do with each other? Now Roberta talked about that some. And I have to say, I will talk about
literature generally speaking rather than about poetry specifically,
because I am not qualified to talk about poetry specifically. So about 20 or 30 years ago, law schools started offering
courses in law and literature. There an amazing variety
of such courses. There is a literature of law and
literature that has developed. And it’s hard to generalize much
about these courses in this field of study because they’re
characterized most by variety. But I’ll try to give you,
just in very brief form, a few of the objectives why
people offer such courses. Why people write about
law and literature. What do we think we — either
field can learn from the other one, how do they correspond
with each other? And just by coincidence, I
read something the other day. I was reading a very new book of
essays by a poet, Mary Oliver. The collection of essays
is called, “Up Stream”. And I read this sentence which
seemed to me quite pertinent. She says, “The best use of literature bends not toward
the narrow and absolute, but to the extravagant
and the possible.” Well narrow and absolute sound
to me something like law. And extravagant and possible,
perhaps something like literature. And she goes on to say that
rather than providing answers — I’m paraphrasing now — rather
than providing answers — Mary Oliver suggests — literature
opens doors and tells us to look at things and think about
things for ourselves. So that, I think, encapsulates
perhaps the few strands that I’ll talk about in the study
and teaching of law and literature. So these are some of the
most prominent objectives. One is to contextualize law and events triggering
the application of law. A apelet opinion — the way we teach in law schools is to
use apelet opinions. So the end of the line
— the end of the story; after everything has
happened, much being — having been stripped out along the
way; condensed down to a narrow set of relevant facts and so forth. So law as delivered to law students and lawyers, is narrow
in that sense. It has a very narrow focus. Literature, on the other hand,
paints a much richer picture. It’s full of the details of events
and lives and personalities; circumstances, motivations
and so forth. So finding a way to bring
some of this context back in, and to understand that regardless
of what the apelet opinion says in the end, that may be the
condensed version that’s relevant to the rule of law
that’s established, but earlier on there was
a lot more to the story. And it’s important for
law students in particular to develop an understanding. Because they’re going to be dealing
with real people who are coming in at the beginning of
this story with a whole set of life circumstances and hopes and
dreams and problems and what not. So building that context
back in is one objective. Another objective of the law
in literature movement — if you can call it that;
that’s too strong a word. But law in literature does have
some early connection with law — with critical legal
studies; law in feminism. Things of that nature. So the objective is to recognize
differences in laws meaning and its impact on individual people
and different groups of people. So law often speaks
universally; abstractly. Using words like — as Monica
pointed out, Black Acre, John Doe and so forth, that are abstract,
or that are perhaps fictions. And it relies on concepts like,
for example, self-defense. That’s a concept that might
be understood and felt, and experienced, and appreciated
very differently by people of different ages, genders,
races, and so forth. So just to, again,
sort of reintroduce that notion into legal study. And literature helps that
because literature helps us see into the lives of people
who are not like us. Helps us develop an understanding
of what their lives might be like. Another is to humanize law. So this universal tone that
law has a matter-of-fact nature of an apelet opinion can deaden
law student’s ability to relate to party situations and to
respond in a caring way. Literature, on the other
hand, arouses our emotions. And invites us to assess; to
judge the actions of characters. And finally, law and
literature study sometimes hopes to open a conversation about
the relationship between justice and mercy; the dimensions
of fairness and so on. So studying literature and
discussing literature can help us, perhaps, reconcile the demands of
justice and the desire for mercy. And there’s a strong argument to be
made that one important ingredient in reconciling justice and mercy
is the development of empathy, which is what literature —
at least one of the things that literature can help us do. So despite all of these various
approaches to law and literature, the different aims and
objectives and so forth, I haven’t seen any work really
significantly exploring law and poetry. So we have a perfect opportunity
tonight in our conversation with Monica Youn, to open
that window a little bit, perhaps through her reading,
which we’ve just heard from her collection, “Black Acre”. So at this point, I think I’ll
invite Monica to join me up here, and we will have a conversation. [ Inaudible Background
Conversation ]>>Monica Youn: I seem to
have an embarrassment of water up here [background laughter].>>Martha Dragich: We certainly do. So as you may have gathered —
how could you not, from the poems that Monica read for us
earlier, her collection, “Black Acre” includes an
astonishing variety of poems. Both as the subject matter and form. Those of us not well trained
in poetry, and I include myself in that group, certainly. May still think of poems in sort
of a grade school kind of a way with tidy versus strict
meters; incessant rhyming. These poems don’t look
that way I’m happy to say. And so perhaps they
begin to challenge at least unsophisticated rudimentary
notions of what poetry is. So let me begin our conversation
Monica by asking how you see or whether you see your
work in “Black Acre”. Where it fits in; how it relates. Whether it exemplifies things going
on in contemporary American poetry.>>Monica Youn: I think
that, you know, it does — you know, it is reasonably
representative. And, you know, Rob can speak to
this as well, of what is going on in contemporary American poetry,
in that I think traditional form, with what is often referred to as “received form” is
one option among many. And, you know, this — you know, I always feel like
this seemed more odd to people than it perhaps should. I mean you can think
of representational or figurative painting as being
one option among many options of painting. You can think of painters
as moving back and forth across various modes
of representation. And you don’t find that strange,
but you know, if a poet is to write in a way that doesn’t resemble
a traditional form, you know, it’s like, oh my God, call the
police [background laughter]. So yeah, I think that — you know, so I think poets these
days are taking advantage of the widest possible pallet;
the widest possible toolbox for, you know, for enacting or
rendering various states of mind; states of consciousness. States of language.>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm. And so though your poems don’t
necessarily follow those received forms, I noticed in
my reading of them, they do seem to invoke legal
conventions in a certain sense. For example, when you used this
one in the first “Green Acre” poem, you have the motto, “He
favors our understandings”. Very often you invoke, at
the beginning of the poem, or elsewhere in the
poem, you mention cadmos. “Black Acre” — the longer
“Black Acre” poem at the end of the collection response to
Milton’s “Sonnet 19” on blindness. So I wonder if you could talk with
us about why it’s important to you to tie your work to those
thoughts; those artworks; even paintings you’ve mentioned
in several poems from the past.>>Monica Youn: I think that writing in what is called an acrostic
mode is interesting to me, because it both allows and
takes away a certain freedom. In that if you’re writing
about an existing story, you don’t have to tell the story. You can just talk about the story. If you’re writing about an
existing work of art, you don’t have to describe the work of
art; the work of art exists. Someone can go look
at it if they want to. You know, that you know,
explicatory burden is off of you. I mean you know how annoying it
is, you know, in the first couple of scenes of a movie where some
character, for no reason at all, will just launch into this sort
of paragraphs long explanation of like the setting and
the context and who’s who, and who’s related to who. And you know that’s just being
done to like, relieve themselves of this burden of explanation. And, you know, the great — one great thing about writing
acrostically is you don’t have to do that. You don’t have to explain
yourself as much. But, you know, on the other hand
you do have a certain fidelity to what came before. You know, you have —
your parameters are set, and you’re sort of, you
know, tethered in a way. In a way that — and so I find
that interplay between being free and being constrained
to be very interesting.>>Martha Dragich: And so
do you connect that with — in your thinking, with traditions
of citation and precedent?>>Monica Youn: Absolutely. I think that, you know, when you
were talking about the connection between law and literature,
you know, a lot of what tends to be focused in the law and literature curriculum are
the narrative connections. And I think what tends
to be left behind is — are the language connections. The way legal language and poetic
language function similarly. And the way I like to explain this,
you know, is, in ordinary language, words are pretty much
straight forward. They’re what my friend,
James Longenbach [phonetic], calls like “a disposable
container for meaning”. Like, you know, “I am going
to pick up this bottle.” There’s nothing unclear about that. And lawyers, I think, you
know, poets know better. And lawyers, in a weird
way, know better. I mean if you’re looking over
contractual language on behalf of a client, and you’re
trying to figure out whether this is good contractual
language, one of the things you have to do is imagine every
possible scenario that could be applied
to a particular clause. Like what is the most far
out possible interpretation that someone could
make of that clause, and how do we come
to terms with that? How do we cabin — you know, you
have to recognize the uncertainty of language before you can deal
with the uncertainty of language. You know, similarly, I think in the
common law tradition, which I — you know, I was a litigator, so
I’m obsessed with common law. You know, you have
phrases like, you know, “Cruel and unusual punishment”. Or “Due process of
law” or person that are by no means straight forward. I mean no one is just
saying, “Oh, okay those are — you know, those are readily
understandable terms just to be taken at face value.” You know as a lawyer, that your
job is to go through every instance in which those phrases
have been used. And so these things just
can move through history. They’re accumulating layers
of meaning as they go through.>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm.>>Monica Youn: And I tell
my students, you know, it’s kind of the same
thing with poetic language. Like, if you say “apple” in a poem,
you’re dealing with Snow White. You’re dealing with Adam and Eve. You’re dealing with
the computer company. You’re dealing with, you know,
Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter. You’re dealing — you know, you
have all those [background laughter] resonances that you
need to take account of. And so I think both, you know — but both poets and lawyers
feel that there’s a lot of — at stake in recognizing,
but also working with the uncertainty of language.>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm. And so maybe this would be a good
point at which to return to the poem that you read earlier,
“Landscape with Dayadand”.>>Monica Youn: Yeah.>>Martha Dragich: You explained
that legal concept in your reading of the poem, but I thought
perhaps you could sort of lead us through a reading of the poem,
and the audience has a copy –>>Monica Youn: Yeah.>>Martha Dragich: Of the poem.>>Monica Youn: Yeah. And I’ll just — I
mean I don’t think that there’s anything particularly
uncertain about this language. What I was playing with really
here is the relationship between the title and the poem. The poem itself consists of a road
in the trees from the sound of it. A milky shift in the water
where the silt shelves down at the wet branch
beating for its life against the pages of that book. So if I were to ask one of my
students in intro poetry, you know, what is going on in this poem?>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm.>>Monica Youn: And, you know, the
student would say something like, “Okay, well there are these kind
of observed details of landscape. There’s a bit of uncertainty. You’re not quite sure what’s
happening; what’s being looked at. But at the same time
you’re reasonably clear that you’re in a landscape.>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm.>>Monica Youn: There’s,
you know, there’s a road. There are trees. There are water. We don’t doubt any of that. And then there’s this oddly
personified wet branch beating for its life. So there’s an urgency
suggested there against the pages of that book. And that that book is specific in a
way that calls attention to itself, and you don’t know why
that book is important. And then you have the title,
“Landscape with Dayadand”, which causes you to — you know,
it’s as if you were to, you know, say someone in this audience
has committed a crime.>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm.>>Monica Youn: You know, to
say “Landscape with Dayadand” is to make you look at every noun in
the poem and say, “Wait a second, is that the murder instrument? Is that the murder instrument? Is that the murder instrument.” And you know, what are
the various murders that [laughs] could’ve taken place
with a, you know, a wet branch or a, you know, a road in the trees. And so, you know, I was kind of —
so really this poem is about kind of playing with this idea
of expectation and suspicion in the same — in the same
way that the “Foley” — I read this with the “Foley
Square” poem with that blank in it. To think of, okay, well what does
it mean to have a blank in the poem? To set up the reader’s expectation
that that blank will be filled? And that that blank will
be filled with a name?>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm.>>Monica Youn: So,
you know, the poem — I think when I tell my students, you
know, what is the medium of poetry? The medium of painting is paint. The medium of music
maybe notes; maybe time. You know, a relationship
between sound and time. What is the medium of poetry? And you know, words
certainly; white space maybe. But also the expectations
that are created in the reader’s mind
by things like titles. By things like blanks. So –>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm. Mm-hm. Mm-hm. Thank you. So I wonder then if you
might talk with us a bit about your long time dual
life as a lawyer and poet. And specifically about
how your experiences of each profession inform
the other, and yeah. Let me stop there for the moment.>>Monica Youn: Yeah. I mean I was always
very enamored of both. And in fact, when I was an
undergraduate I had done a political science major with a
focus on legal theory. And then — and I combined that
with a creative writing minor. And for my creative writing minor I
wrote this long, terrible, terrible, terrible poetry sequence that my
students still like dig up out of the stacks and like taunt me
with it [background laughter]. But that was based on Palsgraf
vs. Long Island Railroad Company, 1928 [background laughter],
which you know, those — is one of Benjamin
Nathan Cardozo’s most — absolutely most famous opinions. And this ties directly into what
Martha was talking about earlier about how this — how what seems,
even in Cardozo’s like, you know, beautiful language, seems
like a factual scenario. Is it self-shaped by all of
these different points of view? What actually happened
in this very strange — I should probably explain what
happened [background laughter]. So Palsgraf vs. Long Island Railroad
company is a classic tort case that is used in I think every
first-year tort’s textbook to explain the principal of
proximate cause and negligence. Which is, how far-fetched does
a chain of causation have to be in order for you still
to be liable for it? And so what happened
to Mrs. Palsgraf — Mrs. Palsgraf is a cleaning woman. And she’s standing on the platform of a Long Island Railroad
Company train, trying to get to Rockaway Beach. It is August. It is very hot. It is very crowded. This man drops a package
on the tracks. The train runs over the package. The package, as it turns out,
contains fireworks [laughs]. The fireworks explode,
causing a crowd to stampeded. The crowd on the platform knocks
over a pair of scales that fall on Mrs. Palsgraf, that — this
isn’t actually in Cardozo’s opinion, but you know, the facts of the case
are actually that the damage was that it triggered a latent
psychiatric disorder, causing her to become mute
[background laughter]. And so you’re like, okay, so [laughs] is the railroad
company liable to Mrs. Palsgraf. Under a negligence — under
the tort of negligence. And the judge I actually ended up
clerking for, you know, years — five years later, through
some weird coincidence. Judge John Nunan on the 9th
Circuit had written a book called, “Persons and Masks of the Law” –>>Martha Dragich: Yes. Yes.>>Monica Youn: Which is one
of the early classics of law and literature, which talks
about the Mrs. Palsgraf decision, and talks about the way in which
Cardozo very carefully shapes the narrative and makes it
into the finished apelet –>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm.>>Monica Youn: You
know, to make it seem — to make his account of
things seem more inevitable.>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm. Mm-hm.>>Monica Youn: More
certain, you know?>>Martha Dragich: Right.>>Monica Youn: And so — and
then I was also studying — I took a class with the great
legal historian, Morton Horowitz.>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm. Yeah.>>Monica Youn: And he had also kind of framed the Mrs. Palsgraf
decision, and said that, you know, “Well this decision is being
written at the same time that modernist artists are thinking about what does it mean
to frame a work of art? How do we, you know, consider
these shifts in perspective? These changes in, you know, in the
technologies of representation? And so, you know, I wish more of
this had made it into the terrible, terrible poems that I wrote
[background laughter], and get inspired by that. But, you know, so I’ve always kind
of been thinking about the ways in which the two go together.>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm.>>Monica Youn: And, you know,
in my last job as a lawyer, I was a Constitutional lawyer
working with a lot of this language. And, you know, I was working
both with apelet attorneys, who as crafters of language, you
know, are really hard to match. And also with my boss, who was President Clinton’s Chief
Speech Writer for five years. And who I worked with very closely. And we would talk about the
ways in which legal language and poetic language were related.>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm. And so that’s a perfect segway into
asking you how you use the tools of poetry in your law practice?>>Monica Youn: Well I did
once get to point out that a — in a trademark case, that
something was a trophy. I think that that was my
[laughs] — my favorite moment. But no, I think that
the tools of poetry. Compression. Repetition. You know, those sort of cadences
are often times the tools of what makes you a
good advocate or not.>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm.>>Monica Youn: Especially
when you’re, you know, delivering oral argument. Or when you’re trying to write a
brief in which you’re trying to, you know, compress you know, 100,000
pages of trial record into a, you know, a 54 or 28-page
brief with all of the, you know, rule what is it, 35? Like, you know font and
margin restrictions. And, you know, and trying to
do that and trying to boil it down to its core and
to come up with a way in which the court hasn’t
thought about it was absolutely about the crafting of language. I think no one ever devotes as much
thought to semicolons as lawyers and poets do [background laughter].>>Martha Dragich: I know, right?>>Monica Youn: Like no one else
cares that much about, like, you know — or advertising. You know, I mean there
are a lot of — a lot of professions that
focus very, very intensively on the written word, but
certainly those are two of them.>>Martha Dragich: Yeah. And I’d have to say that in
this collection that’s one of the things I most love is
the grammatical nerdiness, or whatever it was you called it
earlier [background laughter]. The very careful word choices. The punctuation. The white space –>>Monica Youn: Yeah.>>Martha Dragich: All of it,
it’s just very, very compelling.>>Monica Youn: Well, yeah
because I remember one of my law professors had a
challenge to the class which was — there was a particular
restatement of some negligence — I can’t remember what it was
— and it was 28 words long. That I do remember. And he said, “If anyone can make
this 27 words without, you know, losing either accuracy or grammar, then you automatically get
an A in this course [laughs]. And no one could do it. I mean that was the most
compressed possible form in which you could say that.>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm.>>Monica Youn: And you know,
that sort of training –>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm.>>Monica Youn: Is
something that’s, you know, that hopefully remains part of the legal profession
for a long time then.>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm.>>Monica Youn: I mean
people make fun of legal language all the time –>>Martha Dragich: Yes [laughs].>>Monica Youn: You know, but
it’s functional language often, when it’s good.>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm. So you used the word,
“advocate” a few minutes ago, which of course describes
the role of an attorney. How do you see your role as a poet? And I suppose I would
append to that question, whether you could give us an example
from your current collection, “Black Acre”, that particularly
exemplifies that role?>>Monica Youn: I don’t
know that I can think — I don’t know that I
have a role as a poet. I mean I am a poet, like I — you know, I feel like I have
a role as a teacher of poetry.>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm.>>Monica Youn: I feel like I have
a role, you know, but as a poet — it’s interesting, you know, part
of the reason I ended up shifting over to poetry is I wanted the
ability to define my own forms to say that this is going — I’m
going to set my — you know — you know, my — one
of my poetic mentors, Paul Muldoon [phonetic] is —
I can’t remember, you know, he says that a — every
poem has rules. But every poem sets its
own rules, you know?>>Martha Dragich: Yeah.>>Monica Youn: And I’m a
rule-bound person, I realize that. But I don’t necessarily want someone
else setting the rules for me. And, you know, I feel like the rules by which I write are necessary
to become — to succeed. But I want to have the freedom
to find those rules myself. To discover the rules that will
make this particular poem be an expression of this
particular thought process. So –>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm. Mm-hm. Perhaps with that I will
invite questions from any members of the audience for Monica? [ Background Room Sounds ]>>Speaker 1: [Inaudible] can
you tell us what the outcome was [background laughter]?>>Monica Youn: Of Mrs. Palsgraf?>>Yeah.>>Monica Youn: Oh, the railroad was
not liable [background laughter].>>Martha Dragich: This
was too far-fetched.>>Monica Youn: Yes,
this was too far-fetched. So — and the way in which — and
the way in which Cardozo, you know, describes the story is to maximize
the outlandishness of what happened. To kind of make the narrative point, no one could possibly
have foreseen this, you know, this chain of events. Whereas had he phrased it
simply as something like, on a crowded platform,
could someone get hurt? You know? You know –>>Speaker 2: He almost
made it satirical.>>Monica Youn: Yeah. Mm-hmm?>>Speaker 2: He almost
made it satirical.>>Monica Youn: Yeah
he almost made fun — you know, and that’s
one of the — yeah.>>Speaker 2: He almost
poked fun at –>>Monica Youn: Yeah.>>Speaker 2: Is one of the things
I think people took exception to, being in a place where
it can be taught.>>Monica Youn: Yeah.>>Speaker 2: Because it
was almost [inaudible].>>Monica Youn: Because you get
these cases, you know, I was — I recently — I read at
Columbia a couple weeks ago, and a student there
is a poetry student who is taking tort law
for the first time. And, you know, he was talking about
all these classic Cunard cases, like the lighted squib
or the eggshell leg. And, you know, like all of these,
you know, cases that you know, you’re just like, you
know, they’re funny but at some point they
were real people.>>Martha Dragich: But they’re cast in the framework of
the reasonable man. As we always said, not
even a reasonable person –>>Monica Youn: Yeah, Mm-hm. Yeah.>>Martha Dragich: And so could a
reasonable person have foreseen all of this?>>Monica Youn: Foreseen this? Mm-hm.>>Martha Dragich: So
the writing in the — the writing that ups
the outlandishness –>>Monica Youn: Yeah.>>Martha Dragich: For
ordains the result.>>Monica Youn: Mm-hm. Yeah, and you kind of learned as a,
you know, as a litigator, you can — you win or lose in the
statement of facts.>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm. Mm-hm.>>Monica Youn: So –>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm. Other questions? Someone will come with
the microphone. [ Background Room Sounds ]>>Speaker 3: [Inaudible] so,
you know, my field is physics. And we often try to
do everything we can to find those invariant
relationships where equations [inaudible]. And here in [inaudible] example of
the law and professional poetry — poetry helps to provide — the
richness of contents deepens in meaningfulness of things. And I wonder if in many fields
we need to retrieve further, the particular context deepens
and the meaning and the semantics, and not so much just
focus on the [inaudible]. Because we sometimes get too
abstract, like in economic theory or in physics, perhaps this can
be [inaudible] a good example that includes other areas
so that we have not just law and literature and poetry. But perhaps physics and literature
and poetry [background laughter]. So maybe a comment on that.>>Martha Dragich: Thank you.>>Monica Youn: Well, I think
it’s always useful for disciplines to have someone come
in from the outside and kind of reality check them. And I like the idea of the poets
as the unacknowledged auditors of the [inaudible]
[background laughter].>>Speaker 4: Thank you all for coming tonight
[background laughter].>>Monica Youn: But I do have,
you know, like my dear friend and mentor, the poet,
Ray Armentrout, spends a lot of time
thinking about astrophysics. Working as a poet in residence at
various scientific laboratories. I mean this is happening,
and it is interesting to kind of bring a completely new
way of thinking about — especially determinacy and
indeterminacy to those fields.>>Speaker 5: Well thank you for
everything, and I’ve just been through [inaudible] and I
admire his [inaudible] section of the book; very [inaudible]. And everything that I’ve
heard from you [inaudible] if you’re familiar with it.>>Monica Youn: I’ve
read it, actually.>>Speaker 5: So I’m curious, that maybe you could
tell me [inaudible] says and what [inaudible].>>Monica Youn: Well I think
for Ben to call the book, “The Hatred of Poetry” was more of
a sales tactic than anything else. It’s not really what
the book’s about. I mean the book starts
off with a discussion of Maryanne Moore’s
famous, you know, first phrase to the poem called,
“Poetry, I too dislike it.” But what he goes on to really
talk about is the difference between the ideal poem as, you
know, as rendered in various poems. And the poets inability
to match up to that idea. Which, you know, doesn’t end up
for me having that much to do with the hatred of poetry period. I do find, you know,
the notion that, you know no one should be
interested, not just in poetry but any of the — but in art in
general; difficulty in general, a little bit dispiriting. I’m sure for the same
reasons you’re thinking about. And, you know, and I think a lot of
— but I do enjoy, you know, my — our — we have a wide enough
poetry program where I teach, where almost none of the students
I have are English majors. And most of my students
cannot name a single poet on their first day of class. And I don’t really pull
my punches with them. You know, and you know, and for
these students who are very smart and very hard working,
and very risk-adverse, to engage poetry is really
interesting for them. What I tell them is
that, “You are very used to learning how to succeed. You do not know how to fail. And there’s something about art
which has a humility built in. It teaches failure. It teaches uncertainty when
people are used uncertainty. And I think that that — you know,
if that gets lost, then we’re all in a lot of trouble
[background laughter].>>Speaker 6: I thank you so much. [Inaudible] a poetry lecture and
[inaudible] what could we do? I work in the public often,
and some of our [inaudible] under the Plain Language Act
[inaudible] Policy in plain language so that people can
understand it, and I wondered about your perspective from an
ethical end and as [inaudible]. And also how that is affecting
the field if [inaudible].>>Monica Youn: Yeah,
I love the idea of the Plain Language Act
[background laughter]. I mean if you’ve read any — you
know, if you’re used to legislation. The problem is not that any of
the words are incomprehensible in and of themselves, is that you have
this like, you know, this you know, massive document that
have, you know, phrases that are internally
contradictory that just cannot work together. I mean the problem isn’t the
language, the problem is, you know, the bill itself, often.>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm.>>Monica Youn: And — you know,
but I — yeah, and I feel like the, you know, it’s all the fault of
people trying to be too smart, you know, to be kind of a
troubling thing, you know? The reason, you know, it’s because
people are being overly fancy. No, it’s because you know, no
one in Congress bothered to work out the details of this thing
[laughs] before they enacted it –>>Martha Dragich: And because
they’re hiding compromises that they don’t want to own up to.>>Monica Youn: And because they’re
hiding compromises, and yeah. So –>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm. That’s why it’s obscure.>>Monica Youn: Mm-hm. Exactly. Because they don’t want
people to understand it too well, because if people understand
it too well, they’ll understand where the bodies are buried
[background laughter].>>Speaker 7: So thank you. So moving from the language statutes
to the language of [inaudible], first of all have you had
[inaudible] justice and [inaudible] and then second, what role do
you see poetry or poetic thinking in the [inaudible], are there
any [inaudible] or any pitfalls that you can poetically [inaudible]?>>Monica Youn: Yeah. I mean I think that, you
know, the answer to both of those questions ends up kind
of coming down to the same thing. I both love the writing of Benjamin
Nathan Cardozo, as many people do. And I also deeply distressed the
writing of Benjamin Nathan Cardozo. There’s something about simplicity
and analogy which are the stock and trade of both poetry and law
that are — that are so, you know, that are so deeply powerful
that when wrongly deployed, they can wreak havoc because — simply because they are so
simple and so convincing. Like my previous job immediately
before teaching poetry full time was I was a campaign finance
lawyer and advocate. And, you know, the campaign finance
law has been shaped really — the Constitutional law of
campaign finance has been shaped by three metaphors. That money is speech. That corporations are people. And that elections
are a marketplace. And those sound very
simple and very appealing. But if you start to say,
“Hey, wait a second. Those analogies don’t actually
hold up all that well.” Then, you know, it’s — you know, you start to see the
troubling nature of, you know, the pitfalls of poetic
language used in, you know — poetic language that has
the power of law behind it.>>Martha Dragich: Mm-hm. Mm-hm.>>Rob Casper: I think on
that [inaudible] [laughs]. Well, and this evening, thanks
so much to both Martha and Monica for an amazing conversation. A great, great, great start to
our law and literature series; hopefully to come again
to the library. Thanks to all of you for coming out. Again, we hope you
go buy “Black Acre”. Obviously, there are a
lot more exciting poems in there for you to check out. You can buy them in the back;
Monica will sign the book. We also have surveys either
on your seat or next to you. We hope you fill them out. It helps us in determining
what we’re going to do with our future programming. We hope you enjoy tonight. Please write down what you think. You can give it to me; you can put
it on the table or put it up here. And we hope to see you soon again. If you want to come
to more of our events, there’s a signup sheet outside, and
we hope to see you very, very soon. Thanks so much [background
laughter]. Oh — [inaudible background
comments] sure. We have a very exciting —
[inaudible] to our panelists. [ Applause ]>>Narrator: This has
been a presentation of the Library of Congress. Visit us at

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