Law professor Lawrence Joseph got his first taste of poetry more than forty years ago in an introductory class he took as a freshman at the University of Michigan. There, he found inspiration in a piece of writing by American poet Wallace Stevens, prompting him to think, “That’s what I want to do-I want to write poems like that.”Throughout his career as a lawyer and professor, Joseph has still found the time to pursue his first love-writing. He has had five books of poetry published. His most recent book of poetry, entitled Into It, was released in 2005. Into It deals with 9/11 and its aftermath.
In fact, his literature was the topic of discussion at the 2008 Law and Literature Symposium, entitled “Some Sort of Chronicler I Am: Narration and the Poetry of Lawrence Joseph.” The symposium was held on Feb. 29, at the University of Cincinnati College of Law.
“The Cincinnatti Symposium focused on how his poetry deals with legal aspects. It was a celebration of his poetry,” said English professor John Lowney, who participated in the symposium and has known Joseph for 10 years.”His poetry is very challenging, very self consciously written.”
According to Lowney, the symposium focused on narration in Joseph’s poetry, but the papers that were presented dealt with a variety of topics. Lowney’s paper at the symposium was about Joseph’s latest collection.
“It’s intensely violent and angry but also has a range of emotions,” Lowney said about Into It. “It’s partly testimony, partly speculative.”
Joseph has also written a book of prose, entitled Lawyerland, which was published in 1997. There is even currently a film based on the book in development by Mr. Mudd Productions (actor John Malkovich is one of three partners in the independent film company).
“It’s quite free,” Lowney remarked about Lawyerland. “It has an experimental narrative feel.”
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in English Literature from the University of Michigan in 1970, Joseph spent two years in England doing postgraduate work in English Literature at the University of Cambridge. It was during his time in England that Joseph’s second passion would emerge-law. “I always had a keen interest in social and political issues, and decided while I was in England to study law and to be a lawyer, while continuing, of course, to write poetry.”
While some might believe that poetry and law exist in totally separate spheres, Joseph proves that the two do have something in common-the use of language. “What I enjoy most about poetry is its endless pleasures of expressive language,” Joseph said.
Expressive language is also what Joseph enjoys most about law. At this point in his career, he explains what likes best about the field is, “the language of law [and] being in the language of law, in all of its various practical and theoretical manifestations.”
Joseph came back to his native state to attend law school at the University of Michigan and received his degree in 1975. Before he began teaching at St. John’s in 1987, Joseph held various different jobs. His first job out of law school was working as a judicial law clerk for Justice G. Mennen Williams of the Michigan Supreme Court. He then went on to join the faculty of the University of Detroit’s School of Law. Joseph also practiced law with the firm of Shearman and Sterling before teaching at St. John’s.
Joseph noted that one of his favorite things about teaching law is seeing his students become successful, many of whom he said have become “the most prominent lawyers of their respective generations.”One of Joseph’s highest achievements as both a poet and lawyer came in 2006, when he received the New York County Lawyers Association’s “Law and Literature Award,” which according to Joseph, “is given by the NYCL to a lawyer who has also written works that have become a part of our literary history.”
He said this accolade stands out most to him in his career because only two others have received this award-novelist Louis Auchincloss and Louis Begley.
“For me, as both a lawyer and a writer, it is an unparalleled honor.”