A CERTAIN CLARITY
A selection of poems from the celebrated poet and lawyer
Drawing from his first book, Shouting at No One, from 1983, and continuing through to his most recent, So Where Are We?, from 2017, A Certain Clarity provides a generous selection of Lawrence Joseph’s “poetry of great dignity, grace, and unrelenting persuasiveness” (John Ashbery), each poem “an inspired, made thing by a poet-advocate who has honed a timely song within an urgent testimony that embraces the complex density of truth” (Yusef Komunyakaa).
Joseph’s poems constitute one of the most essential and visionary bodies of work in contemporary American poetry. No other American poet covers the territory Joseph does. His ever-new interactions of thoughts, voices, and languages—influenced by his Lebanese and Syrian Catholic heritage, his professional life as a lawyer and legal scholar, and the economies of the world of working-class labor from which he comes—bear witness, on multilayered spatial and temporal planes, to the velocities of global and historical change, and to power structures embodied in endless wars, unleashed capital, racism, and ecological destruction, presenting an ongoing chronicle of what it means to write poetry in the turbulent times in which we live. But also integral to Joseph’s poetry is a sensual intimacy, passionately driven by an acute awareness of a deeper order in which beauty, love, and justice are indistinguishable.
Meticulously formed, emotionally fierce, intellectually challenging, Joseph’s poems press back against the high-stakes pressures of our time with a moral and aesthetic intensity not easily forgotten.
Praise for Lawrence Joseph
“Throughout his career (he published his first book in 1983) Joseph has synthesized the unlikeliest lexicons—from legalese and street slang to overheard speech and jargon—and created a taut, sinuous medium capable of handling modern life without sacrificing his ability to sing. His is a poetry of the immediate present built to outlast ephemerality.”—Declan Ryan, Times Literary Supplement
“[O]ne of our most acute poetic chroniclers.”—David Orr, The New York Times Book Review
“Joseph is a moralist, and the narrators of [his] poems . . . lash out at the violence of the contemporary world . . . But in his vision violence coexists with, and is occasionally transformed by, beauty and love . . . to create a mosaic that melds seeming opposites—violence and transcendence, ancient and contemporary themes, the quotidian and the exalted—into poems both relevant and lasting.”—David Skeel, The Wall Street Journal
Lawrence Joseph, the grandson of Lebanese and Syrian Catholic immigrants, was born and raised in Detroit. A graduate of the University of Michigan, University of Cambridge, and University of Michigan Law School, he is the author of severa; books of poetry, including So Where Are We?, and of the books of prose, Lawyerland, a non-fiction novel, and The Game Changed: Essays and Other Prose. He is the Tinnelly Professor of Law at St. John’s University School of Law and has also taught creative writing at Princeton. He is married to the painter Nancy Van Goethem and lives in New York City.
Lawrence Joseph Recommends: War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad, by Christopher Logue
My choice for Dare to Imagine is Christopher Logue’s War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad, published by FSG in 2011. Poet, pacifist, political activist, screenwriter, actor, Logue, who died in 2011 at the age of 85, began working on War Music in the late 1950s. Logue knew no Greek, freeing him to recast the Iliad as a poem in English; he conceived of it not as a translation, but as an “account,” War Music not only radically re-imagines Homer’s Iliad, it is a great poem in itself. It collects Logue’s previously published books of the Iliad, from War Music in 1981, to Cold Calls in 2005, and, in an appendix, includes a projected final volume that illness prevented Logue from finishing, expertly added from unpublished draft materials by Christopher Reed, Logue’s one-time editor at Faber and Faber and a superb poet himself.
I first knew of Logue’s Iliad during the 1980s, but it was Logue’s second volume, Kings: An Account of Books 1 and 2 Homer’s Iliad, published by FSG in 1991 shortly after the Gulf War, that profoundly influenced me. I was then writing Before Our Eyes, my third book of poems, which appeared with FSG in 1993. I’d written of war and violence since my earliest work; the Gulf War was the most significant American military involvement since Vietnam, and became a central subject of the book. I’d never read anything like Logue’s Homer before. It was his language of war, his war music—what war sounds like, looks like, feels like—that struck me. With the Iliad as his base, Logue reinvents it. Constructed, like Pound’s Cantos, from notes, quotations, patches of dialogue and fragments, Logue shifts forms, shapes, and lineation on the page with dazzling, dramatic, cinematic speed, cutting between scenes, using wide-angle shots and close-ups, even visual cues (“imagine” / “picture” / “now look” / “now hear this” / “drop into the fighting”). His characters speak fast-paced contemporary colloquial English. He incorporates post-Homeric historical references up to the present, often injecting his own personal commentary into the story. Like Homer’s Iliad, Logue’s occurs in a Troy that exists on a mythic plane, acutely sensitive to the timeless truths of war. It is unflinching in its depiction of the force of violence, conveying, with a fierce moral intensity, the terrible power and terrible banality of war.
Logue’s Iliad is a presence not only in Before Our Eyes, but also, subsequently, in the war poems of mine after 9/11 and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars in Into It and So Where Are We? They could not have been written without Logue’s Homer.