The lawyers pursuing a more poetic justice

Justina Hart on a scheme that is bringing poets out of the offices

Justina Hart
Wednesday 21 September 2011 16:21

Like many of the world's poets, Wallace Stevens combined a prolific literary output with a conventional job. Indeed, he worked in the in- house legal department of an insurance firm. Similarly, Roy Fuller, now Oxford Professor of Poetry, was gainfully employed as a solicitor for the Woolwich Building Society. He loved the job and remained committed to his nine-to-five existence for more than 30 years.

"It's very different from the image one has of T S Eliot rotting in his bank and going over London Bridge every morning thinking that everyone's soul is dead," says Colin Cavendish-Jones, a trainee lawyer at Wilde Sapte. "When I read some of Wallace Stevens' phrases, I know he must have been a lawyer."

In fact, lawyers - more than accountants or derivative traders - have a reputation for being able to combine work with some sort of cultural life. Of course, they are paid to be obsessive about words, so perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that more lawyers than any other group are joining a nine-month-old City poetry scheme that makes the idea of occasionally looking to the sky and whistling a happy tune no longer shameful or fey.

"Poet in the City" comprises the big firms of Bates, Wells and Braithwaite; Clifford Chance; KPMG, Lovell White Durrant; Penningtons; Titmuss Seiner Dechert and Wilde Sapte. The brainchild of Rosamund Smith, a partner at Bates, Wells and Braithwaite, the scheme has several distinct strands. It has put poets into many schools in the East End, where English is often a second language. It has held a poetry extravaganza where top lawyers read alongside cabbies on National Poetry Day. And once every six weeks there's a drop-in poetry reading to which around 50 City folk come to recite. John Mole, the City of London's poet in residence, chivvies the readers and acts as a master of ceremonies.

Ms Smith, a charity lawyer, was motivated by the idea of encouraging cross-fertilisation between the different community groups that exist in the Square Mile. She approached the Poetry Society, which has been running a Lottery-funded placement scheme to put poets in residence into zoos, chip shops and firms up and down the land. Sixty per cent of funding comes from the companies who are on board, but money also comes from the Corporation of London and another charitable trust. There's a tie-in to the Government's literacy drive, as firms encourage staff to go into schools and act as reading mentors to pupils.

Ms Smith argues that exposure to poetry can make people work better. "Not everyone wants to do a macho outward-bound course. This allows people to bring more of themselves to work." That firms such as Marks & Spencer and BT have seen fit to appoint resident bards means that poetry and business are no longer diametrically opposed, she adds.

"At the drop-ins it ranges from moving First World War poetry to Wendy Cope on how hopeless men are at committing themselves in relationships to Seamus Heaney. It allows people to express emotions without having to be confessional," says Ms Smith. Which may be a way of saying that "Poet in the City" saves on counselling for the work-oppressed.

"There's always a contingent who think we should be getting on with fee-earning," says Mr Cavendish-Jones. "But any good piece of writing is going to stick in your head and make you think. People who are stimulated are much nicer to work with, whereas people whose minds aren't active don't make good employees."

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