John Seddelmeyer, we’re told in the contributors’ notes to the June issue of Poetry, “has been employed in the law department of ExxonMobil Corporation since 1974.” As A.J. Liebling says of Hymie Katz, we can reasonably expect Seddelmeyer to be “a man what knows to get a dollar.” Liebling intends his observation as a compliment, as I do. Seddelmeyer’s first appearance in Poetry is a brief essay, “Language on Holiday,” that suggests he’s a seasoned, judicious writer, reader and presumably, assistant general counsel at ExxonMobil.
Seddelmeyer says he has read Four Quartets many times and the poem “continues, in some essential way, to defy me. And yet, I believe I do understand it. I don’t need to know all of the references and allusions Eliot employs to feel the emotional currents that flow through the poem. It seems to me that poetry speaks to the attitudes we hold about what we know.”
That’s as terse and sensible a description of what it’s like to read great and difficult poetry as any I know. It chimes with my longtime engagement with Eliot and the lawyer-poet Wallace Stevens, among others. Not every reader can balance and accept his understanding of a poem with the poem’s resistance to understanding. That quality of unresolved tension – neither glib transparency nor inert opacity – is surely a mark of any great art. Seddelmeyer rightly concludes that poetry, more than fiction, encourages enthusiastic rereading.
In their formal writing, Seddelmeyer says, lawyers strive to make their words “clear and subject to only one interpretation.” In contrast, Eliot in “Burnt Norton” says “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break.” Reading his own earlier legal work, Seddelmeyer recognizes it has, as Eliot writes, “Decay[ed] with imprecision”: “The lack of clarity and precision had been there from the beginning. I just hadn’t realized it.” Every writer, whether lawyer or poet, recognizes the impossibility of fixing meaning like a fly in amber and the commensurate refusal to stop trying. Here’s where law and poetry diverge:
“The legal system provides processes for resolving the meaning of words, and much of the practice of law involves these processes. In the end, the words mean what the final arbiter in the process says they mean. The process must come to an end.”
Poetry has no Supreme Court, no “final arbiter.” All we have is the poet and his co-counsel the reader, and their collaboration is always open to appeal.