“The thing about poetry is that it can capture in just a few words an entire experience.”
If the delegates at last weekend’s gathering of collaborative lawyers in Edinburgh got nothing else from listening to poet Rab Wilson, who opened and closed the Friday plenary sessions, it is to be hoped his paean for brevity hit the spot when they settle down to compose their next writ.
The 4th European Collaborative Conference, with delegates from Australia and the United States as well as Europe, didn’t just have one poet, they got two. They were sent on their way on the Saturday with Jim Stewart’s thoughts on Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry.
“Shelley suggested that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’”, says Stewart. “They make the laws by educating the imagination towards new habits of thought and feeling which then become standard behaviour. ‘The task is,’ said Shelley, ‘to imagine that which we know.’
“There’s this deep overlap between family lawyers exploring collaboration and conciliation who are seeking to educate people’s imaginations, and the work of poets, who are doing much the same thing.”
Shelley’s wisdom is perhaps offset by a chaotic domestic life, consisting of elopements with teenage girls, abandonment of a pregnant wife, and cohabitation outwith marriage.
“This does not necessarily invalidate his insights. We can’t always get our best ideals off the ground in the real world; and this is a salutary reminder of how difficult it may be to educate the imagination, even our own.”
Family lawyers will have encountered all sorts of resistance as they seek to encourage opposing parties to think outside the box. Creative writing might have something to offer in this instance – not as “art”, but as self-expression.
It might help, for example, for separating parties to write down not only their thoughts about how they feel, but also what they imagine the estranged party is feeling.
This exercise in imagining the other could be furthered by an exchange of writings. No doubt there would be mutual surprises as imaginations underwent re-education of this kind.
“At least some clients might be willing to undertake such activity, ‘imagining that which they know’”.
Rab Wilson, meanwhile, gave delegates a taste of his writing in Scots, including The Pied Piper of Auchinleck, a rollicking ballad narrating the battle fought by former Justice Minister Cathy Jamieson to break the magic spell Buckfast held over young people in her area.
He also offered the more poignant Ring-cycle, that reminds the professional lawyer of the real lives summarised in every court document:
1 RING, PLAIN, YELLOW METAL.
Once it had meant so much,
Now, just a memento-mori of bitterness
And recrimination, of who gets what.
But all of that has yet to come.
This anguish is all too raw, fresh, and real.
Unbidden tears that well,
In corners of eyes.
Neither Stewart nor Wilson are particularly used to hanging round with lawyers.
“Just conveyancing, really. And my marriage is stumbling on no’ too bad,” Wilson says.
“But it was a real insight for me to be there. I’ve had a 27-year career in mental health nursing and for that you need to find the humanity in people.
“Collaboration means families can survive in a much more human way. It doesn’t have to be war.”