Joseph, Lawrence 1948-

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Joseph, Lawrence 1948-


Born March 10, 1948, in Detroit, MI; son of Joseph Alexander (a grocery and liquor store coowner and a meat cutter) and Clara Barbara (a chef) Joseph; married Nancy Van Goethem (an artist), April 12, 1976. Ethnicity: "Lebanese and Syrian, Arab, American." Education: University of Michigan, B.A., 1970, J.D., 1975; Cambridge University, B.A., 1972, M.A., 1976. Religion: Catholic.


Home—New York, NY. Office—St. John's University School of Law, Jamaica, NY 11439. E-mail—[email protected].


Poet, writer, essayist, critic, and professor of law. Office of Michigan Supreme Court, Justice G. Mennen Williams, law clerk, 1976-78; University of Detroit School of Law, associate professor, 1978-81; Shearman & Sterling, New York, NY, associate (litigation), 1981-84; Hofstra University School of Law, associate professor, 1984-87; St. John's University School of Law, Jamaica, NY, professor of law, 1987—.


PEN, Poets House, State Bar of New York, Bar Association of the City of New York, American Bar Association.


Hopwood Award for Poetry, 1970; Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, 1982, for Shouting at No One; National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellow, 1984 and 1995; Guggenheim fellow, 2000; Law and Literature Award, New York County Lawyers' Association, 2006.



Shouting at No One (also see below), University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1983.

Curriculum Vitae (also see below), University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1988.

Before Our Eyes (also see below), Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1993.

Into It, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 2005.

Codes, Precepts, Biases and Taboos: Poems, 1973-1993 (contains Shouting at No One, Curriculum Vitae, and Before Our Eyes), Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 2005.


Lawyerland (prose), Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1997.


Lawrence Joseph is a law professor, a former law clerk to a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, and a former litigator. His literary endeavors include several highly regarded volumes of poetry and an acclaimed prose work. After his third book of poems, Before Our Eyes, was published, Elizabeth Cohen noted in the New York Times that Joseph, "with greater effect than any of his contemporaries, is carrying on the tradition" of other American poets who were also lawyers, like Wallace Stevens, Edgar Lee Masters, and Charles Reznikoff. Discussing his combination of two seemingly unrelated professions, Joseph once said that "poetry informs the law by making me more sensitive to language, different levels of meaning, different perspectives, and an attention to the way things work…. As a lawyer, I have to be conversant in the languages of social power, economics, history, violence, work and race, and I try to transform them into my poetry."

Joseph grew up in Detroit, the grandson of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants. His father and uncle owned and operated a small grocery and liquor store in the city. The store was looted and burned during the riots of 1967, and Joseph's father was shot and injured in an armed robbery in 1970. The store was sold in 1972. Joseph's poems are informed by the violence and challenges he faced in Detroit. He lived in Detroit until 1981 when he and his wife, painter Nancy Van Goethem, moved to New York City.

His first collection is Shouting at No One. Richard Daniels, writing in the Minnesota Review, described the work as "truly poems of the common life of human be- ings. They are urban poems, filled with bars, factories, automobiles, filth, the evils of racism, murder, slums, pain and suffering, the effort to be human. Joseph's verses detail an ongoing argument with Detroit, with the U.S., with himself, and his own Middle Eastern heritage, with God." Daniels concluded that "the best [of these poems] certainly deserve to be anthologized and widely taught and read."

James Finn Cotter, in a critique of Shouting at No One in the Hudson Review, found that Joseph's poems "possess … terror and intensity of experience," and concluded that the works "gleam with the sharp edge of their truth; they are hard to forget." Booklist reviewer Joseph Parisi also praised the volume, remarking that Joseph's "ear for dialogue, eye for detail, and direct voice, are immediately arresting." In New Renaissance, Ottone Riccio commented that in Shouting at No One: "Redemption, if redemption is to be [in these poems], results from the art that can—and does—struggle up from everything and anything. Again and again, the mind shapes its world."

Joseph's second book of poems, Curriculum Vitae, was reviewed by David Lehman in Washington Post Book World. Lehmann described Joseph as "a poet of fierce urban intensity" and praised the volume as "outstanding." A reviewer for Booklist called the poems "striking," praising their "attractive alien flavor." Paul McDonough in American Book Review compared the book's style to Edward Kamau Brathwaite's early collection, Other Exile, and the exteriorismes of Ernesto Cardenal. Joseph, he asserted, "confronts the violence of both psyche and polis while seeking, not the balance of reason, but rather, the effort of conscience … [an effort] dramatized through contrasting personae." These personae, he continued, cumulatively create "a multi-chromatic identity, somewhat brown and levantine, with the heritage of the displaced, and at home with being at odds with the world."

Matthew Flamm, reviewing Curriculum Vitae in the Village Voice, praised Joseph's "graceful touch and virtuoso timing," his "wheel[ing] through descriptions of Lebanese massacres, family reminiscences, points of law, questions of religious doctrine, erotic memories—all of it as raw-nerved and vivid as insomniac ruminations should be…. Joseph leapfrogs to conclusions, constructing cubist panoramas in pitch-perfect free verse that never betrays its commitment of the mode."

Before Our Eyes was reviewed in Booklist by Donna Seaman, who recognized Joseph as "an increasingly important talent." Recommending the volume, a reviewer in Publishers Weekly praised Joseph's poetic voice as "rich and intelligent," and noted that reading his work "pays off in luminous observations and revelations." Leslie Ullman in the Kenyon Review observed that "Joseph's seemingly exteriorized language serves to illuminate the utterly interior sensations of frustrated idealism, moral outrage, and grim sense of comedy—the raw machinations of conscience trying to digest what assails it." Joseph's "refusal to succumb to nonbeing informs everyone of these dense and difficult poems," she concluded; "they roil with the helpless yet dynamic play of conscience, a moral sense that refuses the very disintegration it depicts." Judith Kitchen in the Georgia Review described Joseph's poetic method as "a kind of controlled surrealism…. Joseph has clearly mastered the ability to ‘remember and imagine at the same time.’" The poems in Before Our Eyes, she added, are "a blend of Williams' multifaceted America with Stevens' rich interior world." Summarizing the book's range in the Multicultural Review, Reagan Upshaw wrote that Joseph's "is an aesthetic of inner and outer, public and private, physical fact and abstract speculation. This melding of opposites is appropriate for a poet who embodies many of the contradictions of American society today."

Joseph's first book of prose, Lawyerland: What Lawyers Talk about When They Talk about the Law, was reviewed by Esquire critic Philip Lopate who pointed out that the "gripping" Lawyerland is unclassifiable: "It is part anthropological report, part performance piece…. The author, himself a lawyer, has hung out with confreres, gotten them to talk, and streamlined their remarks into charged, often hilarious, always dramatic monologues and dialogues" that "represent the whole spectrum of law … and a range of ages, ethnicities, and genders."

Richard Weisburg, praising Lawyerland in the New York Daily News, declared that "Joseph captures the exact fit between legal language and the unsettled life of contemporary America," indulging "his reader's fascination with law" but rejecting "the romantic pop-culture notion that lawyers alone can make sense of things." Vijay Seshadri in the New Yorker praised Lawyerland's experimental quality, observing that Joseph "has constructed a cunning virtual intersection out of his different interests" as a poet and a law professor.

Into It is a book of poems impacted by the September 11, 2001 suicide bombings of the World Trade Center. Joseph and his wife live one block away from Ground Zero. They witnessed the murderous devastation and aftermath of 9/11 as few people have. These poems reflect this time in history, as well as Joseph's responses to subsequent political realities, especially the war in Iraq. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that Joseph has emulated the style of Robert Lowell and borrowed one of his titles, "updating Lowell's Vietnam-era frustrations for the era of smart bombs and globalization."

In reviewing Into It in Booklist, Janet St. John observed that in this new collection, Joseph "is more abstract and fluid … less narrative-based and more symbolic, less angry and more disillusioned, less personal and more universal."

In reviewing the volume in America, Paul Mariani noted: "How could a denizen of Battery Park City—where for months particles of debris floating in the air altered the light and the landscape was irrevocably transformed—not write about 9/11? ‘Why Not Say What Happens’ distills the author's reactions to the apocalyptic collapse, and his quieter observations are remarkably striking."

Joseph links the terrorist attack on Manhattan with the destruction of the Byzantine Empire, Lebanon, and the domestic racial and economic wars of Detroit. He mourns the loss of the heart of America, which has been replaced with technology and globalization. The title of this collection is a call to make sense of the September 11th terrorist attacks and its aftermath. "As Dante entered hell ‘in the middle of the journey,’ this book plunges into the author's thoughts, sounds and feelings as he struggles to discover the associations that might best describe 9/11's effects," wrote Phoebe Pettingell in the New Leader. "Into It succeeds in placing what is almost beyond description under the lens of poetry and illuminating the darkness enough for us to make our way forward."

Joseph once told CA: "What I'd like to say would be best expressed by the following two short essays.

"What Is Behind His Writing. He would resist any subordination of individual consciousness to mass-created collectivizations, whether in the form of the ‘state,’ ‘culture,’ or ‘society.’ He would employ his social intellect at a fervent critical pitch, embodying a cosmopolitanism that he'd define, first of all, by its opposition to forms of oppression, humiliation, and terror, no matter how, or where, they might appear. He would remain, imaginatively, idiosyncratic, isolated if necessary, ironic, even comedic or satirical, in the classical sense, acting the role of the provocateur by continuously creating (in Goethe's phrase) ‘form combining possibilities.’ The ‘I’ in his work would be both subject and object, always in the process of affecting and being affected by the stream of events. In each of his works, he would create an ongoing field of verbal inquiry, a terminology, a language. He would write from within the spoken, out of actual speech, including speech inwardly impelled: what can be said, heard, thought, felt. A moralist by temperament (i.e., one concerned with matters of conscience)—with a sense of history and a compulsion toward trying to comprehend (to quote Wallace Stevens) ‘things as they are’—he'd insistently infuse considerations of good and evil into his work, with, if need be, aphoristic concision.

"Some Ways that His Poems May Be Read. He realized at one point that a sense of time and place and depth—and an imaginative sensibility which links us to them—is present in each of his books. In this, he is like a novelist: each book explores its own world of living subjects in its own language; and so he feels great affinity to poets who have also written inventively in prose, for example, among American poets, Herman Melville, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams. Two things remain constant throughout his poetry: a preoccupation with how a poem sounds—everything that's said in a poem is spoken by someone; voice for him is sensual—and an acute formal sense of how voice (or intonation) can be constructed. Favorite ‘tonal’ poets of his include Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, James Schuyler, and Adrienne Rich. A poem for him must embody in language ‘the mysterious circumstances of being alive’; in a poem, the voices on the page—and what they are expressing—are condensed, charged into meaning, transposed into feeling. One could endlessly elaborate on how this is done, but, as always with poetry that enacts its own aesthetic, the most critical elaborations are found in the poems themselves."



America, January 30, 2006, Paul Mariani, reviews of Into It and Codes, Precepts, Biases and Taboos: Poems, 1973-1993, p. 32.

American Book Review, November-December, 1988, Paul McDonough, review of Curriculum Vitae, p. 9; September-October, 2006, Fred Muratori, review of Codes, Precepts, Biases and Taboos, p. 16.

Booklist, March 1, 1983, Joseph Parisi, review of Shouting at No One, p. 857; May 1, 1988, review of Curriculum Vitae, p. 1473; August, 1993, Donna Seaman, review of Before Our Eyes, p. 2033; September 1, 2005, Janet St. John, reviews of Into It and Codes, Precepts, Biases and Taboos, p. 43.

Esquire, June, 1997, Philip Lopate, review of Lawyerland: What Lawyers Talk about When They Talk about the Law, p. 30.

Georgia Review, fall, 1994, Judith Kitchen, review of Before Our Eyes, pp. 284-286.

Hudson Review, winter, 1983, James Finn Cotter, review of Shouting at No One, p. 712.

Kenyon Review, winter, 1995, Leslie Ullman, review of Before Our Eyes, pp. 157-169.

Minnesota Review, fall, 1985, Richard Daniels, review of Shouting at No One, pp. 129-130.

MultiCultural Review, June, 1994, Reagan Upshaw, review of Before Our Eyes, p. 77.

New Leader, September-October, 2005, Phoebe Pettingell, review of Codes, Precepts, Biases and Taboos, p. 36.

New Renaissance, fall, 1983, Ottone Riccio, review of Shouting at No One, pp. 62-69.

New York Daily News, May 18, 1997, Richard Weisburg, review of Lawyerland, p. B16.

New Yorker, July 14, 1997, Vijay Seshadri, review of Lawyerland, p. 82.

New York Times, April, 1994, Elizabeth Cohen, review of Before Our Eyes, p. 459.

Publishers Weekly, June 7, 1993, review of Before Our Eyes, p. 56; June 27, 2005, review of Into It, p. 55.

Village Voice, November 29, 1988, Matthew Flamm, review of Curriculum Vitae, p. 66.

Washington Post Book World, August 28, 1988, David Lehmann, review of Curriculum Vitae, pp. 6-7.

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Joseph, Lawrence 1948-

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