When eminent jurist Sir William Blackstone abandoned reading Classics at Oxford to study at Middle Temple, he wrote a poem lamenting his decision to forsake his passion for verse to pursue a career in law.
The poem was called The Lawyer’s Farewell To His Muse and it bemoaned “The toil by day, the lamp by night/The tedious forms, the solemn prate/The pert dispute, the dull debate”.
You could imagine, then, Sir Blackstone smiling down on barrister Tom Richards, a junior at the set, as he juggles a burgeoning practice with co-editing Oxford Poetry magazine.
Richards has been running Oxford Poetry, along with pupil barrister Hamid Khanbhai, since 2009. The magazine has a small readership of around 100 subscribers, but has been in existence for over a century and counts Seamus Heaney, Andrew Motion, Carol Ann Duffy and Glyn Maxwell among its contributors.
“The history of the publication’s a little erratic,” reveals Richards, “but basically it’s been around since 1910. Occasionally we’ve claimed that it’s the oldest poetry magazine in the world, but that probably isn’t true. We’re pretty sure it’s the oldest in the UK, though.”
As an editor of the magazine Richards is in esteemed company, with Siegfried Sassoon and Kingsley Amis two of many high-profile wordsmiths to have held the post. But despite the publication’s prestige and historic links to Oxford University, it was a cavalier act that got Richards and Khanbhai the editorship.
Richards edited a student poetry magazine while he was studying Classics and English at Oxford, but had no professional experience of the industry. Nevertheless, when Oxford Poetry’s previous editors put an announcement in a newspaper saying they were retiring, Richards and Khanbhai saw an opportunity.
“The previous editors just decided they’d had enough,” recalls Richards, “and they put an announcement in The Times Literary Supplement saying they’d no longer be running the magazine. We saw the ad and just decided to put an announcement in the same paper announcing we were the new editors.”
So far at least no one has tried to stop them and the pair brought out their second issue in April this year. The magazine includes poems, reviews and editorials. Richards and Khanbhai pen the editorials, but nothing else.
“One rule we’ve always had is that there’s no self-publication,” explains Richards. “There’s too much of that in the poetry world. And I think that distinguishes us from the student poetry magazine world.
“The previous editors published their own work in the magazine. But then, I think it says a lot about what kind of publication it was then, when the website’s only set up to receive complaints.”
According to Richards it takes around three weeks to sift through the hundreds of entries the magazine receives, most of them unsolicited, and put the biannual publication together.
“Even if the poem’s rubbish you have to read it at speaking speed,” says Richards. “Otherwise its doesn’t do it justice.”
The pair aim to publish two volumes each year, although the magazine sometimes has to take a back seat to client work.
“It’s difficult to squeeze it all in,” admits Richards. “The deadlines for a lawyer are externally imposed, but for poetry editors they’re much more flexible. So if something has to give, it’s going to be the poetry magazine.”
Richards and Khanbhai keep an open mind as to what goes in the magazine and the tone of pieces range from mischievous (one article reviews an 80,000-word epic by US poet Steven Zultanski that catalogues everything in his apartment he can or cannot lift with his penis) to more serious, sensitive topics.
“We try to select poems on the basis of what’s really good poetry,” stresses Richards. “It doesn’t have to be hip or trendy and doesn’t have to fit with the classic idea of poetry either.”
To ensure unbiased quality Richards and Khanbhai remove the authors’ names before reading the work. Even under these conditions Richards’ colleague at Blackstone Andrew George had a poem, titled Wind Farm, Agrigento, published in the latest volume. George has had a number of poems appear in other publications in the past, and Richards believes he is no anomaly in the legal profession.
“I think there are many more lawyers who are into poetry than admit it,” says Richards. “[Brick Court Chambers’] James Flynn QC is another barrister poet.
“In some ways, writing poetry is not unlike being a lawyer: both labour over the anvil of language. I attended a chambers evening where I said that. I ended up getting a load of stick for it, but I think there’s a point to it – both are about fashioning words. Although in poetry aesthetic beauty is more of a priority than persuasion.”
The next issue of Oxford Poetry is slated for release in December and will be dedicated to modern chanson. Anyone anticipating a law-themed issue, however, might be left with a long wait.
“Law’s about all of human life, but I wouldn’t say it’s a fertile ground for poetry,” concedes Richards. “But I think people like Andrew George are showing that law and poetry aren’t mutually exclusive.”
Perhaps Sir William Blackstone was a little rash when he bade farewell to his muse after all.