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Why This Lawyer Reads Poetry to the Elderly
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New York Lawyer reads poetry to the elderly

Summary: A New York lawyer balances his career with poetry readings.

We all know that being a lawyer means being more than a lawyer: even if that is your primary identification, the thing you live for, the self-description you first give when introducing yourself to a stranger, it can’t sustain itself, but requires a full life to back it up, in the same way that a pastor isn’t just a pastor, but a man, perhaps a family man; the way a police officer is more than a police officer, maybe collects stamps; balance is necessary for everything, and each person must find their compensation. Marvin Wexler, who defends such unpopular litigants as actress Vanessa Redgrave, who lost a role for her support of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the New York City hospital, who were accused of coercing donations from their patient Huguette Clark, who gave much to them from her copper fortune, balances his soul, in part, by reading poetry to the elderly in a nursing home once a month.


The New York Times reported about his recent visit to the Sarah Neuman Center, which is located near Wexler’s home in New Rochelle, where he gives poetry readings and sings songs. He first got the idea after helping his mother, who died last year at 94, who suffered from dementia. Reading poetry and song lyrics was one of the few things that could get through to her.

“It seemed that going over poetry with her and singing songs with her was a tremendous way to interact with her,” he said. “When we did that, she acted decades younger than she was otherwise.”

Through his poetry readings, Wexler discovered a style and program that seemed effective in reaching the dozen and a half wheelchair bound women he reads to. He felt he had learned enough to write about it in the Journal of Poetry Therapy, in an article entitled “A Poetry Program for the Very Elderly – Narrative Perspective on One Therapeutic Model.”

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In the article he details how a shift from Emily Dickinson to Bob Dylan, progressive alternation, and references to holiday favorites and movie references, are effective in reaching and moving his audience.

As for the relationship between poetry and legalese, Wexler says it’s stronger than it first might appear. “Statutes are all about language. Constitutions are language. Trying to persuade someone of something, in ancient Greek they would have called it rhetoric.”

Of course he is right; there is a skill and art to writing effective legal language, which takes as much discipline and inspiration as writing careful verse, though, perhaps, a different mindset. So that he balances the rigors of his legal career with poetry readings is apropos and fitting.

Though the elderly people he reads to sometimes snore during his performance, Wexler said that “I had to get over certain expectations that I had. It’s not an easy environment to become comfortable with, especially with the more disabled.” Yet he has managed to adjust and become effective at it.


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