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Poetry, Negative Capability, and the Law

James Wright’s “A Poem about George Doty in the Death House” and “At the Executed Murderer’s Grave”

Michael Stanford

Pages 235 - 255


American Law and Literature scholarship has tended to focus on fiction and drama to the exclusion of poetry. Yet a number of major American poets have grappled with law-related issues. The mid-twentieth-century American poet James Wright produced two poems expressing his opposition to the death penalty. The earliest of these—“A Poem About George Doty in the Death House”—proves problematic in its romanticization of the convicted killer and its striking lack of empathy for his victim. Among other things, Wright’s performance here calls into question the claim of the philosopher Martha Nussbaum that literature can help to humanize the law by encouraging empathetic feeling in its practitioners. Richard Posner has cogently argued against Nussbaum that “empathy is amoral,” as likely to attach itself to evil persons and forces as to good ones. Wright’s second poem—“At the Executed Murderer’s Grave”—is aesthetically and morally superior to the first because it relies less on empathy than on what Keats called “negative capability,” poetry’s traditional capacity for accommodating mixed feelings. It points to what may be a particular capacity of poetry as a genre to engage with a matter of fierce public controversy in a nonpropagandistic way.


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