The Bard of the Bar

Stephen Wiley finds himself in his poetry

Published in 2006 New Jersey Super Lawyers magazine

By Elizabeth Tannen on March 20, 2006


On the first day of poetry class at the College of St. Elizabeth in September 2000, the main concern of Stephen Wiley, a then-71-year-old attorney, had nothing to do with iambic pentameter. It was the professor’s announcement that submissions should be typed. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into!’” he says with a laugh.

Fortunately, the Morristown litigator likes a challenge. So he dusted off his word processor, arranged his home office and set out to rehabilitate his typing skills. “That got me going and I’ve been going ever since,” he says.

Wiley is no stranger to writing; he is careful of his word selection in his legal prose. It was this, coupled with his admiration for poets, that piqued his interest. “There came a time when I said, ‘Why don’t you learn a little more about poetry?’” Wiley says. “I didn’t know if it was supposed to rhyme or what.” He wasn’t — and still isn’t — an avid reader of poetry. “I find poems difficult to read,” he admits.

But his professor at St. Elizabeth became an inspiration and a mentor to Wiley, who began generating poems and eventually sending them off to journals, where they were met with the predictably numerous rejections — but also with occasional acceptance. Oasis Publishers, a small operation in Largo, Fla., published two of his poems. When he decided to publish a book, Oasis accepted that as well. Hero Island, Wiley’s collection, came out in 2005.

Wiley’s poems reflect his sensibilities about the significance of place and the passing of time (see below for an example). The title of his book is a slight variation on the island where he and his family have spent summers and vacations since 1969, and much of his writing is a paean to the nature that surrounds him there. Many of the book’s poems also deal with Wiley’s parents, especially his father. “They were huge influences on me,” he says.

His legal training comes in handy. “Lawyers are playing with words all the time,” the partner at Wiley, Malehorn and Sirota says. “I’ve got a built-in proclivity toward simplicity.” But while he can knock off a legal brief at lightning speed, writing poetry is a much longer process: Most pieces, he says, go through at least 25 versions before completion.

While he does not intend to give up his law practice anytime soon, Wiley does plan to continue to write poetry that offers meditation on the simple things: his hands, his knees, the passing of time, the coming of winter. And the typing that once confounded him is now part of his routine: “I like the mix of activities, but I do like to take a day off and sit at my word processor.”

Dying in Pieces Is Not All Bad

Dying in pieces is not all bad
and if you live at all
that kind of dying is guaranteed
You learn to value what you lose.

I never thought much of my sense of smell
the fragrance of spring
the warning of the skunk
my entitlement
or so I thought until my nose passed on.

Now I appreciate what I’ve lost
I’m pleased to hear from others
how fresh and sweet the corn smells.

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