Book Article

The Rhymes They Are A-Changin'

Poetry from William M. Kunstler -- The radical lawyer shares his thoughts on all things political, in sonnet form

He has represented everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center. William M. Kunstler, with his trademark shaggy mane and glasses perpetually pushed back on his head, has become such a familiar radical lawyer that audiences giggled at the sight of him playing a reactionary judge in Malcolm X. But who would have guessed that the defender of the Chicago Seven would also be a poet? A sonneteer, to be precise, favoring the Shakespearean model of three quatrains and a couplet.

''I started writing them in court,'' says the gravel-voiced, 75-year-old attorney, who has just published Hints and Allegations, a collection of 96 sonnets withnotes that spell out the historical background of the poems. (The book's title comes from a line in the Paul Simon song ''You Can Call Me Al.'') ''I'd get bored and write sonnets on jury-selection motions, appeals...''

It wasn't long before he turned to topics closer to his heart — political subjects, like the battle over abortion rights or the sins of U.S. foreign policy — and began contributing the sonnets to the editorial page of the Amsterdam News, a black-owned weekly newspaper in New York City. His last collection, Trials and Tribulations, was published in 1985.

''For political poetry, the sonnet is great,'' says Kunstler. ''Not too long, not too short, and the last two lines give you the chance to drive your message home.'' As in these lines from a poem on a Supreme Court decision favoring the death penalty: ''We've given history an awful wrench/The lynch mob sits now on the highest bench.''

''They're not earthshaking poetry,'' he admits of his sonnets, ''but I think art should teach.'' Or, in this case, proselytize.

Originally posted Nov 25, 1994 Published in issue #250 Nov 25, 1994 Order article reprints