Biden versus Trump and Why poetry matters
The debacle of the first debate between Vice-President Biden and President Trump not only uncovered, once again, the crudeness of Trump’s words and his inability to respect decent exchange, but also brought me back to this: Why poetry matters.
I know that seems like a non-sequitur, but hear me out.
Biden had little chance to bring the eloquence of any poem to the debate discourse, but poetry pervades his speeches, as does his, as he says, “favorite” quotation from the Irish poet and Nobel prize winner Seamus Heaney. Here’s what that fact tell us: He reads poetry. What we can be sure about from all of President Trump’s words is that he does not.
The question I pose here, ever so briefly, is why that difference between the two candidates should matter to you.
In Timothy Snyder’s short and telling book On Tyranny, he gives the reader twenty lessons from the twentieth century on the ways that history “instructs” how tyranny works its ways to achieve its goals: lesson #9, you may be surprised to know, is “Be kind to our language … Read books.”
Words matter as President Trump proves with his language and his manners, with the way he brutalizes the truth and, most terrifying, with his clear encouragement of anarchy. His performance in the first debate may well go down in history: His view that it is not only okay but good practice to trample on the words of others. I’ll leave analysis of the details of the debacle of responsible discourse to those who focus on politics.
This, for certain, is clear: Suppression of the words of others characterizes tyrants and autocrats. History tells us so.
That brings me to Biden’s use of poetry over the years in speech after speech.
I go back first to the terror of the Boston Marathon in April 2013 when along with the more than two hundred people who were injured, a 27-year-old MIT campus police officer, Sean Collier, was killed by the terrorists. Biden spoke at his memorial service and his talk was notable for its empathy and its use of poetry. “They also serve who stand and wait” is a quote from a sonnet by John Milton that he follows with this question, “Why, Why?” he asks about the terrorist attacks before and since 9/11. And he answers that “they do it to instill fear.”
In that memorial, with his use of the phrase from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, “a shining city on the hill,” a quote oft used by President Reagan and many others who have expressed hope for America’s future, he emphasized the diversity of the MIT campus and the importance of including all colors, races, religions in our open society.
When he closed with the Seamus Heaney quote from “The Cure of Troy”:
“History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.”
he said this: “The stanza in that poem … best defines the nature of the American spirit ... . I think that sentiment is stamped into the DNA of Americans regardless of where they come from.”
The speech received a resounding standing ovation and was followed by folk singer and poet James Taylor who sang “Shower the People” whose refrain is “Shower the people you love with love.”
Love was not last night’s debate story—and we can forgive that because it was, after all, a political event.
Here is my point: As we Americans face the potential loss of a peaceful transition of power after the election and the possible end of democracy as we know it, we are reminded that discourse matters, that words matter and that the one who quotes poetry is a man who reads—and that matters.
The Puerto Rican/American poet, physician William Carlos Williams explains why in this excerpt from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”:
“My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
that concerns you
and concerns many men. Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.”
Biden has gone on to quote Seamus Heaney’s stanza from “The Cure of Troy” in his speech after he became the democratic front runner in March 2020 and again on August 21st when he accepted the presidential nomination.
Seamus Heaney is well-known for this quote on why poetry matters, “The poet is on the side of undeceiving the world.”
May Biden’s and Heaney’s prayer come to be: That “hope and history rhyme.”
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