Joe Biden’s Use (And Abuse) of Irish Poetry - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Joe Biden’s Use (And Abuse) of Irish Poetry

When you can find someone who says it better, use it.

– Joe Biden, Jan. 17, 2017

Midway through Joe Biden’s acceptance speech on the final day of the Democratic National Convention, the 77-year-old politician gazed out at an empty Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware. Pausing for effect, he narrowed his eyes in a solemn squint.

“The choice could not be clearer,” he intoned. “No rhetoric is needed.”

Rhetoric might not have been needed, but that’s what we got by the shovelful. Every line of the speech was crammed with gauzy, emotionally charged, often hackneyed language. It was a sticky bundle of Hallmark Card one-liners and inspirational bumper stickers (“Compassion is on the ballot”), designed to evoke the spirit of Obama, Clinton, and JFK. Manichean tropes of light and darkness, love and hate, hope and fear, held the flimsy edifice together like duct tape.

Not surprisingly, commentators on the left adored it.

“Biden gave the speech of his life — at exactly the right time,” wrote CNN’s John Avlon, echoing the sentiments of others. Even Chris Wallace and Dana Parino gave it high marks. “Joe Biden just hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth,” said Parino.

But before the virtual confetti had been virtually vacuumed, Biden was fending off accusations of plagiarism. Some observers felt that crucial lines had been borrowed from a 2011 “open letter” by a deceased Canadian politician named Jack Layton. The controversy lost steam as Democrats closed ranks. Still, the incident served to remind everyone of Biden’s plagiarism problems in the late 1980s, which derailed the first of his two failed presidential campaigns.

Frankly, I couldn’t care less whether or not one hack politician copies off another. Bloviation is bloviation. As a poet and fan of poetry, however, I was interested in a certain passage Biden read from The Cure of Troy, a verse drama written by acclaimed poet Seamus Heaney.

As he neared the end of his speech, Biden said,

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney once wrote,

“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.”

As his voice reached a crescendo, the old statesman’s eyes seemed to glisten with decency and compassion: “This is our moment to make hope and history rhyme!”

Some pundits called the poetry reading the highlight of the night. The Guardian aptly summarized the media’s predictable reaction to this oratorical coup de grace: “[C]hoosing verse from The Cure at Troy … for his Democratic party nomination acceptance speech on Thursday had scholars of the poet’s work and the political class eating out of his hand.”

In the same article, Irish historian and scholar Robert Fitzroy Foster — glutted from eating out of Biden’s hand — lauded the inclusion of the poem: “Biden apparently is a reader of poetry … He has spoken about his admiration for Irish poetry. So he was coming from a background of literacy. Coming up against a functionally illiterate president, it is quite a contrast.”

Like Foster, I, too, was impressed that Biden admired Heaney’s work. Heaney, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995, is one of the most gifted poets of the past 50 years and, by all accounts, was a wonderful human being. My first brush with his work was his brilliant translation of Beowulf in 2000, which brought that normally turgid epic to life. In 2017, I read his translation of Book VI of the Aeneid aloud in one sitting. A few summers before that, I read the entirety of Opened Ground, a collection of his verse written between 1966 and 1996. In my poetry teaching, I try to include one or two of his works, usually “Digging,” “Bog Queen,” or “Punishment.”

Biden’s Perverse Use of Verse

Sadly, reports of Joe Biden’s love of Irish poetry are greatly exaggerated.

Since his entry into politics in 1972, Biden has worked hard to cultivate the image of a folksy storyteller and “fearless fighter” — a straight shooter who calls out other politicians on their “malarkey.” He’s quick to remind audiences of his Irish heritage, his law degree, his Catholic upbringing, and his tragic backstory. His alleged love of poetry is part of this politically useful persona.

Biden does not “love Irish poetry.” He loves exploiting two of the finest poets in the English language for his own political ends.

For instance, before reciting a Yeats quote at a meeting of the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing in 2013, then–Vice President Biden remarked, “My colleagues always kid me about quoting Irish poets all the time. They think I do it because I’m Irish. I do it because they’re the best poets.” The punch line has found its way into dozens of his speeches. Around 2006, he began telling audiences that “reading Yeats and Emerson” helped him get rid of his stutter.

It turns out that when Biden says he enjoys poetry (Irish or otherwise), he means that he enjoys Yeats and Heaney. These are the only poets Biden refers to on a regular basis. Actually, it’s even worse than that. With one or two exceptions, Biden has used the same quote from Heaney and the same quote from Yeats for more than 20 years.

Biden does not “love Irish poetry.” He loves exploiting two of the finest poets in the English language for his own political ends.

The Terrible Beauty of Yeats 

Consider Biden’s use of Yeats, who is among the greatest poets of the 20th century and a major influence on Heaney. Despite Yeats’s legendary poetic output, Biden’s use of his oeuvre (with rare exceptions) is limited to ten words of an 80-line poem called “Easter 1916.” He usually quotes only the final two lines from the last stanza:

Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

In “Easter 1916,” Yeats shares his painful, conflicted emotions about the “Easter Rising” rebellion in Ireland on April 24, 1916. The revolt was put down by British troops practically before it began. Most of the Irish republican leaders — including several of Yeats’s friends — were executed. Some interpret the ambivalent line about “terrible beauty” as an allusion to the onset of the modern age, with all its violence, doubt, and despair, as well as its glimmers of hope.

Biden has employed this quote (usually without context) more than 16 times since 1999 in a variety of settings: an Entrepreneurship Summit in Turkey, the Bombay Stock Exchange, college commencement addresses, and stump speeches on behalf of his or Obama’s campaigns. He often prefaces it (as he did at the University of Delaware commencement in 2014) by glibly noting that Yeats’ poem “better characterizes the world into which you are graduating than even it did his Ireland in 1916.”

Who knew that Yeats’s heartfelt poem about his slaughtered friends and his luckless country more accurately depicts the future of the U.S.–Australian Relationship in Asia?

Famous Seamus Has the Cure

Biden is equally cynical in his use of Heaney’s The Cure at Troy, a loose translation of Sophocles’ Philoctetes. The 1990 play has been described as dramatizing the “conflict between personal integrity and political expediency,” with poignant resonances with the Northern Ireland Conflict. Irish President Mary Robinson and Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams both quoted the play in the years leading up to the Belfast Agreement in 1998.

For all his purported love of Irish poetry, Biden had probably never heard of Heaney or The Cure at Troy until Bill Clinton quoted from it during a visit to Ireland in 1995. Shortly afterward, Heaney gave the president a handwritten version of the quote, which Clinton placed in the Oval Office. The title of his 1996 book Between Hope and History refers to Heaney’s poem, as does Gerry Adams’ 2003 book Hope and History: Ireland’s Long Road to Peace.

In general, Adams, Robinson, and Clinton took a guarded, even reverential, approach when it came to using Heaney’s words.

By contrast, Biden employs the quote like a slogan, as the Washington Post and others have reported. The earliest example I could find was a commencement address to graduates at the University of Delaware on September 19, 2001. Since then, he has used it dozens of times, including at other commencements, a World Affairs Council meeting in 2007, a memorial service for an MIT officer killed during the Boston Marathon bombings, 2013 visits to Korea and Ireland, a 2014 Atlantic Council meeting, and a 2014 visit to Cyprus. He quoted it at primary speeches in 2007 and any number of campaign speeches leading up to this year’s Democratic convention.

The apolitical Heaney would have loathed Biden’s shallow, shameless use of his work. “I think that the writer’s function, the poet’s function, is not in that realm of political commentary,” Heaney said in a 1982 interview. Or as he explained in a 1990 interview with the Irish Times: “I’m not a political writer and I don’t see literature as a way of solving political problems.”

Maybe if Biden actually read The Cure of Troy, he’d glimpse himself in a stanza that appears just before that famous bit about hope and history:

Philoctetes. Hercules. Odysseus.
Heroes, Victims. Gods and human beings.
All throwing shapes, everyone one of them
Convinced he’s in the right, all of them glad
To repeat themselves and their every last mistake.

Joe Biden seems never to have met Seamus Heaney before his death in 2014 at the age of 74. He did, however, introduce himself (in his typical handsy fashion) to Heaney’s widow, Marie, at a charity dinner at Trinity College in Dublin in 2016. During the trip, he was given an honorary doctorate at one of the graduation ceremonies. In his commencement address, Biden chose not to quote Heaney. Instead, he opted to share a certain poem by William Butler Yeats.

Care to take a guess which one it was?

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