Editor’s Note: Tess Taylor is the author of the poetry collections “Work & Days,” “The Forage House” and most recently, “Rift Zone” and “Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange.” Views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
On Saturday morning, as the outcome of the election grew more likely, but in the last moments before the it was called, the TV anchors had fallen into a dull sports-casterish palaver. Low music played, black-and-white photos flipped on rotation. We heard again about Joe Biden’s stutter, his childhood in Scranton, his love for his father. It was nice enough, but I admit: I was on edge.
The nation had been wading through the vote count for days. It seemed like no one could say anything new. And then, just in the moments before Pennsylvania went blue, one piece of talk caught my ear, and got my heart leaping, again. I was surprised by how much it suddenly mattered. It wasn’t policy. It wasn’t history. It was a list of the authors Joe Biden loves, among them Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who Biden quotes often, and the Greek dramatist Aeschylus, and the African American poets Langston Hughes and Robert Hayden. Joe Biden values these voices.
Just then, Pennsylvania got called, and people around me turned their attention to honking their horns in the streets. Dancers danced, musicians played, kids blew whistles and people sounded, as Walt Whitman once did, a few barbaric yawps. And all through the day, I felt a private dawning wonder: We are going to have a president who loves literature (and a vice president who sings the praises of novelists as diverse as Toni Morrison, C.S. Lewis and Richard Wright). We are going to have a president who quotes poetry.
For me, this is not mere biographical happenstance. This is a good clue that we have elected a thoughtful, moral, decent human who cares about reckoning, who cares about human stories. This is a reminder that the person we’ve chosen to lead us values language, complex truths and nuanced thought. To love poetry is also to honor the precision of words and the music of language at once. It’s to respect – as lawmakers should – the enormous work words do in building worlds.
Poems can help us see the spark of beauty in ourselves and one another in an often ugly world. People read poems because poems make them feel richer, more human, and more alive inside. They also read poems because poems can help them feel more connected to their own quirky, messy human lives.
Commentators – on this site and elsewhere – have spoken again and again about America’s increasingly polarized partisan politics, inflamed binary rhetorics and the pain of our seemingly irreconcilable divisions. These assessments may well be true. Yet it’s worth noting that one reason to come to poems is because they invite us to hold challenging, even conflicting truths alive in our mind: The poet W.B. Yeats once said that a poem is a place where we can hold “hold in a single thought reality and justice.” As we consider what it will take to heal America, that doesn’t seem like a bad place to start.
We may go to poems to feel richer – more alive on the inside, more attuned to the heretofore hidden worlds around us. Reading someone else’s poem is an invitation not only into someone’s life, but into their sense of sound and balance and music and breath. After all, to be a reader – especially a reader of poems – is to willingly to suspend yourself in a space other than your own. Poetry is a tool of empathetic being.
All of this bodes well for our new President. Biden’s list of favorite writers offers a fairly pretty good sense of what he cares about: People read Aeschylus to learn something about their own struggle to be moral beings. People read Heaney to learn how to attend to beauty and to gather bearings in a time of violence. People read Hughes for the richness of his songs about both the injustice and the beauty of America. And people turn to Hayden (among other things) for tenderness. Morality, attention, balance, awareness, tenderness: All of these seem like good traits for a world leader.
It’s not really worth hashing over the many shortfalls of President Donald Trump. I can’t really say anything new: He has been multiply cruel to many groups of people and unkind and vengeful to his own staff. He has inflamed division and discord in America. And he has seemed chronically unable to care for anyone other than himself, and, when he was sick with Covid, unable to do even that. It also feels important to note that Donald Trump does not read. He does not seem to know how to enjoy looking through art about to fathom experiences of others. He does not seem to value art as a form of beauty, empathy, connection, or joy.
Biden has set himself the task of being a great healer of a divided nation. As he talks about the road ahead, he has, at prominent moments, come back again to Heaney’s haunting poem, “The Cure At Troy.”
Heaney, Nobel Prize winner, was born in 1939 in Northern Ireland, as one of nine children. Heaney came from a bitterly divided place – a contested space, on a partitioned island, where a long standoff about power and land and the legacy of colonial oppression led to thirty years of open violent conflict between Protestants and Catholics. Heaney wrote alongside this violence but never for it. He was a literary citizen of an age of great fracture. Despite all, Heaney’s poetry – whether it directly addresses division or not – also holds out great wholeness, offering a clarity of attention into which readers can sink and emerge restored.
If you haven’t seen the beautiful video of Biden reciting “The Cure At Troy” (it’s adapted from Sophocles’s play “Philoctetes”), it is worth watching, and it is also worth quoting:
Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.
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.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
There’s so much to love about this poem – its lilting rhythms and almost casual chiming, its rocking build towards some place where “hope” and “history” rhyme. Hope and history don’t rhyme, of course – in any language on earth. Heaney knows this. The poem also dares us to think about what such rhyming would mean, despite our history. What would that future sound like? This poem knows that a poem alone can’t right what’s wrong, but it proposes nonetheless that, when we are open to them, we may find “healing wells” and moments of both work and luck that push us beyond our oldest hurts, to some far side of revenge.
Biden also wishes this for America, for our old pain and our fresh discord, both. If we can’t get there yet, Biden asks only, as he did in his victory speech that we “see each another again.” Biden has told us that that coming to poems helps him see and hear and also dream. Maybe, as we try to find one another again, we too can take this good practice to heart.