Was Joe Biden trolling Britain with his choice of poetry – or choosing his words perfectly?

You can tell a lot about a leader from the poems they quote, as the president’s speech to US air force personnel proved this week, writes Zoe Williams

I woke up the other day to a load of Americans arguing in my Twitter feed about Joe Biden’s speech to US air force personnel. The president, landing in Suffolk for the G7 summit being held in Cornwall, addressed the troops and their families stationed at RAF Mildenhall with a large number of thoughts. In precis: “Hey, everyone, America is normal again.” And a quote from WB Yeats: “The world has changed, changed utterly / A terrible beauty has been born.”

The crux of the debate: was this poem going to wind up the British, and if so, did Potus choose it on purpose?

Let’s recap: Yeats’s poem Easter, 1916 is about the Easter rising and the violence that followed, starting with the execution of the Irish republican leaders for treason. One social media view was that the poem was about a load of things – there are also many animals in it, horses and moorhens and whatnot – so you couldn’t call it explicitly anti-British. There was a cluster of opinions along the lines of: “You know poets – they’re slippery fellows, never saying just one thing. And Yeats was the worst! He was a republican, but also very anti-bloodshed. Comme ci, comme ça.” Some people pointed out that Biden, with his proud Irish heritage, just liked its poetic tradition and the noises it made.

And then, the counterpoint: Biden is nothing like his UK counterpart, who famously reached for the most insensitive lines imaginable on a foreign trip, reciting Kipling’s paean to imperialism in a Myanmar temple. There is actual footage of Boris Johnson being told off by the British ambassador. It’s hard to imagine Biden being told off even when he was at school.

Another image that is hard to conjure: Biden just randomly Googling “cool lines from Irish poems” and picking his favourite. We probably have to assume that, in a break with the recent political tradition of his nation, he chooses his phrases judiciously, and with a purpose. So yes, world-class trolling.

• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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