April 19, 2013
Early in his speech in Boston on Thursday, President Barack Obama summoned up a piece of poem.
"It was a beautiful day to be in Boston," he told the congregation in the cathedral, remembering Monday, before the bombs went off.
"A day," Obama went on, "that explains why a poet once wrote that this town is not just a capital, not just a place. Boston, he said, is the perfect state of grace."
The poet's line about the state of grace turned into a theme of the president's speech.
Difficult moments often prompt people to reach for poems or lines of poems the way you might pop a painkiller. A poetic turn of phrase can be a sedative or a pick-me-up, a consolation or an inspiration.
On Thursday morning, I opened my daily poetry email from the Library of Congress to find a poem from the Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska. The poem, "The End and the Beginning," seemed chosen specifically to speak to the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings:
After every war
someone has to clean up.
straighten themselves up, after all.
Someone has to push the rubble
to the side of the road,
so the corpse-filled wagons
If you'd read that poem last week, it may have summoned images of Iraq or Afghanistan or Hiroshima. Read it this week, and it's hard not to think of Gatorade cups and bomb debris littering a street in Boston.
Szymborska's poem is about the way people get back to business after violence rips their ordinary world, about how the passage of time erases memories and restores hope.
Her poem brought to mind another poem, "Wait," by the American poet Galway Kinnell.
Wait, for now.
Distrust everything if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven't they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Kinnell's poem is about a different version of despair, but it winds up in the same place as Szymborska's, with the belief that it is worthwhile to keep going.
The poet William Carlos Williams once wrote, "It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there."
In the crash and drone of what we call news, in the urgency, real and imagined, of public events, a lot of us yearn for the intimate comfort of a poem.
The right poem in a time of crisis is like a deep breath after exhaustion, quiet after the storm. In the famous phrase of William Wordsworth — didn't you have to memorize this in school? — poetry comes from "emotion recollected in tranquility." The reader absorbs the tranquility.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a lot of people turned to poetry for help. One of the best-known poems of that moment was "Try to Praise the Mutilated World," by the Polish writer Adam Zagajewski. Its final lines:
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
You can say approximately the same thing in prose — look for the beauty in what remains, trust that the light will return — but the poem says it better.
Hard-core poets and poetry professors might wince at the way we less-poetic people use poetry, picking phrases here and there, just the ones we like, the way you might choose dishes at a buffet table.
The poem that Obama cited Thursday, for example, doesn't have quite the same message as the phrase he singled out.
Originally published in The New Yorker in 1949 — a fact that the folks at Chicago's Poetry Foundation unearthed for me — the poem is by E.B. White, who also wrote the children's classic "Charlotte's Web."
Read in full, it's a jaunty rhyme about Boston as a carefree, patrician town "where every boy's a Harvard man/And every man's a skier."
But that's OK. A poet releases words into the world and sometimes, as they travel, the words break apart and land, a few at a time, where they're needed.
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