Plucking words in times of need

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

and returns.

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.