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Andrew Harnik, Associated Press
Poet laureate Elizabeth Alexander gives a poetry reading in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, April 17, 2015. Alexander read "Praise Song for the Day" during President Obama's 2009 inauguration.

WASHINGTON — Poetry helps people understand themselves and each other, and the world would be "pretty barren" without it, President Barack Obama said Friday.

Obama and his wife, Michelle, celebrated National Poetry Month at the White House by inviting student poets to a workshop and reading by Elizabeth Alexander, the American poet who wrote and delivered a poem at Obama's frigid inauguration in January 2009.

They are friends who once taught together at the University of Chicago.

"Poetry matters. Poetry, like all art, gives shape and texture and depth of meaning to our lives," Obama said. "It helps us know the world. It helps us understand ourselves. It helps us understand others, their struggles, their joys, the ways that they see the world. It helps us connect."

"I think it's fair to say that if we didn't have poetry that this would be a pretty barren world," he added.

Alexander, now teaching at Yale, read from her newly released memoir, "The Light of the World," which she wrote after her husband's unexpected death in April 2012 left her to raise their two sons.

Her emotional 17-minute reading left many in the audience on the verge of tears. That included the first lady, whose voice cracked as she addressed the audience afterward.

Mrs. Obama said her friend's "crushing grief" would have left most people unable to function normally, yet Alexander "transformed it into something beautiful and powerful, not just for herself, but for anyone who has ever lost someone they love."

"So this book is not just an achievement for her, it's also a lifeline for others who are overwhelmed by their own grief," she said. "It's Elizabeth's way of telling us all, 'You are not alone, you will eventually find your way out to the other side, and the love you felt for the one you lost will ultimately be your salvation.'"

"And that's really the power of writing, right?" Mrs. Obama added.

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