Spectator: Start the day with a poem

For nearly a year now, I’ve been waking up every morning with Garrison Keillor. Of all the men I’ve known, he’s the best at getting me out of bed. He fills me with poetry, patiently educates me, and makes me smile. What more can a girl ask for? The relationship began when I stumbled across The Writer’s Almanac online (http:// writersalmanac.publicradio.org). I subscribed it’s free and it arrives every morning in my email, faithful and early. I sit down with a mug of hot coffee and read it before I do anything else. It begins with a poem, sometimes by contemporary poets I’ve never heard of, sometimes wandering around the centuries: Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Philip Larkin. Today, the poem was by Raymond Carver, called In the Lobby of the Hotel del Mayo.

In 24 lines, Mr Carver tells how disaster intrudes into everyday life, and, even when the disaster has nothing to do with you, you never forget it. At first, I wasn’t sure I liked reading poetry online. I like slim volumes on ivory white paper in Pharamond font. But weeks can go by without my picking up a book. This way, the poem is like a gift that arrives each day, and it often leads me back to my shelves. After the poem is a trio of birthdays. Today is the birthday of the poet and novelist Richard Brautigan (1935). His novel Trout Fishing in America was on every cool bookshelf in the 1960s. I never read it, but I remember the cover, a black-and-white photograph of Mr Brautigan standing with a woman. He committed suicide in the 1980s, and I recall reading about his sad childhood and string of violent stepfathers.

Mr Keillor gives a line from Brautigan that makes me wish I’d tackled his surreal and whimsical style: ‘The sun was like a 50-cent piece that someone had poured kerosene on and then had lit a match, and said, “Here, hold this while I go get a newspaper” and put the coin in my hand, but never came back.’ Mr Keillor also notes that it’s the birthday of the historian Barbara Tuchman (1912) whose book The Guns of August traces the events that lead to the First World War. ‘War,’ Mrs Tuchman wrote, ‘is the unfolding of miscalculations.’ Today is another anniversary not pointed out in the British press. On this day in 1815, President James Madison approved an Act of Congress for the purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s library of 6,487 volumes, at a cost of $23,950. The year before, the British burnt down the US Capitol, destroying the Library of Congress and its collection of 3,000 volumes. I was brought up to believe that the war of 1812 was about as just as a war could be. That the British had been stopping and searching our ships, and taking off our seamen because they needed them to fight Napoleon. I’m always amazed that no one seems to know about the war of 1812.

English friends are sceptical when I tell them that the British burnt down the Capitol and the White House. Still, my morning almanac on the internet, against the background of the Today programme, gives me other things to chew over. John Humphrys has just reported that we don’t have enough trained troops to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, so we’re reducing the training time of our troops. My almanac begins to look like the fortune teller’s tea leaves: we’re holding on to the burning 50-cent piece, and the miscalculations of these wars, financial and human, keep unfolding.