For the past 8 years, every morning a friend calls me, or I call him, with a poem to start the day. This surprisingly enduring practice arose out of an Improvised Life post called “What’s NOT wrong?”  about NOT jumping out of bed to check email or read the news first thing in the morning. Instead, start with a few minutes of reading something really GREAT…anything that reminds you of possibilities, other ways of thinking, grounds you. My friend said: Why don’t we do that every morning?

We discovered that reading – or listening to – a poem has the effect of placing us right IN the moment, while casting a great deal of light on things, often bringing Nature right into our homes and heads.

For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry…

Mary Oliver

Often we leave the book open for the day, so we can revisit it easily, and allow it to continue its enchantment

Sally Schneider

We each keep a stack of books next to our sofas we read from; some of those book have been in the stack for years. We let the book open at random rather than going sequentially. The random selection never fails to be on target, just right for the moment, with perfect simultaneity.

Here are some favorites:

A few years ago legendary poet Mary Oliver compiled Devotions, an anthology of her favorite poems. It is a trove and a bargain. Open it anywhere.

I see or hear
that more or less

kills me
with delight

When my friend was recently was quarantined for 3 months far from home, he only had one book of poetry: The Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o, the eleventh-century Chinese post. Although he read the same poems several times in the course of his stay, it always seemed like he was hearing it for the first time. Su Tung P-o seemed to be writing a new poem every night.

Pear blossoms pale white, willows deep green —
when willow fluff scatters, falling blossoms will fill the town.
Snowy boughs by the eastern palisade set me pondering —
in a lifetime how many springs do we see?

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s Odes offer vivid insights into everyday things from a lemon to “Thanks“. All the Odes is a treasure.

a cup yellow
with miracles,
a breast and a nipple
perfuming the earth;
a flashing made fruitage,
the diminutive fire of a planet

We didn’t come to W.S. Merwin until a couple of years ago. And then it was “OMG, such poetry!” and right away we invested in the two volume Collected Poems of W.S. Merwin. If we had to chose one, we’d buy the later volume that spans 1996-2011.

How time disappears
while we live under
the big tree.

Sally Schneider

We’ve found many treasures in The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry. I’m not sure “sacred” describes the selection of poems. The books editor, Stephen Mitchell, calls them “poems of fulfillment.” Yes, that’s it.

Here’s a great, teeny one by Issa:

In the cherry blossom’s shade
there’s no such thing
as a stranger.

…And a very ‘improvised life’ one by Emily Dickinson, which can also be found in the Everyman’s Library Pocket Book, a perfect gift. The morning we found it, we must have read ten poems to each other…

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

Cuban photographer Gigi de la Torre’s photograph, at top, sums up the curious mashup of books and nature, inner and outer, poetry and practicality that is at work in our daily practice. Thanks Gigi!

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