Sharing our poetry heritage

Justen Ahren, the new West Tisbury Poet Laureate, led last week's Common Threads group reading and discussion program. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

April is National Poetry Month and for the fourth year in a row, the Massachusetts Poetry Festival is sponsoring an initiative to share a selection of poems by Massachusetts poets with audiences all over the state.

Last year, 10,000 people participated in the mass event, called Common Threads, attending readings at libraries, bookstores, churches, senior centers, schools, and at potluck parties. The readings this year will lead up to the annual festival, which will be held on the weekend of April 20 in Salem.

The Vineyard Haven Library was among the venues participating in the Common Threads effort last spring, and it will once again host a series of readings. The first set of three poems made up the program last Saturday afternoon, April 7. Two more sets of three will be read and discussed on April 14 and April 28.

“It’s a varied selection which includes some traditional verse and some very current and even challenging poetry that should be stimulating,” said poet Michael West, who is running the program here. The featured poets run from New England’s first published poet Anne Bradstreet, who was among the early Puritan immigrants, to 19th century icons Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Emily Dickinson, to Robert Lowell, who won Pulitzer prizes at either end of his career in 1947 and 1974, to Sam Cornish, who was appointed Boston’s first poet laureate in 2008.

The styles and topics cover a wide range. “I think we’re going to touch a lot of different hot buttons and reach a very broad swath of people’s interests,” said Mr. West.

Last Saturday’s poems included one on baseball, one that dealt with racism, and a poem that described a difficult relationship using an interesting metaphor. New West Tisbury Poet Laureate Justen Ahren led the discussion. Mr. Ahren runs the summer poetry series at Featherstone Center for the Arts and co-founded the Martha’s Vineyard Writers’ Residency, where a series of talks by the current residents will take place on Thursday evenings through the end of April, from 6 to 7:30 pm at the Pathways, located at the Chilmark Tavern.

Every one of the handful of participants added something to the discussion. Mr. Ahren and Mr. West spurred the conversation at times by posing questions to the audience. One question touched on line breaks and it opened up a discussion on form. “Form is a difficult thing for people to talk about,” Mr. Ahren said. “Once you get into discussions of how form works, the conversation gets lively.”

Of studying technique, he said, “I think it really brings a deeper understanding of what a poet is saying. Whenever you learn a little more about how you do something, whether it’s carpentry or poetry, I think your appreciation of that expands. You get to know the art of it.”

Mr. Ahren is one of three accomplished poets selected by Mr. West to lead the readings. This Saturday, former West Tisbury Poet Laureate Fan Ogilvie will read works by poetry immortals Emily Dickinson and Robert Lowell, as well as the enigmatically titled “If See No End In Is” by contemporary poet Frank Bidart. Of this series of poems, Mr. West said, “There are more challenges, but Fan is up to it. She likes the challenging kinds of poems.”

The third set will be read by former West Tisbury Poet Laureate Dan Waters. Mr. West will be on hand at all three readings to help spur the discussions. He organized last year’s Common Threads event and is responsible for a number of poetry-related initiatives on the Island.

“I think poetry on the Island is enjoying a flourishing period due to a whole series of efforts by individuals and groups,” Mr. West said. After running down a list of poetry events that have sprung up in the last few years, he added, “What those mostly do is bring poets in front of audiences. There’s another aspect that’s important. There are a lot of people who like to read poetry and discuss it. I found that out last year.”

At the encouragement of some of last April’s Common Threads participants, Mr. West started a regular poetry reading group at the Vineyard Haven Library. It ran for a few months before the summer season hit and attendance dropped off.

Mr. Ahren explained the advantages of reading poems aloud. “When we read to ourselves we can skip over things. When you read aloud you have to let it resonate in your body. That’s where poems are produced. Poetry is a heightened sense of language. Reading it, it becomes musical.”

Common Threads Group Reading Discussion, 2 pm, April 14 and 28, Vineyard Haven Library. 508-696-4211;