A Note on Common Threads from Michael Ansara
When I was in the 5th or 6th grade, we had a poetry unit on “Evangeline,” the epic poem by Longfellow. “This is the forest primeval…” We were told to memorize all 1,399 lines. Each day we were expected to come in and repeat by rote the next set of lines. There was no discussion of what the poem was about, the choices he made in how to write it, no delight, no joy in words. I remember vividly Miss Lynch, her white-blue hair, thin and hen-like as she pecked at us to behave, to recite that line perfectly, to fall into line. Skittish and stern. Now looking back I imagine that at one time she was an enthusiastic, caring teacher. But decades of teaching had desiccated her. She was void of passion. Each day was to be gotten through without change and without commotion both by Miss Lynch and her students. By the time the semester was done, by the time we had memorized all of “Evangeline,” I hated that poem and hated poetry.
I don’t think this was an uncommon experience for those of us in public schools in the 1950s, 1960s and even later. I meet so many people who have their own version of how they stopped reading poetry. And yet most of them also have one or two favorite poems that they cherish still. When faced with great grief, or great joy, weddings, birth of a new child, illness and death, so many of us still turn to poetry. But at the same time, too few of us will read poems regularly. In the rush of daily living, for so many, poetry seems not to have a place: too hard, too remote, too inaccessible.
The idea behind Common Threads is to create an organized way for people who do not regularly read poetry to engage with a few poems in an easy and comfortable manner, in a group with friends, neighbors, or strangers. The poems by Massachusetts poets are chosen to be diverse and accessible. There is a simple “guide” to how to read and discuss the poems. There are videos of the poets or other poets reading the poems. In some cases, videos of the poets discussing the writing of the poem. There is something important about experiencing the poems with other people, hearing the poems read aloud, discussing them, hearing what other people make of the same lines, metaphors, sound and rhythms that you liked.
All of Common Threads is designed so that people who do not regularly read poems, as well as people who love poetry, can read the Common Threads packet, watch and listen to the videos, meet and discuss the poems. In the first years of the program we had hundreds of groups discuss the poems: groups organized in libraries, senior groups, book clubs, church groups, high school and college classes. We have had people organize small poetry dinners where they invite over neighbors and friends to discuss the poems over a meal. Often these groups contain people who have stopped reading poetry once they left school. The connections they make with the poems surprise and delight them; their lives even for one evening are enriched by poetry. Whenever that happens, if it happens for one person, or for several thousand people, we at Mass Poetry have done our work.
We hope it will happen for you.
Co-founder, Mass Poetry