There is a standard formula for poetry readings. The poet stands at the front of the room holding a copy of a recent book and reads aloud, allowing the audience to take in the rhythms and structures of each work.

Less common is a reading that is as much a celebration of the poet as of the poems. Yet that was what took place Tuesday afternoon in Chilmark, as Chilmark Writing Workshop founder Nancy Aronie hosted more than 25 people for a reading of poetry by Peggy Freydberg. Mrs. Freydberg, who is 106, was the guest of honor.

“An amazing, stunning woman,” Mrs. Aronie said describing the distinguished poet.

Margaret (Peggy) Howe Freydberg wrote her first novel in 1952 and later published five more. She and her late husband Nicholas moved to the Vineyard in 1968. Her memoir, Growing up in Old Age, was published in 1998.

But it was her poetry that first grabbed Mrs. Aronie’s attention, at one of the first Martha’s Vineyard Women’s Symposiums. Both women were featured speakers. Mrs. Freydberg read some of her poems aloud during her presentation.

“I flipped out,” Mrs. Aronie said. “I heard her poetry, and I said I am in love with this.” She made mental plans to get to know Mrs. Freydberg better. But life got in the way, and it took 20 years for the two to reconnect after the original symposium. Mrs. Aronie began to visit Mrs. Freydberg, often bringing friends and fellow poets along.

At one point during the gatherings Mrs. Aronie recalled: “I said, Peggy, why aren’t you famous? And she said ‘I don’t know. I would have liked that.’”

So Mrs. Aronie decided to do more. Earlier this month, she began to plan the reading as a way to honor Mrs. Freydberg and her quietly formidable words. It is hard for Mrs. Freydberg to read her own writing these days because of macular degeneration. The 27 people in attendance Tuesday filled Mrs. Aronie’s Chilmark studio, settling into wooden folding chairs and onto a comfy couch. Mrs. Freydberg, dressed in a long skirt and red vest adorned with a bright gold cat pin over a cream-colored blouse, held a seat of honor at the front of the room. Each reader sat in a chair next to her, and when they spoke, it was more to the author than to the audience itself.

The reading lasted just over an hour, with 11 different readers giving voice to Mrs.Freydberg’s words. Audience members followed along in their own copies of Wanting, Mrs. Freydberg’s most recent collection published in 2005. The centenarian poet’s face lit up in a glad smile.

“When I read this for the first time, it took my breath away,” said Kay Goldstein of her selection. “The second time I read it, I got goose bumps.”

Mrs. Freydberg has a gift for distilling life to its core. In a 2003 interview with the Gazette, she said she made the shift from poetry because of a need for better self-expression.

“The glory and the challenge of poetry is finding exactly what you want to say,” she said at the time.

And in finding that exactness, Mrs. Freydberg hit upon a sweet spot of poetry, creating pieces that were at once personal and universal.

“Your poems felt like they spoke about my life, my truth,” said Fae Kontje-Gibbs, who read two selections.

The imagery in Mrs. Freydberg’s poetry is simple and direct, with careful use of metaphor and sprinklings of humor (one piece described the “tiny-headed brainless hauteur” of turkeys). Everyday scenes are penned as if from Mrs. Freydberg’s diary, but with a touch more sentence sculpting.

After Susie Oaken read the poem Plumb Line, former West Tisbury poet laureate Fan Ogilvie said she could hear the internal structure clear as a bell. “I’ve picked that up in Peggy’s reading years ago, and I’m hearing it today. The whole poem really hangs together on this line,” Mrs. Ogilvie said, comparing the work to Robert Frost’s Silken Tent. Mrs. Ogilvie first heard Peggy speak at the Chilmark library several years ago.

“Everything is connected and put together just perfectly so that the tent stands up,” Mrs. Ogilvie said, before she opened her copy of Wanting to the poem A Chorus of Cells.

At the end of the hour, Mrs. Aronie took up the guest seat herself, reading the haunting poem Reincarnation. She then read aloud from a copy of Mrs. Freydberg’s grandson’s poems.

“You can see, it’s in the genes,” she said afterwards. “Even the rhythms are the same.”

And then Waiting was passed around the room, as reader after reader took up a stanza of A Letter to My Family, Explaining How I Feel About My Cats — a community celebration after each of the individual efforts.

When the final reading ended, a rousing round of applause broke out and the audience gave Mrs. Freydberg a standing ovation. Despite speaking little during the reading, she had, in fact, said it all.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly named Ms. Freydberg's most recent poetry collection. It is called Wanting, not Waiting.

 

              Mornings At Seven

    Wild geese stir in the early morning calm
    with the ripple of their wake.
    Far off,
    near the shore’s arm of dune that holds the pond,
    a kayak glides,
    someone seeking peace
    and looking up to find it in the sky.


    A sudden commotion of the water at my shore!
    Two swimmers diving in together
    side by side exactly.
    Man and woman —
    I can see the sickle-splash of arms and legs in ardent crawl,
    and the watery tumult of pumping feet.

    
    But more, and
    unmistakable,
    is a joyous energy of purpose in the two of them,
    heading out.
    And a determination to be swimming side by side,
    exactly;
    so that in coming up for air, their eyes can meet.

    
    The seriousness of their purpose shouts to heaven,
    and gives this pond and sky
    a grounding and a glory,
    announcing that their heading out, together, side by side,
    is no more the single purpose of their beings,
    than is the night of sleeping side by side.


    And they have found that that’s the simple whole of it.
    
                                            — Margaret Howe Freydberg