Founder of Dead Poets Society visits bards’ graves

Posted Oct. 31, 2009, at 7:22 p.m.
Walter Skold, founder of the Dead Poets Society of America, walks past a gravestone recently at a graveyard in Cundys Harbor, Maine. Skold, an amateur poet, says he just finished a three-month road trip in which he visited the graves of 150 poets in 23 states, hoping to call attention to some of the dead poets' work.
AP PHOTO BY PAT WELLENBACH
Walter Skold, founder of the Dead Poets Society of America, walks past a gravestone recently at a graveyard in Cundys Harbor, Maine. Skold, an amateur poet, says he just finished a three-month road trip in which he visited the graves of 150 poets in 23 states, hoping to call attention to some of the dead poets' work.
An adorned poem decorates a tombstone recently in Cundys Harbor, Maine.
AP PHOTO BY PAT WELLENBACH
An adorned poem decorates a tombstone recently in Cundys Harbor, Maine.
Walter Skold, founder of the Dead Poets Society of America, reads a poem while sitting in his van at a graveyard in Cundys Harbor, Maine.
AP PHOTO BY PAT WELLENBACH
Walter Skold, founder of the Dead Poets Society of America, reads a poem while sitting in his van at a graveyard in Cundys Harbor, Maine.

CUNDYS HARBOR — On the big screen, the leader of the Dead Poets Society at an all-boys prep school was an inspirational teacher played by Robin Williams.

In real life, it’s a balding amateur poet who drives around in his “Poemobile,” visiting and documenting the graves of dead poets and calling attention to their works.

Walter Skold, founder of the Dead Poets Society of America, just finished a three-month road trip in which he visited the graves of 150 poets in 23 states. Skold boasts that he set a literary land speed record of 1.66 gpd (graves per day) over the course of his 15,000-mile journey.

While his graveside poetry readings — and occasional cemetery sleepovers — evoke the macabre, Skold insists his intentions are honorable.

“It’s not really a morbid project but rather a way to honor our literary forebears and to historically resurrect their works,” Skold said.

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His reports, which sometimes include offbeat tombstone art, are posted online; he encourages others to get out and find the graves of dead poets and to post their videos and photos online.

Skold, 49, of Freeport founded Dead Poets Society of America a year ago, leaving his job as a public school technology teacher to pursue his passions of poetry and photography. For his trip, he bought a used cargo van with a rack for cameras and supplies, shelves for books and a desk that, in a pinch, doubles as a bed.

Over the course of his 90-day journey, Skold visited the grave sites of giants of the poetry world including Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, as well as lesser-known poets such as Dudley Randall, whose Broadside Press published many leading African-American writers.

He’s making a documentary film called “Finding Frost: Digging Up America’s Dead Poets.” Next year, he hopes to scout out America’s dead poets buried in Europe.

He was especially intrigued by poets who’ve been forgotten altogether. He calls them the “doubly dead” because they suffered a second death when their works were “slowly consigned to literary oblivion.” Some of those include Madison Cawein, Eugene Fields, Virginia Boyle and Elizabeth Hollister Frost, he said.

Skold also discovered that the final resting places of many poets — dead or doubly dead — are unknown. In Maine alone, he found 29 poets whose final resting places are a mystery to the public.

“So many of these individual poets have such interesting stories and such interesting lives that I really feel it’s a shame that they’ve been lost to our literary imagination or our literary history,” he said. “I’m trying to bring back people’s works and lives who have value and who have been forgotten for one reason or another.”

The Library of Congress believes Skold’s effort is the first such literary undertaking, said Peter Armenti, digital reference specialist whose focus is poetry.

Many of the poets’ grave locations are well-documented, but only to scholars and poetry buffs, Armenti said. Skold’s effort attempts to make the poets’ information accessible to the general public, and in doing so generate some interest in America’s poets.

“I just think it’s a fascinating project,” Armenti said. “I’m glad somebody’s doing it.”

Skold’s project has the blessing of nine state poets laureate, each of whom was enlisted to participate in poetry readings during his road trip.

South Carolina’s poet laureate joined Skold at Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston for a reading of a poem by Henry Timrod, whose work is believed to have inspired Bob Dylan.

“It’s quirky and interesting in the best way,” Marjory Wentworth said from South Carolina. “My hope, long term, is that it’s going to bring people to poetry who might not otherwise be interested. Anything that increases the audience for poetry is a good thing.”

In Tennessee, poet laureate Margaret Vaughn said she respects Skold’s ambitious goal. She, too, has been documenting poets’ graves, as well as writing original poetry for each.

“I know what it takes. I’ve been doing it for 10 years. He’s got the passion. That’s what it takes to do this, passion,” she said from her studio in Bell Buckle, Tenn.

On a recent afternoon, Skold was in Cundys Harbor at the burial site of Robert P. Tristram Coffin, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1936. The Poemobile, named for Edgar Allan Poe, was parked across the street with the bumper sticker, “I brake for old graveyards.”

Wearing a T-shirt from Poe’s Tavern in South Carolina, where Poe spent a year in the Army, Skold quickly set a video camera on a tripod and then used a rake from a neighbor and a copy of Coffin’s poem “An Old Man Raking Leaves” to create tombstone art on a brisk autumn day.

He likes to surprise with his tombstone art.

For example, he placed a scarlet “H” on the tombstone of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who penned “The Scarlet Letter.” At Longfellow’s memorial, he set fire to a portrait of the poet’s second wife to underscore her fiery death, which tormented the poet and inspired “The Cross of Snow.”

Skold encourages others to take up his cause on All Saints’ Day by going to graveyards, preferably during the day, to document poets’ graves and read their poetry.

Visiting a graveyard at night can be a dicey proposition and sometimes requires special permission. Skold learned that lesson the hard way last Halloween when he was nearly arrested in Malden, Mass., where he and his son lit torches at the tomb of the Rev. Michael Wigglesworth, Puritan author of the “Day of Doom.”

“Little did I know that there was a little woman who watches over the cemetery and she told the police that there were people performing satanic rituals,” he said.

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