By Annette Hinkle
Walter Skold spends a lot of time in cemeteries.
Walter Skold is a man on a mission.
Six years ago Skold, a photographer, historian and poet (among other things), quit his day job as a middle school teacher and set out to stalk the dead.
And all of these deceased individuals have one thing in common … in life, they were poets.
Skold is the founder of the Dead Poets Society of America and his goal is to visit the graves of 500 dead poets who had at least one book of poetry published either during their lifetime or posthumously.
“It didn’t start that way, but it turned into that,” said Skold who was inspired by the popular practice of visiting Keats’ grave in Rome. “I got to 200, then 300, then people said ‘I guess you’ll go to 500.’”
At this point, Skold guesses he will.
“In the beginning, I was surprised by the positive feedback. Now I’ve come to expect it and after I discovered the fascination people had about poets graves and graves in general, I kept going on,” says Skold. “It’s something that struck a chord and the feedback spurred me to keep going.”
So far, Skold, who lives in Freeport, Maine (or LLBeanville as he lovingly calls it) has driven at least 30,000 miles through 32 states in “Dedgar the Poemobile,” his Dodge Sprinter van (which he describes as part Batmobile, part Steinbeck’s “Rocinante”) in order to document the graves of dead poets in this country.
“I sleep with the dead,” admits Skold who keeps a bed in the back of Dedgar. “I pull up in my van and sleep in cemeteries. Usually it’s very quiet.”
On the side of the van, Skold has a slogan — “We dig dead poets” — and at one point in his journeys, he noticed he was getting a lot of weird looks and even weirder questions from people he encountered. Then he realized someone had removed the “o” from the slogan on the truck so that it read, “We dig dead pets.”
He promptly used a Sharpie to clarify exactly what it is he digs.
Last week, on a trip down the coast to add 15 more names to the dead poet’s list, Skold stopped at Sag Harbor’s Oakland Cemetery to pay his respects to Richard Henry Stoddard and Elizabeth Stoddard (a.k.a. numbers 312 and 313) who died in 1903 and 1902 respectively.
So, you’ve never heard of Richard or Elizabeth Stoddard nor their poetry?
You’re not alone… and that’s largely the point of the Dead Poet’s Society.
“I had vaguely heard of his name, but I had almost heard nothing of her,” says Skold. “When I looked her up, I saw she was a poet too. It turned out she sent things to magazines and had a book published — at least one.”
“I find her poem about a child’s death about as powerful as any contemporary poem,” adds Skold who notes that one of his favorite aspects of the project is coming across unique epitaphs on the poets’ graves. He notes the Stoddard’s epitaphs did not disappoint.
“His is ‘The Rest is Silence’ which has great double meaning, as one would expect a poet to write,” says Skold.
Elizabeth’s epitaph reads: “Novelist. Poet. Strong original thinker and steadfast loving friend. She will be long remembered.”
“Part of my project is kind of resurrecting these dead poets in our imagination,” said Skold. “I probably hadn’t heard of 100 of them before I started. It’s interesting and so ironic. Elizabeth’s tombstone says she’ll be long remembered. That’s not really true. Your friends and your family will remember you, but unless you’re Thoreau, probably few others will.”
But now, with a little help from Skold, many more people will know who these poets were. His ultimate goal is to create a book documenting all 500 poets and he hopes to create an archive that might one day be housed in the Library of Congress.
“I also do something I call Tombstone Art and in Sag Harbor made unique photographs at the Stoddard graves,” explains Skold. “These are the kinds of photographs I will use in my book on poet’s graves.”
He hopes in the end, his project will allow people everywhere to appreciate the long forgotten writings of Elizabeth Stoddard along with the other 499 poets he will visit.
“How many people at all in Sag Harbor, heck, anywhere, now remember her? So, my art is an attempt to ‘resurrect’ dead poets in the imagination of our literary culture again,” notes Skold. “By beautifying the place of death and burial, I bring new light to old poets, and in a sense, their work may have a chance to rise again in people’s hearts and minds.”
By educating himself about the poets’ life and work in advance of visiting their graves, Skold gains a sense not only of each writer’s personality, but sometimes their take on life and beliefs about the sweet hereafter. Skold certainly got a sense of that in Elizabeth Stoddard’s work through one of two poems she had written on autumn, both of which he read at her grave.
“It was typical bipolar poet stuff — one was cheerful and rejoicing in the color, the other is full of longing and melancholy,” he says.
While he is a former teacher, Skold hasn’t actively pursued the educational angle of his project yet, but knows there are many places where teachers take students to visit the homes and graves of local poets. Skold is hopeful he will soon be able to get back out on the road and travel to further flung parts of the country and even Europe where several American poets are buried, but at this point, he is looking to raise money or find a patron to finance his travels and the archive.
Raising awareness is also key and with the help of 13 current and past state poets laureate, Skold also founded Dead Poets Remembrance Day which is October 7, the day in 1849 on which Edgar Allen Poe died and James Whitcomb Riley was born (Skold will tell you that Riley’s grave in Indianapolis is one the largest poet’s graves in the country).
It’s impossible to visit so many graves without reflecting on the fleeting nature of one’s own mortality — especially if you’re at all poetic. So when asked if he’s thought much about his own epitaph, Skold responds by simply saying, “Yes, I’ve thought about it.”
While he hasn’t yet committed to the wording, he does already know who will do the carving.
“Through this process I have come to know John Updike’s son, an artist and tombstone carver,” he says. “I know Michael Updike will carve mine and though I know it will say ‘father, friend and poet’ I’m not quite sure what the epitaph will be yet.”
Unsettling, yes, but these sorts of things are wise to ponder, especially if you’re a poet, as time is fleeting and one of those unstoppable realities of life, which Skold found Elizabeth Stoddard addressed most eloquently in one of her final poems:
“Life is not hurried, nor delayed,
The wheels of time run on and will,
Never since the world was made
Have they yet turned back or one stood still”