PORTLAND – The former teacher who founded the Dead Poets Society of America and traveled 15,000 miles to document the graves of poets has a new mission: to create a Dead Poets Remembrance Day on Oct. 7, the date master of the macabre Edgar Allan Poe died.
Walter Skold of Freeport launched his new endeavor Friday, beginning a 22-state tour of the graves of dead poets. He has enlisted 13 current and former state poets laureate to help drum up support.
His “Dead Poets Grand Tour 2010” began on what’s believed to be the anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth, in 1564, with a poetry reading at Portland’s Eastern Cemetery, the burial place of British and American sea captains cited in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “My Lost Youth.”
“Of course, it takes a little chutzpah to say we’re starting a holiday,” said Skold, 49, who left his job as a public school technology teacher to pursue his passions of poetry and photography. “But we believe it’s a really good idea, and we hope it catches on nationwide.”
As in last year’s tour, Skold will drive a boxy cargo van, called the Poemobile, to graveyards. But this year, he will be accompanied by a couple from Georgia, who will film the journey for a documentary they hope to make.
Having learned from past mistakes, Skold sought permission from cemeteries ahead of time so there’s no suspicion about satanic rituals or disrespectful behavior.
The idea of a day of remembrance was inspired by Skold’s discovery that the nation’s literary forebears have been neglected. Communities have readings at the graves of Poe, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Anne Sexton and other famous poets, but many others are in danger of being forgotten, he said.
Wisconsin’s poet laureate, Marilyn L. Taylor, said Dead Poets Remembrance Day is a wonderful idea.
“There’s all kinds of commemorative dates, for things like National Potato Week or something like that,” she said. “And I think it’s time that the poets got some recognition.”
Tennessee’s poet laureate, Margaret Vaughn, noted that April is National Poetry Month. She said it would be nice to have a day set aside to honor poets.
“When people write speeches, it’s poets that they quote most of the time,” she said. “To take one day to really recognize them would be great.”
Since founding the Dead Poets Society of America in 2008, Skold and others have documented the final resting places of hundreds of poets. All told, he has a list of the graves of more than 600 American poets.
To drum up interest in documenting poets’ graves, a photo and video contest will offer $4,000 in prize money, said Skold, whose society’s name was partly inspired by the 1989 Robin Williams movie “Dead Poets Society,” about an unconventional English teacher who inspires his boarding school students to love poetry.
For the trip, Skold has printed T-shirts with a rock tour-style list of stops, including Abraham Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Ill., the Poe Museum in Richmond, Va., and Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, R.I., where Poe courted poet Sarah Helen Whitman. The farthest west he’ll go is Iowa City, Iowa. Eventually, he hopes his travels reach West Coast cities.
Skold insists that the events are about history and celebrating the lives of the poets, but he’s not above a little graveyard humor. The society’s motto is: “We Dig Dead Poets You Dig?”
Modern poets dig the attention he’s generating.
“Dead or alive,” Taylor said, “I think that Walter is seeing to it that we gain a little higher profile through this and also give our sincere respects to these people who have gone before us and on whose shoulders we’re all standing as we write our 20th- and 21st-century poems.”