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The Real Dead Poets Society

Since 2009, Walter Skold has been traveling the country visiting the graves of deceased poets. Skold, from Freeport Maine, is the founder of the Dead Poets Society of America. He recently came to New Hampshire to find two graves and to participate in the Dead Poets Remembrance Day at Gibson's Bookstore in Concord.  

In the bright leaves of the Hopkinton Cemetery, Walter Skold sets a movie camera on a tripod and begins to film the gravestone of the poet Joel Oppenheimer.

Credit Sean Hurley
Skold at the grave of poet Joel Oppenheimer.

"I found this one in 3 minutes and 58 seconds today!"

Skold tracks these things. With crummy maps and bad directions, in a failing, graffiti covered utility van nicknamed "The Poemobile", Skold has visited some 500 cemeteries across the United States, sometimes wandering for hours before finding graves like Oppenheimer's.

"He's really almost completely forgotten in modern American poetry and yet in the 60's, in New York city, he was a very important figure."

With a blog, a book, a budding organization and a movie underway, Skold hopes to remind us of poets no longer among us.

"One of my sayings is we put dead poets back on the map."

The idea came to Skold in 2009 when he heard former NH Poet Laureate Pat Fargnoli read a poem about visiting Robert Frost's grave.

"There's a whole long tradition in Western poetry of poets visiting poets graves. So I'd been reading a lot of those poems. And it's like, what's the deal? Why are all these poets visiting other poet's graves?"

Soon such visits became a passion of his own.

"I've been to 411 graves as of this morning.  410 was John Cage, who nobody knows wrote poetry. He wrote like one volume."

But as we leave for the Blossom Hill Cemetery in Concord, Skold isn't sure we'll find 412, the gravesite of 

Credit Sean Hurley
Searching for the grave of Eleanor Vinton in Blossom Hill Cemetery.

  Eleanor Vinton - and to better his chances, Skold invites two poets along to join us - Jessica Purdy from Exeter and S. Stephanie from Manchester.

"Alright, so. It looks like what we want to do - wait a minute, where are we?"

Stephanie holds a blurry scanned map of the cemetery and tries to guide us to section EE where the grave of Eleanor Vinton may or may not be.

"You know I've seen probably 250 of these maps and they're all tricky."

After 30 minutes, we find our section and get out of the van and Purdy spots the family monument.

"I see Vinton!
You do! Look at that! She's the winner!"

Even then, Vinton's sunken stone is covered in leaves and dirt.

"She's gonna be under those leaves I bet you.  She's hiding. There we go! And see look, it's always so exciting. It says poet laureate. That is so cool!"

Credit Sean Hurley
Poet S Stephanie cleans up the grave of Eleanor Vinton. Poet Jessica Purdy (left) and Skold (right).

Skold fetches a broom from the van and Stephanie begins to sweep.

"There. Look at that.
And so one of the cool things about these events for me is now when Alice reads, I'll be hearing a new poet. And we'll bring her name back into NH's literary history."

Skold and Stephanie refer to the Dead Poets Remembrance celebration to be held later in the day at Gibson's Bookstore.

"The idea developed when I met Walter Butts and several other Poet Laureates in 2010 - why don't we have an annual day to celebrate all of our passed poets?"

The annual day is now celebrated in 8 different locations across the United States. Here in Concord, at Gibson's, Poet Laureate Alice Fogel tells the gathered crowd about Eleanor Vinton.

"Well I'd never heard of her either and there' s not much out there about her.  So she started writing when

Credit Sean Hurley
Former NH Poet Laureate Pat Fargnoli (left) and current Poet Laureate Alice Fogel at the Dead Poets Rememberance Day.

she was a child and she's a very New Hampshire poet.  She wrote about birds and trees and flowers and-"

And witches. Here's the tail end of a poem Vinton wrote telling of their flight from Hopkinton:

"And that is how it came about on silky broomsticks, one by one, all witches fled from Hopkinton..."

Back in witchless Hopkinton, at the grave of Joel Oppenheimer, Skold reflects on the curious turn his life has taken. How graveyards have become the center of his life.

"I fell in love actually 2 years ago at the grave of Samuel Longfellow. On our second date got locked in a cemetery in Cambridge.  That was kind of fun."

Before he leaves, Skold reads a favorite bit of poetry written in magic marker above the wheel well of his van.

"This is by a guy named Beatlick Joe Spear and his quote that his widow put on was: 'Books are like angels moving between the living and the dead.'"

In the Poemobile, grave after grave, Walter Skold plots a similar commute.

Credit Sean Hurley
Skold, heading off for another cemetery.

Sean Hurley lives in Thornton with his wife Lois and his son Sam. An award-winning playwright and radio journalist, his fictional “Atoms, Motion & the Void” podcast has aired nationally on NPR and Sirius & XM Satellite radio. When he isn't writing stories or performing on stage, he likes to run in the White Mountains. He can be reached at shurley@nhpr.org.
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