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Essay

Ghost hunting with the Dead Poets Society of America

Is dying the best thing that ever happened to poetry?
Allen Ginsberg's grave. Photo: Walter Skold

Walter Skold is a former journalist and middle-school computer teacher from Freeport, Maine. He is also the founder of the Dead Poets Society. This is not the 1989 Peter Weir film starring Robin Williams—though that cult classic is a reference point for the DPSA—but the organization whose mission is “digging up the graves of Dead Poets.” (“Duh,” their Facebook page clarifies, “this is meant in a journalistic/metaphoric sense.”)

What the society’s mission means is that its members are “a community of like-minded people who . . . enjoy the history, culture, & poetry associated with the lives and deaths of poets, their gravesites, and their poetry related to death,” and who are committed to “documenting and resurrecting the dead poets of America” by visiting and archiving as many poets’ graves across the country as they can.

On their website you can find everything from a pretty straightforward video of Haki Madhubuti paying tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks where she is buried in Chicago to the somewhat stranger image of a Barbie doll at the Wisconsin grave of Lorine Niedecker. The latter is an example of Skold’s tombstone art, which he describes as “a photographic combination of the techniques of Cristo and Jeanne-Claude, traditional African burial customs, literary criticism, collage, and performance art.”

Last year, Skold executed a three-month road trip to the graves of 150 poets in 23 states, paying homage to such favorites as Phillis Wheatley, Walt Whitman, and Allen Ginsberg, as well as to such lesser-knowns as Agnes Repplier, Lydia Huntley Sigourney, and the Reverend Michael Wigglesworth. The excursion totaled 15,000 miles, and Skold claims to have set a literary land speed record of 1.66 gpd, or graves per day. This year, in addition to a 22-city tour that kicked off on April 23—Shakespeare’s birthday—Skold is adding a crusade to create a National Dead Poets Remembrance Day, to be celebrated each October 7—Edgar Allan Poe’s death day.

Skold’s dedication and efficiency in locating poets’ graves is exceptional; I know from experience that this kind of scavenger hunt is not as easy as it might appear. Back in my final semester of graduate school, I and as many friends as would fit piled into a Subaru and drove from Boston to Hartford, Connecticut, one snowy weekend in February. We were going in search of Wallace Stevens. We were aware that the man had been dead for almost 50 years. But we wanted to see what he had seen on his weekday walk to and from the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, to visit the house where he resided from 1932 to 1955, and most of all to find his grave.

Wallace Stevens, King of Ghosts.

We walked the walk, we stared at the house (which you cannot go inside, because people still live there), we breathed the air and imagined that maybe the same particles had circulated through the lungs of Stevens. Then, not really knowing how to get there, we headed to the graveyard. Or, rather, to a graveyard. First we went to the wrong place: Beth Israel Cemetery. Beautiful, to be sure, and also historic, but, as the understandably suspicious caretaker explained, Stevens was not Jewish. In the early winter sunset, directed by the caretaker, we made our way to the right one: Cedar Hill Cemetery. We did not have a map, and no one was there to guide us. The snow was piled so high that only the top few inches of the headstones protruded. We had neglected to have a mind of winter. Locating Stevens’s remains seemed hopeless. As we dug among the drifts, the darkness became complete. We had been cold a long time, and more snow started to fall among the skeletal trees. The six of us soon found ourselves surrounded by hungry deer with no fear of us, their skinny bodies lit by the headlights we’d left on, the better to read the stones. In the yellow glare their eyes looked backless and unreal, and we started to freak out a little, like maybe the deer were revenants, like the place was filling up with ghosts and we shouldn’t be there, plus it was freezing and we needed to pee and we were almost out of gas and we were meeting people for dinner. We abandoned our mission.  

As the Dead Poets Society of America’s meticulously mapped 2010 tour indicates, Skold would not have been deterred by a little bit of snow and some creepy ghost deer. But who cares where a bunch of forgotten poets are buried? Why do I want to see these tombstones, and why does it make me—and the many people, including the nine state poets laureate to date who have participated in the DPSA’s activities—so pleased that the DPSA exists and is doing this? That Skold is, as he puts it, rescuing these poets from being “doubly dead,” for “not only did they die physically, but they suffered a second death when their works were consigned to literary oblivion.”

Skold’s fixation on dead poets seems fitting. Poets are sort of always already dead, consigned to literary oblivion even as they are living. All poets are dead poets, writing posthumously. Poetry is a dead art.

All poetry is written in opposition to, and therefore about, death. Poetry’s application of meter, rhyme, imagery, and memorable language is intended to make it endure in people’s heads. Its purpose is often memorial, or directly argumentative against the unjustness of everyone’s eventually having to die: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” says Dylan Thomas, yelling at death. Poetry and death go together like peanut butter and jelly. Like “two souls but a single thought,” if you want to get Keatsian about it. Like hope and dread, if you want to get Yeatsian about it. Stones and spoons, if you want to be Sextonian. The Poetry Foundation archive alone contains 928 poems about “Death.” Compare that to 65 about “Birth and Birthdays,” 38 about “Infancy,” and 449 about “Youth and Childhood.” Relatedly, there are 445 about “Sorrow and Grieving”—most of the sorrow and grief in response to death—and 310 about “Growing Old,” a process that leads inexorably to being deceased. Even though a poem can contain any subject, one of poets’ favorite things to put in the container has historically been, and continues to be, death. This preoccupation of arguing against death means that poetry is permanently associated with death. No one writes more poetry in high school than the goth kids.

All of this seems tied to the sense—which has existed probably as long as America has—that poetry as an art is either dying or dead. In 1928, Edmund Wilson asked, “Is Verse a Dying Technique?” (Answer: “Yes.”) In 1988, Joseph Epstein asked, “Who Killed Poetry?” In 1993, Vernon Shetley published After the Death of Poetry. A widespread consensus says that poetry is dead dead dead. A widespread consensus adds that this is sad news. Never mind that more people are reading, writing, and publishing poetry than probably ever before. True or not, I say dying is the best thing that ever happened to poetry. For if poetry is dead—has basically been dead this whole time—then poetry must be a ghost: unkillable and eternal and therefore more powerful than the living.

Perhaps this is why Skold and his DPSA have been so successful: they are tapping into a collective obsession with dead poets. Dead poets are always the most beloved. Live ones? Not so much. Love of a dead poet is an unimpeachable love. Dead, a poet is infinite and immortal, while the bounds around the poetry are clear and finite. Dead poets typically won’t humiliate you for liking them, won’t betray your affection by overproducing second-rate work, or espousing unsavory political beliefs, or publishing something cheap and clever in the New Yorker. You can feel confident in the security of a dead poet’s artistic excellence. And because poetry is regarded by virtually everyone as dead—as irrelevant from the moment of its inception—nobody can disparage your preoccupation with a dead poet any more than they can your preoccupation with stamp collecting. The stakes just seem so low.

Also? Because poetry is so linked to death, there is just something inappropriate about a live poet—something morbid and precious and silly. For example, poets are just the sort of people who might make fools of themselves getting chased by ghost deer while on an abortive search for the grave of Wallace Stevens. They have a whiff of uncomfy impracticality about them. Much more awkward to have a poet in your living room and be introduced, “So-and-so is a poet,” than to love a dead poet, free of all—bodily, earthly, economic—concerns. “So-and-so was a poet”—that’s better. It’s the difference between a filet mignon and a slaughterhouse: you like the product, but don’t necessarily want to see where it comes from. In fact, seeing where it comes from can actively impede your enjoyment. If one of the purposes of poetry is to escape from the anxiety of our own embodiment, then being reminded that it’s written by live people is kind of gross.

The impulse of the like-minded individuals who comprise the Dead Poets Society of America to collect dead poets’ graves and poems might be analogous to that of beachcombers: gathered seashells are lovely, but only after the mollusks that resided inside are gone.

Even if we hadn’t gotten lost, I’m not sure what exactly my friends and I were trying to find in Hartford. Epitaph as poetic form? Hunting poets’ graves as a form of ancestor worship? I don’t know if Skold and his fellow DPSAers feel, when they find these various poets’ graves, that they have found whatever it is that they are really looking for.

In “Man Carrying Thing,” Stevens writes of “[a] horror of thoughts that suddenly are real,” and how “[w]e must endure our thoughts all night, until / The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.” Maybe that is the object of the search, and the bright obvious is death. A death that poets want to see and master. Not to fear it, but to transcend it. To find (Stevens again) “Not Ideas About the Thing, but the Thing Itself.”

Commonly, ghosts are believed to be made of some subtle and misty material. That’s sort of a common belief concerning poetry, too: hard to grasp, otherworldly. That’s not intended as a criticism. According to the Wikipedia entry for "Ghost,"anthropologists speculate that this belief about the composition of ghosts arises “from early beliefs that ghosts were the person within the person . . . most noticeable in ancient cultures as a person’s breath, which upon exhaling in colder climates appears visibly as a white mist.”

The person within the person. The life within the life. Some other realm mysterious with possibility. Poetry is dead. Long live poetry.

  • Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...

Essay

Ghost hunting with the Dead Poets Society of America

Is dying the best thing that ever happened to poetry?
  • Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...

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