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(Text) Today, April 23rd, is the recognized birthday of arguably the greatest writer of all time, William Shakespeare -- a good day, perhaps, to announce a new national literary holiday. Walter Skold is the founder of the Dead Poets Society of America, whose motto is "We Dig Dead Poets - You Dig?" The former schoolteacher and poet from Freeport today launched a 22-state, grand tour to promote Dead Poets Remembrance Day, which will be observed, he says, on October 7th -- the anniversary of the death of Edgar Allan Poe.
"Let's start a new holiday," Skold (above, right) says. "Let's have October 7th, when Poe died, when many people go to his grave, let's make that a day to remember all the poets who have died."
"Welcome to the first dead poets bash on the dead poets grand tour." Maine Poet Laureate Betsy Sholl addressed around a dozen poets and poetry lovers who had assembed at Portland's breezy Eastern Cemetery to read some of their favorite poems and honor the words of those have gone before. "I'm the first of 13 current and former state poets laureate to be meeting the Poemobile on its 34-day journey."
The Poemobile, Skold explains, will be well-equipped for the journey. "The Poemobile's a souped up Sprinter with solar power, so we can power all our cameras and computers inside and go on the road," he says. "We're going to go 6,000 miles in it, it's a great car, it's called DEDGAR -- that's the license plate -- which is 'dead Edgar.'"
Tom Porter: "We're in the Eastern Cemetery in Portland, any dead poets here? Why did you choose this venue?"
Walter Skold: "We chose the venue because Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of his most famous poems called 'My Lost Youth,' mentions a battle during the War of 1812, when he was a 7-year-old boy, and in that battle it talks about the British and American sea captains who were killed, and so today, while there are no dead poets here, both of those of sea captains were buried here next to each other."
"I remember the sea fight far away, how it thundered o'er the tide and the dead captains as they lay in their graves, overlooking the tranquil bay where they in battle died," reads poet Simon Winslow, from Longfellow's Poem "My Lost Youth."
Also on hand, Portland's current poet Laureate Steven Luttrell (above), who chose some poems by sometime Maine resident, the late Robert Creeley:
"Those rivers run from that land to sea
The wind finds trees to move then goes again
And me, why me, on any day
Might be favored with kind prosperity
Or sunk in wretched misery."
"For me today it was great because I was reading a friend," Luttrell says. "I knew Bob Creeley so to being able to read a friend's poems and honor him in that way was kind of special for me. For living poets to get together to honor deceased poets, I think, is somehow a very complete circle, and it's good."
"Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time." Ken Nye, who as well as being a respected Maine poet is also a retired high school principal and University of Southern Maine professor, chose to honor the bard on his 446th birthday with a reading from MacBeth. "And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle."
This event was the first of 13 planned graveside poetry readings across the country to raise awareness of the new holiday. Stops along the 34-day pilgrimage include Lincoln's tomb in Springfield Illinois, the Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia, and Swan Point cemetery in Providence Rhode Island, where Edgar Allan Poe courted the poetess Sarah Whitman.
Walter Skold, who himself writes poetry, founded the Dead Poets Society of America a couple of years ago after visiting the grave of Robert Frost in Vermont and coming to the realization that there are many lesser known poets whose resting places lie unvisited.
"People go to Longfellow, they go to Poe, they go to Frost, but there are so many others that they don't visit," he says. Wouldn't it be a good idea, he thought, to start visiting, and documenting, the final resting places of as many poets as possible in order to raise people's apprecation of those who have gone before?
"They're kind of 'doubly dead poets' because after they die physically they might have been popular in their day or in their area, but now they're like dead again, because their books aren't published and no one even knows they were poets," Skold says.
Last year Skold traveled 15,000 miles in the Poemobile, documenting the graves of some 150 poets in 23 states -- many of them previously unknown to him.
"I'm finding that they're usually famous locally or regionally," he says. "So when I for instance would meet Coleman Barks in Georgia, he told me of three other poets that were friends of his that I never knew, so I went to their graves and he read their poetry, so definitely when you start digging you will find new poets and people will come up to you and say 'What about this person?'"
Digging, in this case, is meant in a figurative sense. Skold, who's taking a documentary camera crew with him on his trip, estimates there are over 400 American poets whose graves have yet to be well-documented. To try and help do this, the Society, thanks to an anonymous donor, is offering $4,000 in prize money as part of a photo and video contest to help locate the graves.
Skold is hoping the challenge will bring together high school students, poetry-lovers and local historians to help find and photograph these forgotten slices of literary history.
For more information visit the website of the Dead Poets Society of America, www.deadpoes.org