When Walter Skold quit his teaching job to write poetry, he didn’t know that his personal journey would become as literal as it was metaphorical.
While studying at The Frost Place, an educational center on poet Robert Frost’s farm in New Hampshire, former state poet laureate Patricia Fargnoli read her poem, “Visiting Frost’s Grave.”
“I had just visited his grave, and it and her poem intrigued me,” said Skold, 54, who lives in Freeport, Maine. “On a whim, I started researching poets’ graves and I was just completely fascinated by the uniqueness of them — their design, their epitaphs. It turned into this sort of pilgrimage.”
He is now six years into that pilgrimage, having driven his “Poe Mobile” van on four major road trips to visit the graves of more than 520 poets in 46 states.
Skold, a former journalist, takes photos and videotape for a planned book and documentary film. He also promotes his idea for a new national holiday: Dead Poets Remembrance Day on Oct. 7, the day in 1849 when Edgar Allan Poe died and James Whitcomb Riley was born.
I met Skold Tuesday at African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street. He had come to visit the grave of Robert Charles O’Hara Benjamin, a black poet, lawyer, newspaper editor, minister and activist who suffered a tragic death.
Born in 1855 on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, Benjamin first came to Kentucky in 1879, possibly to teach school. Then he moved around the country, practicing law in California and Rhode Island and becoming a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
Benjamin moved to Lexington in 1897, got involved in politics and edited The Standard, a black newspaper. He wrote books, pamphlets and poetry and became involved in early civil rights struggles.
On Oct. 2, 1900, Benjamin got into an argument with white precinct worker Mike Moynahan, who was challenging blacks trying to register to vote. Moynahan followed Benjamin outside and shot him in the back at the corner of Spring and Water Streets. An inquest ruled it justifiable homicide.
“I had never heard of Benjamin,” he said. “But I was so amazed when I came across his story.”
Skold examined a marble monument that a fraternal organization erected at Benjamin’s grave on the 10th anniversary of his death. And he read aloud the faded epitaph, an 1834 poem by William Wordsworth: “Small service is true service while it lasts; Of friends, however humble, scorn not one: The daisy, by the shadow that it casts, protects the lingering dew drop from the sun.”
Skold placed at the base of the monument a pebble from Mount Parnassus, Greece, which ancient Greeks believed to be the home of the Muses. Then he poured a bit of Cognac on the grave, from a bottle almost empty from moistening the graves of dead poets throughout the South over the past seven weeks.
After taking photographs and video, Skold was off to Lexington Cemetery to visit the graves of two more forgotten poets, James Thomas Cotton Noe and Catherine Ann Warfield. I suggested he also look up writer James Lane Allen while he was there.
Skold had already spent seven days traveling around Kentucky in the Dodge van he calls the Poe Mobile. “It’s a big part of my shtick,” he said, pointing to the Maine license plate that says, “Dedgar.”
The van is a conversation-starter, and for Skold, this pilgrimage is mostly about starting conversations.
“Every day I learn so much, just from meeting people, friends and family of dead poets, archivists, other poets,” he said. “It’s like a journey of discovery.”
This is Skold’s third trip to Lexington, which he said has “a special place in my heart.” On his first trip, in 2009, the Poe Mobile broke down. He spent a few days in Lexington and got to know poet Eric Sutherland, who introduced him around.
On this trip, he met several more living poets, including Mary Ann Taylor-Hall, Jeff Worley and Richard Taylor. Skold’s next stop is the annual writers’ workshop at Hindman Settlement School to meet even more.
“This whole project seems a little weird, even to me, but what has really kept me going is people’s responses, their enthusiasm for my project,” he said.
Skold thinks most people understand the value of poets, and why it is important to remember them long after they are gone.
“They speak to the deepest beliefs and questions and concerns of the people they write among,” he said, citing as an example the beloved Kentucky poet Jesse Stuart, who died in 1984. “By reading him, I can enter into the culture and history of Kentucky.”