October 7th, the death-day of Edgar Allen Poe, is designated as Dead Poets Remembrance Day; events honoring dead poets are scheduled for a weekend falling near that date. This year's schedule was ambitious. And it was, just as it was for the last two years, my favorite weekend of the year. It's autumn. It's New England. It's cemetery-traipsing. It's poetry. It's great fellowship. It's learning. And now-- this being the third annual -- I can say it's tradition.
We started off at Hope Cemetery in Worcester, meeting at the grave of Elizabeth Bishop. Poems by poets born in Worcester (or who had an association with the city) were recited.
|Dan Lewis reading Dennis Brutus|
|Carle Johnson reading Ethridge Knight|
|Me reading Frank O'Hara's great "The Day Lady Died"|
We proceeded from Hope Cemetery to the boyhood home of Stanley Kunitz. It's not just a home but, to me, a shrine. After some forty years of saying, if anyone asked, who my favorite poet was, I would speak the name of Sylvia Plath. Then, a few years ago -- though my heart is generally faithful -- I had grown tired of Sylvia Plath, dumped her, and abruptly took up with Stanley Kunitz. (Allowing that, in many categories, to have a favorite is in the first place more-or-less silly.)
I wrote extensively in a blogpost on Oct. 11, 2011, about the earlier visit to the boyhood home so won't describe it here again. Tours of the home, led by docents, are usually limited to about ten people; our tour overlapped the preceding one, making for a crowded house. I'll just say that though there were some 25-or-so pilgrims wandering about, the resident cat was unimpressed by our presence.
In the garden out back I harvested two leaves that had fallen from the sacred pear tree (see Kunitz's poem "My Mother's Pears"). Someone snapped a picture as I was carefully placing the leaves in my notebook. I tried to swipe the picture off the Worcester County Poetry Association website
|Poster by Walter Skold|
It was a seventy-five mile drive to get to the next event in Newburyport. Since someone had neglected to show up with the key to Old South Church we sat in the sun's good warmth on the front steps. I was let to choose something from Jack Kerouac to read; I chose not any of his poems -- I'm not especially fond of them, and they're mostly haiku, which doesn't make for easy-to-make-sense recitation -- but chose rather the opening passage of The Town and the City, his first novel (and, in my opinion, his greatest accomplishment, though it brought in many fewer bucks than the sensational On the Road); in this passage the narrator is standing on a hill overlooking the city (obviously Kerouac's hometown of Lowell), from which vantage he can see and comment on a cemetery; it was a suitable fit to the occasion.
|Newburyport readers Toni Treadway and Rhina Espaillat|
|K. Pedlar Bridges reading Johnathan Plummer, the mid-1800's|
'pedlar' poet (as described by John Greenleaf Whittier).
Dusk is about to settle in. We drive to a Newburyport cemetery. The "Dead Poet Guy" himself, Walter Skold, leads us to a particular grave and recites a particular poet. I'm sorry that I have forgotten which poet. But I remember the large bottle of Remy Martin (or was it Courvoisier?) cognac, from which Walter poured shots for all the attendees. My own portion went down warmly and smoothly, and made me long for the old days when Madame Cognac was one of my best friends, accompanying me on a vast number of wild outings.
|The Dead Poet Guy reading in Oak Hill Cemetery, Newburyport|
It was a less-than-half-hour drive from Newburyport to Ipswich where, at seven p.m., we gathered with others in the community room of First Church to honor the poetry-side of the renowned novelist John Updike. Three of his four children were among those who read Updike poems. We were welcomed by his first-born, Elizabeth, who was as cordial as could be, and to whom I was perhaps overly anxious to tell how much I love an obscure Updike story "The Leaves" published in The Music School, a collection of short stories. "Reading it taught me that prose can also be poetry," I gushed.
Once we were seated, it was fun hearing anecdotes about Updike from people who knew him as a father or as a fellow citizen of Ipswich.
|Elizabeth, one of John Updike's two beautiful daughters,|
reading one of her father's poems in Ipswich.
My brother and I, exhausted from a day of cemeteries and poets, and with our stomachs sated (over-sated in my pig-trough style) by a decent meal at an Italian restaurant called Polcari's, were safely ensconced in a Woburn motel, and did not attend the midnight event of Dead Poets Remembrance Day held at Edgar Allan Poe Square in Boston.
I heard tell though that The Dead Poet Guy, along with a couple others, showed up at Edgar Allan Poe Square at midnight with cognac and a rose. From a bar a few doors down, three young drunks ("Irish, no doubt," my friend at work, who is of Italian descent, commented) stumbled out and shortly encountered this guy standing there with a rose and a bottle of cognac. He explained; they agreed to join in the toast to the man who wrote "The Raven." And then along came a Boston policeman. There was further, more-in-depth explaining to do. No arrests ensued.
Poe is buried in Baltimore. It is well-known that for something like 75 years an unidentified person (and then, following his death, purportedly, his "son") toasted the poet at his grave with cognac, leaving behind a rose (or, depending on the account, three roses) and the remainder of the cognac. (I've always imagined a mad dash by empty-pocketed alcoholics for that stash of cognac.) Inasmuch as this tradition suddenly stopped two or three years ago it is conjectured that "The Poe Toaster" is dead.
Because Poe was born in Boston, the city has set about honoring him, claiming him, with the Square, and soon there will be a life-sized statue of Edgar Allan Poe installed in Edgar Allan Poe Square. The Dead Poet Guy, among others, hopes to establish a midnight event in Boston honoring Poe on his deathday, October 7th.
|Model of proposed Boston statue honoring Poe|
I also missed the Monday morning's events; after dropping my brother off at Logan Airport, thus having no co-pilot to help with directions, I couldn't face scrutinizing maps in order to find myself (or, more likely, not finding myself) at various sites in the towns of Beverly, Peabody, and Medford. (There was a GPS device in the glove compartment of my car, but, alas and alack, it would be another week before I learned how to use it.) Thus I missed especially a person named Cheryl Eagan-Donovan reciting some Sylvia Plath poetry at Lynch Park in Beverly. Instead, I headed for Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, knowing where it is; my morning there was written about in my previous post about Reggie Lewis.
From Forest Hills Cemetery I went to Cambridge; I parked and went to a place named Sofra which featured Lebanese, Greek, and Turkish foods. The place was jammed and tiny. I pointed to something, unable to pronounce it, and also ordered a latte. I carried my choices to an outside table and, in the warm sunshine, enjoyed my latte and whatever that something was.
The novel I was carrying in my knapsack, The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller, was my company at lunch, and is excellent. Not only is it a great story of Achilles and his male lover but it provided some charming information. I had forgotten that Achilles, the Greek hero of the Trojan War according to Homer's Iliad, was the son of a goddess named Thetis. Thetis believed that if she dipped her newborn son into the river Styx he would be immortal. So, holding Achilles by his heel, she did so. However, Achilles was eventually to die as a result of a wound to his heel -- the undipped place where his mother had held him was vulnerable, mortal. From that legend comes the term Achilles' heel, i.e. a point of weakness.
I walked across the street to Mt. Auburn Cemetery and rejoined what was now a group of twenty or twenty-five participants in Dead Poets Remembrance Day. This outing was dedicated to "The Harvard Bards of the 20th Century at Mount Auburn." Our first stop was at the grave of Amy Lowell. A South Carolinian poet, Mary Hitchins Harris, presented an interesting précis of Lowell's biography. "God made me a business woman," Lowell once quipped, "and I made myself a poet." Ms. Harris recited Lowell's "Patterns," an anti-war poem that, sadly, a hundred years after it was written, remains relevant.
|Susan Richmond, beautiful and poised, who is with the Robert Creeley Foundation located in the|
small town of Acton, Mass., read a few Creeley poems, making me want to read all his poems.
Now Jim O'Shea was cast away
Upon an Indian Isle.
The natives there they liked his hair,
They liked his Irish smile,
So made him chief Panjandrum,
The Nabob of them all.
They called him Jij-ji-boo Jhai,
And rigged him out so gay,
So he wrote to Dublin Bay,
To his sweetheart, just to say:
Elephants to ride upon, my little Irish Rose;
So come to your Nabob, and next Patrick's Day,
Be Mistress Mumbo Jumbo Jij-ji-boo J. O'Shea.
Across the sea went Rose Magee
To see her Nabob grand.
He sat within his palanquin,
And when she kissed his hand,
He led her to his harem,
Where he had wives galore.
She started shedding a tear;
Said he, "Now have no fear,
I'm keeping these wives here
Just for ornament, my dear."
In emerald green he robed his queen,
To share with him his throne.
'Mid eastern charms and waving palms
They'd shamrocks, Irish grown,
Sent all the way from Dublin
To Nabob J. O'Shea
But in his palace so fine
Should Rose for Ireland pine,
With smiles her face will shine
When he murmurs, 'Sweetheart mine."
|Buckminster Fuller grave; Mt. Auburn Cemetery|
|Oliver Kenison at grave of his uncle, Buckminster Fuller|
|Enviably young, enviably composed, enviably stylish, enviably smart, enviably postured,|
a woman from Brooklyn's Buckminster Fuller Institute delineates his genius.
After greeting The Dead Poet Guy on this day he had pulled me aside and said he needed a reader. He handed me two books of poems by one David McKay, someone I'd never heard of, though I should have; turns out he was very famous. I was so lucky as to open one of the books, see a poem titled "Sonnet" and loved it. I would be able to recite it with pleasure. Anxious that I might not read a fresh-to-me poem too well, I confessed to those gathered at McCord's grave, "I just ran across McKay about an hour ago, so this is sort of a cold reading, but I do it with a warm heart." It came out fine.
This is the sonnet: fourteen lines for bones,
Sorrow for marrow, fleshed with life and death;
Small in the eye, biotic, out of breath,
Gray and mysterious in overtones.
Sunglass to Petrarch, a sonnet in the end
Held Milton's blindness, Shakespeare's tacit love,
Wordsworth's impinging world, Keats' star above
His lonliness. One was Rossetti's friend.
All things to all: first light, convective dark;
Young to the old, old magic to the young;
A cloud, a sail, a mountain, and a mark
Against the moon, the singer and the sung.
A stroller and a player, what is more,
Doubling in brass at Auden's marvelous Door.
Later on the tour, walking beside The Dead Poet Guy, he thanked me for reading and gave me the book I'd read from -- a first edition in fine condition of A Star by Day, published in 1950 by Doubleday. I notice that the first owner signed his name and the date of acquisition inside the front cover: R.G. Dodge - Sept. 29, 1950. It's a treasure.
It took me way too long to get at this blogpost, and now I've gone on too long, and need to wrap it up, push the "publish" icon, and go on to other things (bags of trash to the Transfer Station, for starters, and then make a chicken soup) while always looking forward to the Fourth Annual Dead Poets Remembrance Day. But I can't wrap up this post without mentioning Walter Skold's recitation of a John Ciardi poem -- not in the crematory where Ciardi's ashes are stored, because it was getting late, and the crematory would be darkish -- but at the grave of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (And -- will I never stop? -- the Ciardi poem he recited at the start of last year's event was one amazing poem; I hadn't even known Ciardi wrote poetry; I knew him only as a pre-eminent translator of Dante.)
|Dead Poet Guy, Walter Skold,|
P.S. You can go to http://deadpoets.typepad.com and compliment Dead Poet Guy for his achievement of visiting and photographing his 250th grave of dead poets -- some the poets being so obscure that you wonder how he ever found out about them!