Call me cliché, but with winter hanging around, the topic of death is on my mind more often than usual. This winter has been a little strange, with warmer temperatures than normal, but we won’t get into why that is. It has certainly increased outdoor activities – I’ve seen more people walking around outside than I have in past winters. One of my friends and I have taken advantage of the warmer temperatures by embarking on walks through graveyards. I did say with winter comes the thought of death, right?
On one occasion, we ended up at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island. It ended up being one of the largest cemeteries I’d ever seen – more like a park than a graveyard, honestly. When we arrived, I found out that my friend’s goal was to visit H.P. Lovecraft’s grave. It had never even occurred to me to visit dead authors’ graves. After walking the cemetery for something over an hour trying to find Lovecraft’s headstone (the cemetery was NOT organized in a significant way), we finally found it. Turns out, other people had thought to visit his grave site too, as evidenced by the little shrine created by people placing items over time. Scattered over the grave were little notes, pens, rocks, flowers, and other trinkets.
It was definitely a treat to see how much people cared about Lovecraft and the impact he has on people post mortem (fun fact: H.P. Lovecraft became famous in the literary world posthumously). I thought it might be neat to encourage other people to visit cemeteries in order to find where old dead poets are buried, especially those relevant to New England’s literary history. So, I present the Dead Poets Society: New England Chapter! So, grab a friend or two, read this list, and go on over to one of the poets’ final resting places. Oh, and if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, bring along a picnic basket to have lunch next to some dead guys, 19th century style.
1) Wallace Stevens
Wallace Stevens is a prominent poet who lived in Hartford, Connecticut, working at The Hartford Insurance Company. He would walk to work every day from his house, which has been immortalized by the group Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens. Anyone can go on this walk and read Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” stanza by stanza, printed on stones, like the one above. Wallace Stevens is buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery right in Hartford, CT. In the meantime, check out some of Stevens’s poems, especially “The Worms at Heaven’s Gate” (you know, to go with the graveyard vibes).
2) Elizabeth Bishop
Bishop only published roughly 100 poems during her lifetime, but she remains one of the most well-remembered poets of the mid-20th century. During her time as a writer, she was most-featured in The New Yorker magazine. Bishop holds a special place in my heart for having some great environmental poetry, especially “The Fish.” Anyway, this master of the craft is buried at Hope Cemetery in Worcester, Massachusetts.
3) James Merrill
Merrill is buried at Stonington Cemetery in Stonington, Connecticut. He is definitely a must see on this list for his fascination and association with the occult. In fact, Merrill and his life partner, David Jackson, often contacted spirits in their home using a Ouija board. The first spirit they contacted, Ephraim, is described in a long poem by Merrill, “The Book of Ephraim.” When you visit Merrill’s grave, bring along a Ouija board and try to contact the acclaimed poet from the other world.
4) Robert Frost
If there were a New England poet I have to write about, it would be Robert Frost, especially given his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which takes place in winter and is about death. Frost was so acclaimed during his time that his poems garnered four Pulitzer Prizes. Frost is buried in Old Bennington Cemetery in Bennington, Vermont. He also wrote a poem about a graveyard titled “In a Disused Graveyard,” which might be worth checking out.
5) Emily Dickinson
Last on my list, but certainly not least, is Emily Dickinson. Often seen as one of the most original poets, Dickinson is practically a household name in the literary community. She is quite well known as having isolated herself from society, preferring to stay at her home, where she composed all of her poetry, which was found by her sister after Dickinson’s death and then published posthumously. Dickinson is buried at West Cemetery in Amherst, Massachusetts. A good poem of hers to read for the occasion would be “Because I could not stop for Death.”
If you end up taking on all or parts of this journey and end up wanting to go visit other favorite dead poets, writers, or anyone really, you can find pretty much any grave site by visiting findagrave.com. Happy hunting!
Danny Mitola is the Long River Review poetry panel editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.