Although I pretty much know it by heart (or at least by memory), I’ve never been a devotee of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Among his shorter poems, give me “Stopping by Woods . . . ,” “Design,” “Provide, Provide,” “The Silken Tent,” “Hyla Brook,” “After Apple-Picking,” “Out, Out – ,” if those last two can be called shorter. It’s clear that extra-poetic forces run through my enthusiasms side-by-side with matters of the poems’ craft and ambition, and I’m not very trustworthy when it comes to identifying those currents of need and circumstance that shape my taste. With “The Road Not Taken,” however, I’m pretty sure what extracurricular vectors interfered with my overall love for Frost’s successes and his “mistakes” in that widely beloved piece.
Fortunately, along comes David Orr’s little book (from Penguin in 2015), which takes the poem’s title for its own and adds the subtitle “Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong.” About two thirds of that book holds me in thrall and instructs me, though the remainder of the book, to my mind, loses the name of action, as it explores the nature of choice and self in both serious psychology and the pop variety. Nothing wrong with such an investigation, but it seems off task here and diverging from the poem as focus and crucible. And the project of the chapters “The Choice” and “The Chooser” require both more space and a more technical philosophical vocabulary to do justice.
In brief, however, here’s the problem that Orr has cured for me. Frost’s poem, most everyone agrees, presents a narrator who has come to a fork in the road, deliberated on which one to take, this deliberation extended because one is “just as fair” as the other, they are worn “really about the same” and “both that morning equally lay.” It’s a more complicated matter than six of one, half dozen of the other, but the traveler plays some tricks with himself, thinking he’ll be able to take the one not chosen another day, while already doubting he “should ever come back” to this place, certainly not this moment.
At this point, the poem has always delighted me. The tense shifts from past to future, and the storyteller speculates what and how he will report this choice in the future, while suggesting that he’ll come to believe it made a lot of difference, or none. So far so good. But the appetite for codger wisdom and stoic individualism leads many Americans, indeed most non-academics and non-practitioners of the mortal sport of poetry, to embrace the idea that the narrator must have chosen the more demanding path, which shows he’s gritty and likes challenges, wants to blaze a trail. That’s why so many get the title wrong: it’s not “The Road Less Traveled.” Enter my inner Puck, who has long been whispering, “These readers are desperate for their bumper sticker slogans to be confirmed, their commonsense American perspective to be rewarded by the most American of major poets who’s offering a little parable to confirm their belief in themselves as pioneers. What fools these mortals be.”
Certainly the puca and I have not been “fair” to the poet and the poem, for aberrant readings will arise, no matter what. The poet can influence but not determine how people read. Usually we call aberrations “misreadings” or hasty readings or incomplete ones, and move on, enjoying the merits of the poem as we see them. But Orr’s little book offers astonishing evidence that the hoi polloi are in thid case in the vast majority, and they love the twenty lines so much that there must be more to the issue than all this fiddle. Expert opinions are not the only opinions. Orr claims, and demonstrates to my satisfaction, that this little hike poem is the most widely known and revered icon of American culture in history, no matter what Marvel Comics administrators might say, or MJ fans (Jordan or Jackson) or Kardashian addicts. Surely I need to rethink my conviction that the poem’s heart is that shift in tense and the disingenuous assessment that the narrator will tell – well, who? His heirs, his fans, himself? All “ages and ages hence.” In an acorn shell, here’s what I felt the poem was about: after the facts are in, the memory (with ego in the pilot seat) rewrites history to report that the narrator goes the way most people wouldn’t, which is how we create rich lives or histories, become legends in our own minds, how we win. He knows he’ll lie a little, though what the “that” in the last line refers to – the telling, the traveling, the choosing, the sighing – is ambiguous.
I was for years, with vacillating enthusiasm, irritated that Frost loaded the deck so heavily for inattentive or over-agenda-ed readers to misconstrue and find unwarranted satisfaction by identifying with the speaker, whom they take to be blood-flesh-and-bone (and that sunstruck, windblown inauguration laureate hair) Frost (who does write in prose about a walk in the woods, but it’s quite different, and appears in Orr’s book). I felt that Frost had made it too easy for the stitchers of samplers and sellers of inspirational posters to use the poem to incite cheers of USA, USA, USA. Maybe he was just entrapping them to have a little more Frost Fun. But as Orr speculates, old Yankee wit Bob has done something more and better, not provided A) a dead end about choosing the unusual road, or B) a vital line of thought about revisionism, the ego and the urge to glorify one’s own past. He’s built a poem full of feints, near conundrums and ambiguities, all pulled along by his usual team of work horses, metaphor and theater. He takes away as he gives. He offers a poem which can soothe without raising too many questions or can penetrate to the nature of deliberation, choice, memory, but only with the investment of a fiercely attentive reading and the willingness to live with a set of twisty ambiguities. There’s something to be said for the show dog who can also herd.
So many poems announce their subjects as poetry itself or the making of poems, but most of the ars poetica poems that capture my fancy keep the writing business in the subtext, the peripheral, and only seem to be about the making of poetry to people who practice that craft, making it all a pretty crafty business.“The Road Not Taken” may also be about all those “visions and revisions which a minute will reverse,” and I’ve decided to add that to my file of possibilities to ponder. Is there a way, through subtext, ambiguity, reversal, semantics and so on that the woodkern can take both roads, that a poem can mean in forking ways?
I’ll leave it to those who take up Orr’s book to decide this, and I’m convinced that, if you don’t hate poetry (or maybe even if you do), half of Orr’s book will delight and instruct you, and the other half is not half bad, either. Beats Tom Clancy. Besides, it’s full of fascinating information about the literary mob, Frost’s life, the whole question of the crisis of the crossroads, which Oedipus came to appreciate too late.*