Oy. Now that David Orr has come out with the definitive book on Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”
and has revealed to the world that the poem is not what everyone thinks it is about…how the heck should we categorize it, subject-wise?
I write this partly because I’m interested in daydreaming about putting together an online anthology of poetry that’s similar to Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin’s The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You.
It would range from poems to help one deal with grief, such as Emily Dickinson’s A Formal Feeling Comes, to poems to help one deal with congestive heart failure, such as Dean Young’s The Rhythms Pronounce Themselves, Then Vanish , which I found yesterday after one of my in-laws was taken to the ER with that illness and I was looking for info (and, yeah, poems, because I’m a dork) on it.
If I went along w/the usual popular reading of the poem and was doing a normal subject-type anthology, I’d put it under a subject heading like “Non-conformity.” David Orr intimates that this is not what Frost intended the poem to be about, though, and offers a version of what it might look like if he did. Orr’s imagined version-of-Frost-had-he-been-a-lesser-poet writes that after looking at two roads, he
…took the other, as just as fair,
And posing perhaps the greater test,
Because it was narrow and wanted wear,
Rising so steeply into thinning air
That a man would struggle just to rest,
While the other offered room to play
Or stand at ease along the track.
I took the lonelier road that day,
And knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one that dared me to try,
And that has made all the difference.
Bleh. Corny. Frost made better choices. 🙂
It’s my understanding that the initial inspiration for his piece was the way that, whenever Frost took a walk in the woods with one of his friends, his friend could never figure out which path to take. One of the tricks of the poem is that although it seems to say that one path is better than the other, Frost is saying that both paths are the same. (“THEY’RE WORN REALLY ABOUT THE SAME, MAN!” One can picture him shouting at his friend. “JUST PICK ONE! THEY’RE EQUALLY LYING IN LEAVES NO STEP HAS TRODDEN BLACK! GEEZ! DO I HAVE TO WRITE YOU A POEM ABOUT THIS?! “)
Perhaps, if I am to choose a subject heading based on an ailment for this one, though, “Indecision” might not be a bad choice.
Read more of David Orr’s
YOU’RE PROBABLY MISREADING ROBERT FROST’S MOST FAMOUS POEM: ON THE MANY TRICKS AND CONTRADICTIONS OF “THE ROAD NOT TAKEN”
at Literary Hub.
The rest of Orr’s book about this poem is called The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong.