Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Road Not Taken

Since I've left the classroom and haven't taught poetry in over two years, I find I quite miss the discussion of poems I'd taught so many times I'd had both them and their lectures memorized. One of my favorite discussions to have concerned Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken."

"It's not what you think," I'd always start out, "You think you know this poem. You've heard it at graduations and momentous occasions your entire life. But you've never really known this poem."

I'd read the poem aloud and then ask them what it was about. Sure enough, the trite answers that regurgitated the ending were spit back at me.

Robert Frost has a lot of people fooled. He'd have it no other way, I think. I remember reading an excerpt of an interview in which Frost mentions the passage in Mark (4:11) "Unto you is given the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all things are done in parables: that seeing they may see and not perceive; and hearing they may hear and not understand; lest haply they should turn again, and it should be forgiven them." Frost seemed to equate parable with poetry and quite insisted that people think deeply for themselves else he would happily confuse them.

I would ask my students to look again. Where has Frost laid the traps here?

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet 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 less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

"What happens," I would ask them, "if you stop before the last stanza and look for the differences in the two roads?" My sharper students would dutifully return to the poem, hunched over their massive textbook and a few brows would start to knit together.

The first three stanza don't have a road less traveled, of course. There is a road not taken, to be sure, but "as for that the passing there had worn them really about the same And both that morning equally lay..."

If we stopped at the end of stanza three, we'd have a sweet little poem about longing, the wish to explore alternatives and other lives in a larger analogy, but the basic realization life doesn't give us those options.

The trap is the fourth stanza. There's a perceptive shift here between the simple language of the what's come before, the folksy "here's what I was thinking about this afternoon on my walk" kind of tone and that of the last stanza. Suddenly, the speaker turns melodramatic, in the future tense, no less, somehow knowing that his simple choice will be conflated into something untrue not by reality, but by his own memory.

As an old man, the need to impart meaning and importance will supercede the truth.

As I draw closer to 40, I already see myself trying to impart greater significance to moments from my youth than they rightfully deserve. So which matters the most? The truth or our perception? And matters the most to whom?

Or is the closest thing to salvation simply awareness?


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