Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong

by David Orr

I'm not a huge fan of poetry, but every now and then I come across a poem that astonishes me. Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" astonished the eighth-grade version of me, but it turns out I fell for the popular and mostly incorrect interpretation of the poem.

Frost was a tricky guy, but his folksy farmer-poet image is still how most people see him. His most famous poem has a similar image problem. "The Road Not Taken" is not (or, is not only, is far from only) about taking the "road less travelled" because you're a maverick and a rugged individualist (special, American). A close and thoughtful reading reveals that the poem is more about the fraught moments of decision and the stories (and lies) we later tell ourselves about what those decisions meant and how they affected the course of our lives.

The title of the poem points to the road not taken, whereas the popular idea of the poem focuses on the road that is taken by the speaker, which is understood to be the road for special people, the one not taken by everyone else. Meanwhile, the speaker of the poem very clearly judges the two paths to be about the same, something the common misconception of the poem completely ignores. And that's just for starters.

Anyway, a definite thumbs up for this fascinating book about a poem that's much more complex, interesting and ambivalent than most people realize. Not very long, easy to get into. I found the last two sections less interesting than the earlier parts of the book.

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