Hey, We’s Using Ours Brains Here!
I thought I’d occasionally drop in a bit of reading because I know we have some pretty good brain thinking stuff people here. I didn’t see anything scheduled today until DUAN. So here’s a classic bit of Americana, Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken (comments follow).
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.
Now of course this shows up all the time as some kind of anthem of bold individualism, inspiring ads for Playstation, Apple, and car brands including at least Ford, Chevy and Kia. And of course it only takes about five seconds to figure out that’s just dumb. The narrator says only ten lines in that the roads were so equally travelled that as soon as he went down one they were the same! What the hell, Chevy? Are you saying you’re the same as Kia?
Here’s the Deal
Robert Frost was a sarcastic bastard. He would have been the kind of uncle who would pull a quarter out “from” your ear when you were five, but instead of giving it to you, would stick it in his pocket and tell you he had stolen it out of your piggy bank.
He wrote The Road Not Taken to make fun of a friend of his who agonized over alternatives and then finally chose based on the most arbitrary reasons. And that’s a big part of what’s going on here. But not all.
I think it’s fair to say he makes that sense of regret palpable. He’s not just mocking, he’s sympathizing to some extent with the fact that we can’t do it all. The poem still gets a laugh out of the indecision and arbitrariness, but then gives a nod to the feeling. It’s basically saying don’t spend so much time worrying, but maybe a minute — the time it takes to read this poem — is OK.
Is Frost Really The Road?
Of course the author is not the poem. But the author is also not not the poem. Anyone who tells you there can be a complete separation of the two is a filthy rotten liar. A liar! But what you can do is at least is put them in separate corners of the room and look at just at the poem for a while pretending you don’t hear Frost breathing behind you.
And it’s certainly fair to say you don’t want to lean too heavily on the interpretation of the poem as a bit of snark. Why can’t I just like the poem on its own? you might ask.
Well, you can! It’s a lovely little piece. It has a fun rhyme scheme but can be read almost like natural verse in a conversational voice. And it’s nicely evocative of autumn in New England, which is absolutely beautiful, and who doesn’t like tramping around in the woods in the fall? There is no need to treat it as anything more than something to be enjoyed — the meaning isn’t significant enough to demand anything more.
What I’d say is bogus, though, would be treating it the way it gets used for car ads and valedictorian speeches. Don’t treat the class of 2022 like they’re dummies who can’t read!
How Far Does This Go?
So let’s finish (yay!) by talking for a sec about different levels of reading. There’s the most basic one of reading it for the sounds and images, and like I said, that’s a great way to do it. Poetry (usually) doesn’t have to go any farther, and sometimes it’s better when you don’t.
Then there’s another layer, where you dig into the meaning behind the words, or above the words, or however you want to put it. Some meanings are better than other, like whether this is a poem about rugged individuals (boo! hiss!) or whether this is a poem about uncertainty and random decisions.
And then there’s the level of meta-analysis — like this stuff right here. Guilty your honor! It’s talking about ways about talking about the poem.
Just like interpretation, it can be good or bad. Let’s not pretend we’re not judging here. Everyone is, so let’s just say it. And I suppose you could say there is meta-meta-interpretation and so on up the ladder, but let’s not add more to the step stool than we really need.
Some meta-analysis is good, like this piece by Katherine Robinson which has a nice bit of history, a useful bit of mockery of Dead Poets Society, and some references to other analysis:
And some meta-analysis, like this one by David Orr which Robinson links to, is not:
Orr starts off with a bit of smarm in the headline and intro, and I have to say, if you’re going to do that you’d better be right. He gets hopelessly tangled up in questions of why Frost chose the word “road” instead of “path” and never once thinks about the sound and weight of the two words. That’s some bad poem analysis doing stuff right there! He doesn’t understand how roads in Frost’s New Hampshire worked — as often as not they just didn’t function the way he thinks. And he ultimately gets caught up in a false division between poem and joke, and tries to slip the conclusion into his assumptions. If it’s not strictly a joke, he claims it must be a poem and that makes it by definition (he wants us to swallow) something deep.
We shouldn’t swallow. While it’s true that it’s not a pure putdown, it’s not able to hold the weight Orr wants it to carry either. But that’s fine — sometimes you can just enjoy something for what it is.