The Road Not Taken – A Conversation

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” begins one of the most famous poems in the modern age.  It is the opening line of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and if you’ve never read it or want to re-visit it, you may do so here.  Robert Frost and his work enjoy incredibly popularity even yet today, and I was recently exposed to the possibility that I was reading it wrong.

My first exposure to poetry came at the hands of my grandfather, Robert “Bob” Miller.  Among the many things about Grandpa I could say, I wonder if anyone ever knew how many poems he’d memorized.  He could recite poems at the drop of a hat, and they were often works I’d never heard of…which wasn’t that difficult in the years my age came in single digits.  When one of my class assignments in the Sixth Grade was to memorize two poems and recite them before the class, it was a foregone conclusion that the only person to assist me was Grandpa.  For my two poems, I chose “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  And no…I do not remember much of either poem beyond a stanza or so, some twenty-six years later.

For 30-odd years (plus or minus), I held the belief that “The Road Not Taken” was an ode to choosing the less traveled path in life and making a success of it, a statement praising one choosing individuality over mediocrity.  My recent research has shown me I am not alone in this interpretation.

The evening of October 3rd, I had the occasion to cross paths with one of my good friends, who possesses a Doctorate and specializes in poetry.  My friend and I don’t always agree on things, but I think we do a good job of not letting that get in the way of a good conversation…even when I’m a crass, opinionated so-and-so.  And believe me, I have my moments.  🙂

Anywho, it was during our conversation that I mentioned my poetry-related assignment all those years ago, and my good friend utterly surprised me when he expressed an opinion that Frost was a very nihilistic poet.  I was unable to articulate with any success the feelings “The Road Not Taken” inspires in me, beyond a rough expression.  I intended to re-read it and convey my thoughts once I was re-acquainted with the poem.

Imagine my surprise, when I stumbled upon an article in The Paris Review titled, “The Most Misread Poem in America.”  The article was written by David Orr, and after laying out the various ways Frost’s work has permeated modern culture, the author went on to say that the bulk of its fans have it all wrong!

Mister Orr does an excellent job of highlighting Frost’s actual words and calling attention to them…and in my mind, the whole time I was reading the article, I heard the voice of my friend.

The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives.

–David Orr, “The Most Misread Poem in America”

The article then goes on to Frost and his enduring popularity, and in the final paragraph of the article, Mister Orr makes what I have decided is the best description of one my favorite poems.

The poem both is and isn’t about individualism, and it both is and isn’t about rationalization.

–David Orr, “The Most Misread Poem in America”

I am not–nor will I ever be–a poetry scholar.  I do hold poets in high esteem, however; anyone who is capable of compressing such profound meaning into so small a space is worthy of praise.  My preferred medium is the novel; like David Eddings said about himself, “it takes me 100 pages just to clear my throat.”

But at the same time, I agree with my poet friend on another–and in my mind, far more crucial–point.  He once made the argument that art–no matter the type–is supposed to make you think and make you want to discuss meanings and interpretations.  The best conversations happen when one or more people find a topic of common interest and then discuss aspects of that topic.

Who knows?  Perhaps, one day, the concept of sitting around with a group of friends discussing things that matter will be a future generation’s “Road Not Taken.”  And what will that mean for us then?

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