Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is probably one of the best known poems of the 20th century, but for entirely the wrong reason. I teach it nearly every semester in my Interpretation of Poetry classes, not so much because I enjoy it, but because I’m tired of hearing people invoke the final three lines as though they’re conveying some statement about the need to explore one’s own path in life. It seems like when I ask my students if they’ve covered this poem–and they nearly all have, in high school–that’s the reading their teacher thrust upon them. Well, I’m tired of it, and I’m taking a stand.
The problem is that too many readers hit those last three lines like an awkward kid on roller skates hits the wall, and they never look beyond them.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
What a ponderous close, if that’s all you take away from the poem. But it’s what comes before that gives that close a cruel twist.
Frost spends most of the poem pointing out that the path his speaker chose wasn’t less travelled.
Then took the other, as just as fair,…
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.(6, 9-12)
There’s no difference in the roads, at least not that the speaker can make out. And that’s the point. If we take this poem as a discussion of life choices, which is how it’s most often read, then what Frost is really saying is that we don’t know how our choices will play out. Assuming we’re at a binary life choice (also a mythical situation, most of the time), we can only see so far down the roads we have to choose from, “to where [they bend] in the undergrowth,” you might say. Beyond that, we’re blind. We don’t know how those decisions will affect us in the long run.
So why does Frost’s speaker tell this story “with a sigh / ages and ages hence”? Because he’s being bugged by people to tell them the secret of his success, I presume, to answer the question “how did you wind up here?” The people asking him don’t want to hear something boring like “I just put one foot after another;” they want something profound. So the speaker gives them “I took the one less travelled by.” It’s a lie, but it’s a lie they want. The fact that the options pretty much look all the same just whizzes over their heads.
I’ve been away for quite a while–I suspect that the people who keep popping by for my limited readings of “The Forge” haven’t missed me any. I’ll get back to the poetry blogging soon, but last night, my daughter graduated from high school. Amy and I call her Monkey, and there are some pictures below the fold.
Monkey before the ceremony
Monkey with Mama
Monkey with Daddy
Monkey with current boyfriend.
Got word late last night that Relief A Christian Quarterly Expression has accepted a (very) long poem of mine for publication. I don’t have all the details yet, but if they took it all, then wow, because it’s ten sections long, practically a chapbook. It would be my most substantial publication to date, at least in volume. It’s also an interesting place for me to publish, for the same reasons Amy mentioned here.
Most of the poem tells the story of what Jehovah’s Witnesses called a “quick-build Kingdom Hall,” a project where hundreds of volunteers would get together and build, from the ground up, a church that would be about 95% complete in 96 hours. (They used to do them in 48, but there were too many accidents and aggravated neighbors.) And most of the poem comes from the point of view of the believer, which is why I sent it to Relief–it’s a poem that didn’t get any traction with traditional journals.
But this is the surprising thing. They took it even though it has this poem as the closing section.
That house may stand a hundred years,
may outlive me for all I know.
We built it strong enough to stand
the Devil’s breath.
I don’t believe the Devil breathes,
don’t count on paradise, don’t live
for future possibility,
don’t think that I will be revived
to walk with elephants and lions.
Paul said that when I was a child,
I spake as one, and thought as one.
Who knew that I’d consider my
disruption from the faith as my
commencement, graduation to
a fuller life. I’m proud of that
building, although I’ll never go
through its doors again. At times
I catch myself whistling the psalms
we sang: This house we built for you
Oh Lord, this house we built for you.
In the end, the poem is about a person who has lost his faith, but who can’t quite bring himself to hate what he once believed, even though his move away from faith cost him dearly. That a Christian journal would publish voices who openly question belief is an odd idea, but it’s one I hope persists.
That’s a post over at The Electronic Girl talking about how, in fiction at least, there’s a sense that it’s easy to lose writers of great books to the memory of their movies. She uses as her primary example James Leo Herlihy, best known as the author of Midnight Cowboy. But he’s unknown, you say? That’s precisely the point–the movie made of his book is a classic, and the book, as usual, is even better, but how many people even know who he was?
That’s less an issue in poetry, because it’s rare that a poet even gets a biopic, much less an option on a poem for a screenplay. It’s also less an issue because there are fewer roads to stardom via poetry. When teaching my contemporary poetry class last night, I mentioned that, sadly, Billy Collins is about as close to rock-stardom as poets get–and you have to admit that that’s pretty sad–and of the 20 people in the class, 3 knew who he was, and that’s because they’d been in a class with me before and had heard this schtick. Who will be the big names that come out of this period, the late 20th century, early 21st century? And who will be those who Miller Williams wrote about in his poem “A Note to the English Poets of the Seventeenth Century,” where he said:
You’ve lost the ones that were hopelessly only good,
saying things that nobody else could say
and lucky to be heard in their own day.
Williams will likely be in that bunch, along with Collins and so many others. It’s tiring for me, at the beginning of my career, to think of things like immortality in my lines of poetry–I can’t imagine what it must be like once you’ve had a career and started to see it wind down a bit. And for those who have tasted fame like Herlihy, how badly that drop must have hurt.
Growing up a Jehovah’s Witness, I didn’t celebrate the holidays, large or small. Not celebrating Christmas always got the most attention, along with Halloween, largely because of the outward display, but we didn’t observe the smaller ones either. But even though my relationship with my parents is rocky because I left the church, I still think about them, and I write about them, and to them in many ways. So here’s a poem I wrote to my mom about two and a half years ago. It addresses some of this stuff.
Sonnet for my mother, November 2005
Eleven years, more if you count
time between when I last cared
and when the elders found me out,
cast me out. My mom’s despair
comes in a card. Give yourself
another chance. She’s scared.
Tsunami, earthquake, hellish
war, great tribulation, all care
of Satan, signs of end times.
Two important dates she says
are in this month, your baptism
and your birth. I hope one day
she’ll see that even if she winds up right,
I’d never make it work in paradise.
Way back in March, I posted the reading list for my summer class in Contemporary American poetry. Right about now, I’m feeling like Gob Bluth–“I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
I included Billy Collins’s Nine Horses for a couple of reasons. I’m focusing on the variety of voices in contemporary poetry, and while Collins’s voice is bland and generally inoffensive, it is an unfortunately popular voice outside much of the traditional poetic community. It was a chance, I thought, to give my students an accessible book, which could act as a breather in an intense, six week course. I should have read the book more closely before I did that.
No, I should have read the book before doing that.
I’ve found my angle of attack into this book, though. It’s a book that presents a world of out-of-touch privilege, and is sublimely unaware of just how privileged it is. It’s going to make a nice contrast to the in-your-face politics of Marge Piercy and the outsider-looking-in voice of Mohja Kahf.
There’s a series that begins with the poem “Paris” that’s really indicative of this voice. The speaker in “Paris” spends three pages musing on what he’s going to do after he finishes his bath in an apartment someone gave him. What paintings, what street signs will he see? What bridges will he lean against while he muses on the day? In “Istanbul,” the speaker glories in a Turkish bath, the servants pouring tub after tub of water on him, servants he thanks silently. In the next poem, “Love,” his speaker sits on a train watching a woman struggle with her cello case; in “Languor,” he speaks of redesigning his family coat of arms, et cetera, et cetera.
I could deal with the privilege better if there were any indication that Collins is aware of it, but there’s no ironic turn in it, no twist, no moment where his speaker is even conscious of the benefits he enjoys. It’s poetry for the oblivious upper-middle class white person, which may be its greatest sin of all.