This is the time of year when students, vying to be their school’s commencement speaker, are furiously Googling “inspirational quotes for speeches.” Invariably, Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken” will pop up. These speakers will use this beloved work to urge their fellow graduates to go forward on their own path, their argument boosted by the last three lines of the poem:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Turns out they won’t know what they’re talking about, because they have not understood the poem in the way Frost meant it.
“The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong” by David Orr is an examination of the phenomenon that is “The Road Not Taken” that is fascinating, exhaustive and exhausting all at the same time.
Orr, who writes poetry reviews for the New York Times Book Review, attacks the 20 lines written in 1915 as an inside joke from Frost to a friend who continually bemoaned the things he hadn’t done, and shows how generations of poetry readers have misunderstood Frost. We don’t know the poem at all. In fact, he argues, Frost’s poem is so complex, we can’t even be sure which of the two roads the speaker takes.
We shouldn’t feel bad, though. Even the person who inspired it had to have it explained to him by Frost. Here is how Orr puts it, which is infinitely more elegant than I could ever paraphrase: “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.”
The key to the poem, Orr points out, are the two lines that come just before the three quoted above:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
So what the poem is really about is doing one thing and lying about it—or more charitably prettying it up with each retelling—later. Orr makes that point, and I get that point, but the book doesn’t end.
He likens the poem to the poet, who cultivated an image as a farmer poet, but he wasn’t that. Frost was thought of as an everyday man who happened to write some great poetry, but he wasn’t that, either. Orr’s telling of Frost’s life story and legacy is quite interesting, and may be the best part of the book. His word-by-word dissection of the poet is instructional, but teeters on the edge of too much thinking.
It’s later in the book when Orr gets to the nature of choice and how those choices change the chooser that he diverges too far into that yellow wood. Take, for instance, this segue: “The title suggests an uncertainty regarding not just the specific choice made by the speaker, but the nature of choice itself, and a deep appreciation for its potential instability as a concept.”
Orr then examines how the act of choosing is understood as a right by Americans—and many ‘Muricans—and how our ability to make choices have become central to the American psyche. This is where he lost me. I could retain only so much navel gazing. Maybe it’s because I read it all at once. Perhaps it is a book that needs to be parceled out, read and returned to over time to fully appreciate his insights.
Orr is undoubtedly a deep and creative thinker and a careful writer but he walks a fine line between helping us understand and talking down to us. He crosses that line when he snipes cheaply at M. Scott Peck, whose 1978 self-help book, “The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth” helped perpetuate the improper interpretation of the poem. Peck, Orr says, borrowed the title from Frost, but got it wrong, then wrote “essentially a three-hundred-page elaboration of the message most people attribute to ‘The Road Not Taken’: Life is a hard, lonely, but ultimately triumphant struggle.”
Orr gets the title of the poem and the interpretation of it right, and wrote essentially a two-hundred-page elaboration of the message Frost really meant by his most-famous work: Life is an inside joke most people will not understand.
No wonder readers misinterpret the poem.