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


The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong IntroductionA Young Man Hiking Through A Forest Is Abruptly Confronted With A Fork In The Path He Pauses, His Hands In His Pockets, And Looks Back And Forth Between His Options As He Hesitates, Images From Possible Futures Flicker Past The Young Man Wading Into The Ocean, Hitchhiking, Riding A Bus, Kissing A Beautiful Woman, Working, Laughing, Eating, Running, Weeping The Series Resolves At Last Into A View Of A Different Young Man, With His Thumb Out On The Side Of A Road As A Car Slows To Pick Him Up, We Realize The Driver Is The Original Man From The Crossroads, Only Now Hes Accompanied By A Lovely Woman And A Child The Man Smiles Slightly, As If Confident In The Life Hes Chosen And Happy To Lend That Confidence To A Fellow Traveler As The Car Pulls Away And The Screen Is Lit With Goldfor Its A Commercial Weve Been Watchingthe Emblem Of The Ford Motor Company Briefly Appears.The Advertisement Ive Just Described Ran In New Zealand In 2008 And It Is, In Most Respects, A Normal Piece Of Smartly Assembled And Quietly Manipulative Product Promotion But There Is One Very Unusual Aspect To This Commercial Here Is What Is Read By A Voice Over Artist, In The Distinctive Vowels Of New Zealand, As The Young Man Ponders His Choice Two Roads Diverged In A Yellow Wood,And Sorry I Could Not Travel BothAnd Be One Traveler, Long I StoodAnd Looked Down One As Far As I CouldTo 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 ThereHad Worn Them Really About The Same,And Both That Morning Equally LayIn 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 SighSomewhere Ages And Ages Hence Two Roads Diverged In A Wood, And II Took The One Less Traveled By,And That Has Made All The Difference.It Is, Of Course, The Road Not Taken By Robert Frost In The Commercial, This Fact Is Never Announced The Audience Is Expected To Recognize The Poem Unaided For Any Mass Audience To Recognize Any Poem Is To Put It Mildly Unusual For An Audience Of Car Buyers In New Zealand To Recognize A Hundred Year Old Poem From A Country Eight Thousand Miles Away Is Something Else Entirely.But This Isnt Just Any Poem Its The Road Not Taken, And It Plays A Unique Role Not Simply In American Literature, But In American Cultureand In World Culture As Well Its Signature Phrases Have Become So Ubiquitous, So Much A Part Of Everything From Coffee Mugs To Refrigerator Magnets To Graduation Speeches, That Its Almost Possible To Forget The Poem Is Actually A Poem In Addition To The Ford Commercial, The Road Not Taken Has Been Used In Advertisements For Mentos, Nicorette, The Multibillion Dollar Insurance Company AIG, And The Job Search Website Monster.com, Which Deployed The Poem During Super Bowl XXXIV To Great Success Its Lines Have Been Borrowed By Musical Performers Including Among Many Others Bruce Hornsby, Melissa Etheridge, George Strait, And Talib Kweli, And Its Provided Episode Titles Forthan A Dozen Television Series, Including Taxi, The Twilight Zone, And Battlestar Galactica, As Well As Lending Its Name To At Least One Video Game, Spry Foxs Road Not Taken A Roguelike Puzzle Game About Surviving Lifes Surprises As One Might Expect, The Influence Of The Road Not Taken Is Even Greater On Journalists And Authors Over The Past Thirty Five Years Alone, Language From Frosts Poem Has Appeared In Nearly Two Thousand News Stories Worldwide, Which Yields A Rate Ofthan Once A Week In Addition, The Road Not Taken Appears As A Title, Subtitle, Or Chapter Heading Inthan Four Hundred Books By Authors Other Than Robert Frost, On Subjects Ranging From Political Theory To The Impending Zombie Apocalypse At Least One Of These Was A Massive International Bestseller M Scott Pecks Self Help Book The Road Less Traveled A New Psychology Of Love, Traditional Values And Spiritual Growth, Which Was Originally Published In 1978 And Has Soldthan Seven Million Copies In The United States And Canada.Given The Pervasiveness Of Frosts Lines, It Should Come As No Surprise That The Popularity Of The Road Not Taken Appears To Exceed That Of Every Other Major Twentieth Century American Poem, Including Those Often Consideredcentral To The Modern And Modernist Era Admittedly, The Popularity Of Poetry Is Difficult To Judge Poems That Are Attractive To Educators May Not Be Popular With Readers, So The Appearance Of A Given Poem In Anthologies And On Syllabi Doesnt Necessarily Reveal Much And Book Sales Indicateabout The Popularity Of A Particular Poet Than Of Any Individual Poem But There Are At Least Two Reasons To Think That The Road Not Taken Is The Most Widely Read And Recalled American Poem Of The Past Century And Perhaps The Adjective American Could Be Discarded The First Is The Favorite Poem Project, Which Was Devised By Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky Pinsky Used His Public Role To Ask Americans To Submit Their Favorite Poem In Various Forms The Clear Favorite Amongthan Eighteen Thousand Entries Was The Road Not Taken.The Second,persuasive Reason Comes From Google Until It Was Discontinued In Late 2012, A Tool Called Google Insights For Search Allowed Anyone To See How Frequently Certain Expressions Were Being Searched By Users Worldwide Over Time And To Compare Expressions To One Another Google Normalized The Data To Account For Regional Differences In Population, Converted It To A Scale Of 1 To 100, And Displayed The Results So That The Relative Differences In Search Volume Would Be Obvious Here Is The Result That Google Provided When The Road Not Taken And Frost Were Compared With Several Of The Best Known Modern Poems And Their Authors, All Of Which Are Often Taught Alongside Frosts Work In College Courses On American Poetry Of The First Half Of The Twentieth Century According To Google, Then, The Road Not Taken Was, As Of Mid 2012, At Least Four Times As Searched As The Central Text Of The Modernist Era The Waste Landand At Least Twenty Four Times As Searched As The Most Anthologized Poem By Ezra Pound By Comparison, This Is Even Greater Than The Margin By Which The Term College Football Beats Archery And Water Polo Given Frosts Typically Prickly Relationships With Almost All Of His Peers He Once Described Ezra Pound As Trying To Become Original By Imitating Somebody That Hasnt Been Imitated Recently , One Can Only Imagine The Pleasure This News Would Have Brought Him.But As Everyone Knows, Poetry Itself Isnt Especially Widely Read, So Perhaps Being The Most Popular Poem Is Like Being The Most Widely Requested Salad At A Steak House How Did The Road Not Taken Fare Against Slightly Tougher Competition Better Than You Might Think The Results Here Are Evenimpressive When You Consider That The Road Not Taken Is Routinely Misidentified As The Road Less Traveled, Thereby Reducing The Search Volume Under The Poems Actual Title For Instance, A Search For Frosts Poem The Road Less Traveled Producesthan Two Hundred Thousand Results, None Of Which Would Have Been Counted Above Frost Once Claimed His Goal As A Poet Was To Lodge A Few Poems Where They Will Be Hard To Get Rid Of With The Road Not Taken, He Appears To Have Lodged His Lines In Granite On A Word For Word Basis, It May Be The Most Popular Piece Of Literature Ever Written By An American.____AND ALMOST EVERYONE Gets It Wrong This Is The Most Remarkable Thing About The Road Not Takennot Its Immense Popularity Which Is Remarkable Enough , But The Fact That It Is Popular For What Seem To Be The Wrong Reasons Its Worth Pausing Here To Underscore A Truth So Obvious That It Is Often Taken For Granted Most Widely Celebrated Artistic Projects Are Known For Being Essentially What They Purport To Be When We Play White Christmas In December, We Correctly Assume That Its A Song About Memory And Longing Centered Around The Image Of Snow Falling At Christmas When We Read Joyces Ulysses, We Correctly Assume That Its A Complex Story About A Journey Around Dublin As Filtered Through Many Voices And Styles A Cultural Offering May Be Simple Or Complex, Cooked Or Raw, But Its Audience Nearly Always Knows What Kind Of Dish Is Being Served.Frosts Poem Turns This Expectation On Its Head Most Readers Consider The Road Not Taken To Be A Paean To Triumphant Self Assertion I Took The One Less Traveled By , But The Literal Meaning Of The Poems Own Lines Seems Completely At Odds With This Interpretation The Poems Speaker Tells Us He Shall Be Telling, At Some Point In The Future, Of How He Took The Road Less Traveled By, Yet He Has Already Admitted That The Two Paths Equally Lay In Leaves And The Passing There Had Worn Them Really About The Same So The Road He Will Later Call Less Traveled Is Actually The Road Equally Traveled The Two Roads Are Interchangeable.According To This Reading, Then, The Speaker Will Be Claiming Ages And Ages Hence That His Decision Made All The Difference Only Because This Is The Kind Of Claim We Make When We Want To Comfort Or Blame Ourselves By Assuming That Our Current Position Is The Product Of Our Own Choices As Opposed To What Was Chosen For Us, Or Allotted To Us By Chance The Poem Isnt A Salute To Can Do Individualism Its A Commentary On The Self Deception We Practice When Constructing The Story Of Our Own Lives The Road Not Taken May Be, As The Critic Frank Lentricchia Memorably Put It, The Best Example In All Of American Poetry Of A Wolf In Sheeps Clothing But We Could Go Further It May Be The Best Example In All Of American Culture Of A Wolf In Sheeps Clothing.In This It Strongly Resembles Its Creator Frost Is The Only Major Literary Figure In American History With Two Distinct Audiences, One Of Which Regularly Assumes That The Other Has Been Deceived The First Audience Is Relatively Small And Consists Of Poetry Devotees, Most Of Whom Inhabit The Art Forms Academic Subculture For These Readers, Frost Is A Mainstay Of Syllabi And Seminars, And A Regular Subject Of Scholarly Articles Though He Falls Well Short Of Inspiring The Interest That Ezra Pound And Wallace Stevens Enjoy Hes Considered Bleak, Dark, Complex, And Manipulative A Genuine Poets Poet, Not A Historical Artifact Like Longfellow Or A Folk Balladeer Like Carl Sandburg While Frost Isnt The Most Esteemed Of The Early Twentieth Century Poets, Very Few Dedicated Poetry Readers Talk About Him As If He Wrote Greeting Card Verse.Then There Is The Other Audience This Is The Great Mass Of Readers At All Age Levels Who Can Conjure A Few Lines Of The Road Not Taken And Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening, And Possibly Mending Wall Or Birches, And Who Think Of Frost As Quintessentially American In The Way That Amber Waves Of Grain Are Quintessentially American To These Readers Or So The First Audience Often Assumes , He Isnt Bleak Or Sardonic But Rather A Symbol Of Yankee Stoicism And Countrified Wisdom This Audience Is Large Indeed, The Search Patterns Of Google Users Indicate That, In Terms Of Popularity, Frosts True Peers Arent Pound Or Stevens Or Eliot, But Rather Figures Like Pablo Picasso And Winston Churchill Frost Is Not Simply That Rare Bird, A Popular Poet He Is One Of The Best Known Personages Of The Past Hundred Years In Any Cultural Arena In All Of American History, The Only Writers Who Can Match Or Surpass Him Are Mark Twain And Edgar Allan Poe, And The Only Poet In The History Of English Language Verse Who Commandsattention Is William Shakespeare.This Level Of Recognition Makes Poetry Readers Uncomfortable Poets, We Assume, Are Not Popularat Least After 1910 Or So If One Becomes Popular, Then Either He Must Be A Second Tier Talent Catering To Mass Taste As Sandburg Is Often Thought To Be Or There Must Be Some Kind Of Confusion Or Deception Going On The Latter Explanation Is Generally Applied To Frosts Celebrity As Robert Lowell Once Put It, Robert Frost At Midnight, The Audience Gone To Vapor, The Great Act Laid On The Shelf In Mothballs The Great Act Is For The Audience Of Ordinary Readers, But His True Admirers Know Better He Is Really A Wolf, We Say, And It Is Only The Sheep Who Are Fooled Its An Explanation That Frost Himself Sometimes Encouraged, Much As He Used To Boast About The Trickiness Of The Road Not Taken In Private Correspondence Ill Bet Not Half A Dozen People Can Tell Who Was Hit And Where He Was Hit By My Road Not Taken, He Wrote To His Friend Louis Untermeyer In This Sense, The Poem Is Emblematic Just As Millions Of People Know Its Language About The Road Less Traveled Without Understanding What That Language Is Actually Saying, Millions Of People Recognize Its Author Without Understanding What That Author Was Actually Doing Publishers Weekly Orr Blends Theory, Biography, Psychology, Science, And A Healthy Dose Of Pop Culture Into A Frothy Mix So Fun, Readers May Forget Theyre Learning Something Kirkus Reviews Orr Presents A Fresh, Perceptive Reading Of The Verse Places It In The Context Of Frosts Life, Other Works, And Public Persona And Considers The Meaning Of Choice In American Culture An Illuminating Voyage Into The Heart Of Frosts Poem And The American SpiritLibrary JournalThis Entertaining Book Will Appeal To Poetry And American Literature Lovers, As Well As To Readers Interested In The Interweaving Of Art And Culture New York Times Book ReviewDavid Orr Has Written The Best Popular Explanation To Date Of The Most Popular Poem In American History Wall Street Journal David Orr S Achievement In This Shrewd And Patient Book Lies In Connecting Frost S Deceptively Folksy Manner With The Very Things That Make Him Matter Christian Science MonitorOrr Is Fascinated By Why So Many Have Read This Poem So Positively For So Long, And What This Fact Reveals About The American Soul The Boston GlobeThe Most Satisfying Part Of Orrs Fresh Appraisal Of The Road Not Taken Is The Reappraisal It Can Inspire In Longtime Frost Readers Whose Readings Have Frozen Solid The Crossroads Between The Poet And The Man Is Where Frost Leaves His Poems For Us To Discover, Turning What Seems Like A Fork In The Road Into A Site Of Limitless Potential, In Which All Decisions Are Equally Likely.

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

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