Old fart. Clearly out of touch. Relic. Delusional. Has-been. Irrelevant.
It was 1961 and I was a news junkie in-training. So I watched the JFK inauguration. And Frost famously read a poem as part of the ceremony. He stumbled over the piece he had written for the occasion and ended up reciting another piece, “The Gift Outright”, from memory. Apparently it was a charming moment filled with pathos and expectation.
But it didn’t matter to me. This was an old, white haired fart who seemed out of it and he was reciting …. well, crap.
Later as my interest in poetry grew and I read lots of it and took lots of poetry classes, Frost shows up again and again. “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” “Birches”, and of course “The Road Not Taken” over and over and over. Still crap IMHO.
Until last week.
David Orr’s The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong (2015) made me revisit Frost and especially that famous poem.
There is a craft in his work I completely missed. In the apparent simplicity (“superficiality” in my previous judgement), I missed the complexity. There are challenging, even vexing ideas couched in simple words, quietly jarring the meaning. Layers I was too unskilled to see and reluctant to explore.
It seems clear Frost the person was self-aggrandizing and unlikable. He wrote his own epitaph (“I had a lover’s quarrel with the world”). It’s a great line but even better marketing for a poet trying to solidify his own high opinion of himself.
But the poems. Or at least some of them.
You must …. Slow. Down. To. Read. Frost. If you are like me, you must forgive what seems like an archaic format and voice. You must give him a chance.
You know the poem, you might know the way it is typically misunderstood. Orr will convince you the misunderstanding is deliberate. And that’s when the crap becomes extraordinary.
Damn that old fart.
The Road Not Taken
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.