Brian Shott

A poem's meaning meanders

Quick: What do rocker Melissa Etheridge, self-help guru M. Scott Peck and troubled insurance giant AIG have in common?

Answer: A common misreading of one of America's most famous poems.

All have made use of a line from Robert Frost's 1916 poem, The Road Not Taken, to label their work, or their image or both. The poem, in which the narrator stands in a "yellow wood" and ponders which of two paths to take, ends, "I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference." It's popularly read as a paean to American rugged individualism.

Peck, who died in 2005, probably promoted the misreading. Considered a founding father of the self-help genre, his 1978 book, The Road Less Traveled, spent 694 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

Etheridge referenced the poem in 2005, after she beat back breast cancer and released the compilation album, Greatest Hits: The Road Less Traveled.

Start looking for the New England poet's famous road and you'll see it everywhere. Recently in San Francisco, health care giant Kaiser Permanente covered public transit stations with posters showing two trails in a forest. Viewers were urged to take the "road less traveled" toward better health.

As for American International Group, as it was being rocked by an Enron-like accounting scandal almost four years ago, it placed in the New Yorker magazine a colorful eight-page insert of poems titled "Well Versed: Poems for the Road Ahead," led by Frost's verse. Apparently the company, which last week announced 2008 fourth-quarter losses of $61.7 billion, thought Frost could help us choose the path to financial security.

As it turns out, of course, AIG and many other financial giants were only on the road to ruin. The federal government, which threw AIG a $150 billion lifeline last fall, sent $30 billion more last week. With the country facing, according to our president, a "day of reckoning" after years of false dreams and funny money, perhaps it's time for a closer reading of Frost's poem.

For decades, literary critics have pointed to a contradiction at the heart of Road that, once you see it, sticks out like a sore thumb: The two roads in the yellow wood aren't so different after all.

At the poem's start, the narrator hits the fork in the road, examines both paths and laments he cannot "travel both / And be one traveler."

He decides to take the one with "perhaps the better claim / Because it was grassy and wanted wear." This observation, however, is immediately taken back: "Though as for that, the passing there / Had worn them really about the same."

The next line too stresses the similarity of the two paths: "And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black."

Only in the fourth and final stanza does the narrator, imagining a time in the future, transform the path he chooses into "the one less traveled":

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.

In the most cynical of critics' readings, that sigh is the sentimental one of an old man looking back and fictionalizing a mundane moment (or an inscrutable choice) in an act of self-aggrandizement.

Frost himself warned audiences that the poem was tricky, according to critic William H. Pritchard. The poem, Pritchard writes, "sounds noble and is really mischievous."

Of course, Road has many layers. But the popular reading of it as a tribute to nonconformity crumbles under scrutiny.

"Readers imagine Frost is saying, 'Be your own man, do your own thing, march to the beat of a different drummer,' " said Jay Parini, a poet, novelist and Frost biographer who teaches at Middlebury College. "That's nonsense. The truth is, the way parts before us, and we just don't know which is the right fork."

Yet a solely ironic reading of Road falls flat too. The poem's resonance and endurance, in both high school English classes and advertising copy, are surely because of its evocation of real, deeply felt sentiments. Closely allied to indomitable American individualism, for one, is American optimism. Self-made men and women can and do shape their successful futures, we believe.

We're less comfortable, though, asking for help.

Last fall, perhaps Americans did stand in a yellow wood, facing two choices: a Republican cast as a maverick and a Democratic newcomer who cried for change. Now, in these winter months, we hope those paths were truly distinct. And we wait to see if President Barack Obama's leadership — combined with an American coming-together, not a standing-alone — might make all the difference.

Brian Shott is a freelance writer in Oakland, Calif.

A poem's meaning meanders 03/11/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 11, 2009 1:00am]

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