Misreading Frost, rethinking the lyric in new poetry books

By: Daniel Aloi,  Cornell Chronicle
October 14, 2015

American poet Robert Frost was not above toying with his friends, or his readers. And one of his best-known works may be his grandest joke of all, as detailed in a new book by David Orr, “The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong” (Penguin).

“It’s an unbelievably popular poem. Hardly a graduation speech goes by that it is not quoted. But in fact, the standard interpretation is almost the opposite of what the poet meant,” said Orr, poetry columnist for The New York Times Book Review and Professor of the Practice in Cornell’s Department of English. “The drama of the poem revolves around the way we misinterpret it. It’s kind of built to be misunderstood. … Even readers who spend time studying it get it a little bit wrong.”

Most readers, he said, focus only on the end of the poem giving it meaning: “I took the one less traveled by,/and that has made all the difference.”

“But earlier in the poem, Frost has made very clear that the roads are interchangeable,” Orr said. “At the end, the speaker [is] saying that in the future, I will be saying that the road that I took was the road less traveled. It’s more about the self-deception we practice when we tell the story of our own lives … the misunderstandings and corrections we keep making, and the anxiety we have about choice.”

Frost often said he wrote it for his friend Edward Thomas, a poet and critic who was weighing a decision to enter the Army.

“They would take these walks in the woods together, and depending on the paths they would take, Thomas would instantly regret whatever path he’d taken,” Orr said. “Frost wrote it as a joke and sent it to Thomas without any accompanying text. He thought it was about Frost actually regretting things and not about him – it took six letters between them until Thomas understood.”

Orr’s book examines the poem and its author, and explores the issues of choice and the chooser. “Once we all become older we look back at particular points in our lives and say, ‘Here’s the moment when I made an important decision,’” he said. “We may be deceiving ourselves about those big moments; maybe they weren’t really choices in the way that we usually imagine.”

“I hope that readers come away with the sense that the poem, whose language is almost as much a part of our cultural heritage as the Declaration of Independence, actually turns out to be more interesting and challenging than they realized,” said Orr, who came to Cornell this year and teaches a seminar in writing criticism. “And that the poet that created it, who we see as some sepia-toned antique figure on a mountaintop, he’s more interesting too.”

Jonathan Culler, the Class of 1916 Professor of English and Comparative Literature, also discusses “The Road Not Taken” in his new book, “Theory of the Lyric” (Harvard University Press), alongside W.H. Auden’s “Sept. 1, 1939” in a chapter on “Lyric and Society.”

“I was interested in how poems manifestly succeed in becoming widely known and read and quoted, and what kind of social or societal implications they have,” Culler said. “Here we have two poems that, more than almost any other in our era, have become part of a public culture.”

They also show how “poetry engages with ideology – in this case, the American ideology of individualism. The Frost poem is read as a celebration and reinforcement of that.” (Auden’s, written at the outbreak of WWII, found extra resonance after Sept. 11, 2001, he noted.)

Culler’s book, published in June and going into a second printing, is less concerned with interpretation than with poetics. He shows the ways lyric poetry has functioned in different periods – “In ancient Greece it was a public practice, celebrating the achievements of men and gods,” Culler said – and describes techniques, structures and such aspects of poetry as rhythm and lyric address.

“Poems can address urns or nightingales or the dead, and surprisingly, that persists even in modern poems,” he said.

“These two very different but complementary books are exciting examples of the many ways in which poetry is studied, taught and celebrated at Cornell,” said Roger Gilbert, English department chair. “Culler’s book treats poetry at the macro level, dealing with examples from many periods and languages in order to construct a general theory of lyric poetry, while Orr’s book works on the micro level, looking at a single poem and deriving all kinds of insights from it.”

This story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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