Open (for Interpretation) Road
Any short list of “Overexposed Poems that Very Few People Have Actually Bothered to Read”
has to include Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”
Now, you’re probably thinking, “You mean the one about the dude in the woods
who takes a different road than everyone else, thereby showing what a trailblazing,
against the grain, different-drum kind of guy he is? Uh, yeah,
I read it—about seventy-five times, in fact. So, consider me officially
'Road Not Taken'-ed out, thanks!”
At least I suspect my own students feel this way, judging from the collective
groan that emerges from the crowd at the mere mention of Frost’s name. Still, despite
their over-familiarity with the poem (and maybe a little bit because of it), I hand out
copies of “The Road Not Taken” to my ninth-graders on the very first day of school and
ask them to respond to it for homework.
I have a pretty good idea what I’m going to get back from them, and for the
most part, they don’t disappoint. For example, one fourteen-year-old once responded that “the author is saying that you shouldn’t be afraid to be different from people in your life,” while another said, “I think it means don’t follow everyone. Don’t do something just because everyone else is doing it.” Another student thought the poem “is about finding the strength inside of you and saying I’m not afraid to be different and I can make my own decisions and be my own person.” Finally, one young man concluded his response with the following advice: “Don’t be scared to try a way you didn’t go. It’s going to be a crazy ride, but you could make it.”
Great sentiments, all. Inspiring, even. They just don’t have much to do with this particular poem, which says nothing about “going against the grain” or “doing your own thing” or anything like that.
Naturally, at this blasphemous interpretation, my ninth graders cry foul: “Of
course it’s about doing your own thing!” they insist. “My fifth grade teacher Mrs. Schneider said so!” And so I walk them through it.
We review the first eight lines of the twenty-line poem, which set up the
now-formulaic scenario: one traveler looks down both strands of a forking path,
noting that one road is “grassy and wanted wear.” And presumably because this road is underused, the narrator muses that the grassier path has “perhaps the better claim.” OK, so far, so good.
Then we get to lines nine through twelve, and the wheels come off the
“different-drummer” bus. Having just made the observation (in line 8) that one road “wanted wear,” he then says, “Though as for that”—i.e., as far as one path being grassier than the other—“the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same” (lines 9-10).
And there it is. Right in the can’t-miss-it middle of the poem, in the plainest terms he can muster, Frost spells it out: the two roads are “really about the same.”
And just to make sure we get it, Frost stresses this “sameness” two other times: earlier, in line 6, he observes that he grassier path is “just as fair” as the other one; and later, in line 12, he reports that both paths lay before him “equally.”
I re-cap for my ninth-graders: the popular notion that Frost’s poem celebrates non-conformity proceeds from the belief that the two roads are significantly different—one much-traveled ground, one virgin territory, leading to a new frontier. But when you take the time to look at Frost’s language—when you actually read the poem, in other words, instead of relying on what Ms. Schneider said back in fifth grade—you’ll see that, no less than three times in six lines, Frost says just the opposite. In fact, the two roads are not that different at all, but instead are “really about the same.”
At this point, one of the better readers in the class will
raise her hand tentatively and ask, “But what about the last two lines,
where he says, ‘I took the one less traveled by / and that has made all the difference’?” Isn’t he saying here that the two roads are different?” That he does. Luckily, I have an answer for that as well.
I direct the class to the first thirteen words of that curious last stanza: “I shall be telling this with a sigh/ Somewhere ages and ages hence.” It’s almost as if Frost is anticipating some summer afternoon in the far-flung future, when he’s a crusty-yet-benign old man sitting on his front porch, entertaining his grandkids with his “diverging roads” bit. Except in this re-telling, Grandpa Frost will modify some of the details. You know, just a few slight changes : for example, since it’s not much of a story if both roads are the same, maybe in this new version, he’ll say the roads are completely different and that he took the one no one else had the guts to take. In his heart, he’ll know it’s a complete fib—but the grandkids sure will love him for it.
And if my students don’t buy this coming from me, I can refer them to Frost biographer Jay Parini, who says the following about this final stanza: “My guess is that Frost, the wily ironist, is saying something like this: ‘When I am old, like all old men, I shall make a myth of my life. I shall pretend, as we all do, that I took the less traveled road. But I shall be lying.’”
Bottom-line: in “The Road Not Taken,” Frost does not preach about the virtues of non-conformity, and anyone who believes this is seeing aspects of the poem that aren’t there while overlooking aspects that are there.
If this sounds a little DaVinci Code-ish, I apologize. My true intent is to talk not about this misreading but about my ninth-graders who do the misreading. Or, more accurately, about the ninth-graders who parrot the misreading they heard from others.
Now, please try to ignore the “irony alarm” sounding in your head and follow me here: It seems to me the “different-drummer” interpretation of the poem has persisted because of America’s infatuation with the Non-Conformist. Sure, we value laws and we don’t like to see them broken, but we sure do have a soft spot for rebels, for folks who buck tradition. We especially admire that quality in ourselves. One of my ninth-grade students spoke, I think, for many readers of the poem when he claimed, “I would definitely take the one less traveled on. I would choose the less traveled path because I don’t like to follow the crowd.”
And yet, by responding in this way, this student is following the crowd.
He’s not crafting his own interpretation of the poem; he’s repeating someone
else’s interpretation. Or, more accurately, he’s repeating just about everyone’s
interpretation, in a way that reminds me of that great Margaret Mead quotation: “Always remember you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.” On this occasion, at least, this thoroughly unique student is part of the crowd.
In his defense, the “crowd” makes a decent safety net. Sure, you could take a risk and posit your own original interpretation. But what if you’re wrong? What if you say something that makes you seem different and strange? No, better to take the safe, well-worn path; at the very least, you’ll have a ton of company there.
And “company” means a lot to teenagers. Although none would admit it, most adolescents I know do conform to some degree—in their dress, their music, even their interpretations of classic-bordering-on-trite poetry. It’s all part of how teens forge their identity; they figure out who they are by first figuring out who everyone else is and doing likewise.
Ironically, even the teenagers who seem to act contrary to everyone else do
conform to some degree. Try this: go to any high school in America and identify
the most obvious “non-conformists,” the students whose purple hair and multiple
piercings seem to shout, “Hey, I’m different!” If you gathered all these kids in one
room, I think you’d find something curious: they’re different, all right, but
most are different in the same way. Their rebellion is deliberate, calculated—as if they’re trying to fit a stereotype by doing what other non-conformists do. Or, in a word: conforming.
I guess it comes down to this: true non-conformity is no walk in the woods. Saying you do your own thing is a fine first step. But actually doing your own thing? That’s something else. And as Frost might say, that “something else” makes all the difference.
©2007 by Mark Dursin