When you think of Robert Frost, a certain string of descriptors likely leaps to mind: “hateful human being,” “monster of egotism,” “mean-spirited megalomaniac,” that sort of thing. Hold on. Do I have the right notes here?
Depending on who you are (those particular quotes come from the critics David Bromwich, Helen Vendler, and Howard Moss, respectively), your estimation of the storied New England poet takes one of two distinct and well-trodden paths. He’s either a man as scornful and cold as his namesake — or, as Lionel Trilling once put it, “a symbol of America . . . not unlike an articulate . . . Bald Eagle.”
“To talk about Frost — even today, even in a book like this one — is to take sides,” writes New York Times Book Review poetry columnist David Orr in “The Road Not Taken.” And so too, goes our tendency toward Frost’s greatest — or let’s just say best-known – work, “The Road Not Taken,” a poem Orr argues could be more tidily esteemed as Frost’s most misunderstood work.
As Frost once wrote to the linguist and professor Leonidas W. Payne Jr., he saw his poems as “all set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless.” That’s an ambition many readers of his signature poem may not have picked up on as its lines embedded themselves into the culture, through avenues ranging from syllabi to pop songs to TV commercials.
But Frost’s famous “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” while frequently read as a “paean to triumphant self-assertion” (“I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference”) is, Orr goes to great and convincing lengths to assert, is not so clear-cut at all. It actually revels in a confounding bothness, questioning “the notion of choice” itself, and gently presenting readers with “the possibility of self-deception.”
Orr’s reading flips the usual “life is full of choices” back-pattery so often attributed to the poem and opens up the possibility that it’s a far more complex and telling work “about the necessity of choosing that somehow, like its author, never makes a choice itself.” Orr does this through an incredibly detailed close reading: an examination of the choice presented by the poem, and a rumination on what it means to be in the role of “the decider” — an appropriately loaded term that speaks to the poem’s enduring relevance.
But really, Orr navigates the “disputed frontier” of Frost’s poetry by simply reading it the way Frost hoped (but may not have expected) it would be read, with attention, and an openness to seeing grand answers sprout from specific questions — the forest from all those ultimately inconsequential trees.
Early on, Orr spends a good amount of time unpacking the origins and the aftermath of the “monster myth” that (from the influentially damning biographies of Lawrance Thompson to the criticism of Bromwich, Vendler, Moss, and many others) effectively flipped Frost’s public persona into something like fraud, so vast was the chasm between his life off the page and the neighborly (Orr calls it “civic”) voice of his poems. But this stubborn tendency to pit Frost’s hard opposites against each other surrenders the multitudes he contains (and what’s more American than contained multitudes?). What was “monstrous” about his poems goes largely unnoticed by those who learn them by rote; there’s a rearing darkness in their uncertainties.
The most satisfying part of Orr’s 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.”
It’s a liberating way to walk through these familiar woods, as Orr puts it: “[O]ne goes to the crossroads to meet the Devil, the angel who is also a monster. One goes to the crossroads to find America, the free land born in slavery. One goes to the crossroads to meet Robert Frost.”
THE ROAD NOT TAKEN:
Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong
By David Orr
Penguin Press, 192 pp., $25.95