01 February 2013

Playing Tennis With Bobby Frost

Or, thoughts on Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." (Audio link)frost

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. 

[The below is read for podcast here: Rope Essay: Playing Tennis with Bobby Frost.]

Poems can be and are written, willy-nilly, sometimes by people who are not lifelong artists, poets, authors...(such as poems written by you or me, though you, if young, should you continue to write poems which are read and studied, will be composing "juvenilia" for academia to explicate and dismiss as "apprentice work").

Frost was a poet of the highest order who made many poems and put them in many books. His books were important to him. The order of poems was important to him. Evidence of this might be that Mountain Interval, where "The Road Not Taken" first appeared, was published in 1916 but then rereleased in 1920 with the poems re-arranged somewhat by Frost's hand.

Mountain Interval places the separate poems in categorical groups with a "lead" poem highlighted in the TOC by bold print and a larger font. These are.

1. Christmas Trees
2. In the Home Stretch
3. Birches
4. The Hill Wife
5. The Bonfire
6. Snow

"The Road Not Taken" is not in these groups but in fact leads them all as a kind of "preface" to the whole book. It comes first after the TOC and is printed in italics which further distinguishes it from the other poems. You can say that this poem sets the tone and is perhaps the poem that will "teach" you how to read the other poems in the book.

Just seeing this poem detached from its "home" so to speak will alter our relationship to the work as well as to the poet who placed the work. We cannot know Frost's mind but we can respect his choices (his "road"). Poems, especially ones deemed "cultural" favorites, such as this one, are often reproduced in anthologies and online and in this way the lose something of their original identity. At the very least, they lose one of their roles as pieces of art done by an artist who makes more than a poem, he makes poems, and books of poems, and as these are rightly considered "structures" which are "ordered" language then the way they are presented to us has relevance. That is, the book a poem appears in is important to the interpretation of the poem.

When we find our way to "selected" and "collected" works--in some sense, the poems must bring their "history" of their past lives in other books with them.

"The Road Not Taken" can be divided into two movements and so the poem might be said to "diverge" and is an example of itself. Where, at what line, does the poem's initial "thought" stop; that is where does the "momentum" or first movement stop? We might say the metaphor stops here as well.

Because there is a "stop" and a change of address (and punctuation) we must hear the speaker differently...as if he is directing us as to the way he will be "telling" his story in the future "ages and ages hence."

The poem is two poems like the divergent roads. And so the poem exemplifies the "idea" of the poem.

A poem is WORDS...it isn't a man standing in the woods thinking about divergent roads and it isn't about that man standing in the woods facing divergent roads. It is words written by a man using a metaphor to describe a function of humanity--language. Frost is a poet. Frost's work is ordering words. Frost wrote this poem, about making choices (any choices, word choices, life choices, ideas and/or actions); but it is first about choices of words because that is Frost's primary activity (and really, yours and mine too). Frost placed this poem about making choices with words at the head (front) of a book of other poems. This makes the poem an essential "key" to reading Frost's poems--at least those poems in the book in which it was published.

That is to say, how we read this first poem--and we can use our own metaphor here--how we read this "riddle of the Sphinx" placed almost as guard and gatekeeper as much as "key" or clue--determines not only how we'll read the rest, but it determines "US" as readers (makes our "difference"). Our reading reveals us. And in so doing, Frost's poem forces our choice of road (interpretation) as it wends through his "mountain interval."

It might be interesting to try to illustrate the point about the importance of books as "ordering" structures--content leads on to content as way leads on to way.  Mountain Interval is digitized so you can turn the pages and see the 1916 text as it was printed.  

A discussion of this, removing a part from its whole, is found more commonly in our popular culture as one of mix tapes and "iTunes" destruction of the artistic unit once called an album. Poems suffer, and have long-suffered, that fate. That is to say, poems were long ago the 99 cent song of the iTunes, ripped out of context and cobbled into our "personal favorites."


The poem "Christmas Trees" (audio link) follows "Road" in the book and we should note that that poem presents us with a man who talks about his love and respect for his woods, his trees, his environment, but somewhat as a reaction to the news that his trees really aren't worth very much if cut down for sale as Christmas Trees.  That is, his "road" is presented to us as one path--purist defender of the landscape and its beauty--but the truth is likely that his "one traveler" personality would be profit oriented, if the price was right.  He offers us an idea of himself, but his more "true" self is otherwise.  My reading of this poem is given more credibility and made more resonant after reading "Road."


The "teller" emerges in the line "Oh, I kept the first for another day!" which comes after the first sentence of the poem--the sentence IS the entire "story" of this choice in the wood.  That is, 10 lines of "tale" interrupted by an imagined listener--"what about the other road?" "Oh..."  As readers (listeners) our eyes are gazing off into the wood (our imagination sees the road, the wood, the undergrowth, grass)...and when someone asks the question of the teller our entire focus tightens and "sees" the speaker who goes on in what to me seems an ironic tone--Oh, I'll sigh and tell it this way! (all the truth, but slant) and pretend to an Aesopian moral tag.  That is to note that the poem is an example of the poem's metaphor.

Also of interest are these elements of the wood--Yellow?  What does this "signify"?  A misdirect? or an identification of "style" somehow...as a poet I was writing this way, "yellow"--maybe afraid of making his own poetry that is not derivative of those he read in Palgrave--classics, convention; that is to say he's a "yellow-belly."  And then we have a bend that disappears in "undergrowth"--a kind of dead end of "immaturity"?  Finally, trodden grass perhaps means walking in Whitman's path?  But not trodden black...NOT overdone--no one has ever read Whitman correctly...except perhaps Frost.

That is, the poet, teller, admits the performance, the drama of the "sigh" placed just so, "oh!"


I find the "trodden black" somehow analogous with "In a Station at the Metro" from Ezra Pound (1913 by the by).
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Pound and Frost actually met at abou this time as Frost moved to London to concentrate on his writing.
Maybe this relates to the Frost dismissal of free verse which Pound championed and of course Whitman pretty much started and ended.  "I'd as soon write free verse," he once said, "as play tennis with the net down."  Frost plays tennis with his poems--but if you, reader, are his opponent, you'd better come with some serious game.

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