The Road Not Taken and Other Poems
By Robert Frost
Edited by David Orr
Penguin. 166 pp. $15 nolead ends
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Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong nolead ends
nolead begins By David Orr
Penguin. 192 pp. $25.95
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Reviewed by John Timpane
nolead ends You cannot do better.
Next year is the 100th anniversary of the publication of one of the most famous poems in history, Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." Poet and critic David Orr has gone through Frost's explosive first three books - A Boy's Will (1913; 1915), North of Boston (1914), and Mountain Interval (where "Road" first appeared) - and chosen well. He could hardly fail. Here are "Mending Wall," "Birches," "Out, Out -," and many other indelible lyrics.
So shell out your $15, sit, and read. The nice thing is you can. This is poetry that invites the reader in. Not that Frost is simple; he conceals depth charges of darkness. His apparently regular verse marshals coiled, conflicted tensions across the line.
His short poems deserve renown; his longer poems may be even better. Sometimes I think "Home Burial," that lacerating, devastated, modern tale, is his best. Near it is "The Death of the Hired Man," invocation of the American soulscape, nameless tragedy. Dialogues like "The Housekeeper" and "The Fear" are astute, cutting, not to be missed. For all the rural beauty, Frost is seldom just a romantic.
He did create great characters: The laconic neighbor in "Mending Wall"; Silas of "Hired Man"; Sanders of "The Code," who should know you don't rush a man who knows what he's doing. Frost's New Englanders are both articulate and wordless before their fates. Their struggles to make themselves understood create some of the most lucid, least paraphrasable poetry in English.
I'm less thrilled with Orr's book on "Road." That insulting subtitle - who says "almost everybody" gets the poem wrong? The nuns at my school taught us "Road" is a masterpiece of ambiguity. The road the speaker takes has made "all the difference," but what that was, good or ill, we never learn. True, some see "Road" as a clarion hymn to American self-reliance. Well, it's not. Or not only.
Orr brilliantly connects that open-endedness with the clash between the American myth and the truth of this dynamic, open-ended country, where we live one kind of life (chaotic, contingent, unsure) yet say we live another (defined, directed, resolute). Unstable and dark as this country, "The Road Not Taken" is a poetic mirror held up to ourselves.