His name is David Orr. Author of The Road Not Taken, he is a poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review. David calls the famous Robert Frost poem that shares the title and subject of his new book “the poem everyone loves and almost everyone gets wrong.” Orr’s book, released August 18, 2015, comes down the road to poetry enthusiasts one hundred years after the first printing of Frost’s great poem in August 1915.
“I began the book by talking about a commercial in New Zealand, and it’s a commercial for Ford cars,” explained Orr during an interview with Jeffrey Brown of PBS, “And the narration of the commercial is nothing but someone reading ‘The Road Not Taken.’ They don’t attribute it to Frost. They don’t even tell you what it is. They just read the poem. The fact that you could recite a poem written by an American in New Zealand today, a 100-year-old poem, is pretty amazing, and that they’re expected to recognize it, know what it is, have associations with it. I mean, it’s an incredibly popular piece of writing.”
The poem, quintessentially written as a play on choice, has long been a subject of study assigned to students by high school teachers and college and university professors. In his book synopsis on Amazon, Orr asks two questions: “Is [‘The Road Not Taken’] a paean to triumphant self-assertion, where an individual boldly chooses to live outside conformity? Or a biting commentary on human self-deception, where a person chooses between identical roads and yet later romanticizes the decision as life altering?”
The poetry columnist added that Frost’s famous last line is often quoted in graduation speeches and commercials: “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Perhaps the car commercial meant to convey that sense of individuality one can achieve by traveling down the road in the choice of vehicle being advertised. Orr stated, “There’s no company in the world that would put the poem up as part of their commercial if they knew what the poem is more likely to mean.”
Orr says he believes Frost used the poem to convey that it doesn’t matter which road is taken. “In the middle of the poem,” said Orr, “Frost writes: ‘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…’ And, in fact, what Frost is suggesting is that when the speaker later claims that the road he took was less traveled and that it made all the difference, the speaker will just be making up a story after the fact to justify a choice that maybe wasn’t even really a choice in the first place.”
David Orr shared what he believes is some of Robert Frost’s personal reasoning for writing the piece. Per Orr, Frost “claims that he wrote it because he used to go on walks with the English poet Edward Thomas, because Frost spent a brief time in England. It was actually the beginning of his career as a poet.” The young Thomas would often regret whichever path the two had taken, and Frost wrote this great poem as “a joke at his friend’s expense.”
One of the catalysts for consternation among poetry readers is the true meaning of any given poem. A true poet is a wordsmith, and many scholars would not argue that Robert Frost ranks among the best of the best of poets throughout history. His words are crafted upon the page, chosen one-by-one, much as DaVinci would have selected each chosen color to blend into the hint of a smile on his great masterpiece.
To open the book on discussion for this classic poem, with the book’s release and consequent news coverage, is a great service to American literature in 2015. The commentary alone, from the PBS News interview with Orr, has proven that poetry, like chivalry, is not dead. One admitted college English professor posted that he was ‘thrilled to see that someone finally ‘got’ this poem.’ The commenting professor pointed out that ‘Frost’s poems often shift on a word, not an image or a line.’
The Road Not Taken was published for the poem’s centennial, along with a new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Frost’s poems, edited and introduced by Orr himself.
Here is the poem in its entirety for your perusal.
The Road Not Taken
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.