By Susan Wagner
My first experience with analyzing poetry came in my eighth-grade English class. One of the poems we discussed was “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost. I clearly remember writing about how choices define a life – heady stuff for a young teen.
Flash forward to a recent day when this memory popped into my head during my journal writing. So, naturally, I do what millions of other people do – I jump immediately onto the internet. I justify this interruption of journal time with the thought that it would be interesting to see how I feel about the poem now and how that would compare to what my younger self believed.
By phone, I visit the Poetry Foundation website to read the poem. The site is easy to use and also gives you short author biographies. I read the poem and I discover it has a Poem Guide, written by Katherine Robinson. I read that too.
According to the guide, Robert Frost wrote the poem as a joke for his friend and fellow poet, Edward Thomas. At times, Frost and Thomas would take walks together and Thomas was apparently always indecisive about what road to take. After the walk, Thomas “often lamented that they should, in fact, have taken the other one.”
Frost thought the poem funny and sent it to his friend thinking he would get the joke. Instead, Thomas took the poem seriously which forced Frost to explain its humor. Thomas was offended by the joke at his expense. But he was hardly the only one who thought the poem serious. Trying to demonstrate the humor in it, Frost read the poem to others and was surprised to find out they took it seriously as well. It seems only Frost found the poem funny.
If I had known this information as a young teen, my younger self might have thought the poem a cheat, a dishonest attempt to make us believe the poet was more profound than he actually was. As an adult, I can appreciate the circumstance. Jokes fall flat sometimes. I’ve written pieces I thought were funny but other people didn’t. That’s okay. It’s just something I need to remember to check.
As an adult writer, I have had the feeling of writing a poem or part of a memoir that I later discover reads as something different than what I thought I was writing. Sometimes, the words on the paper really do sound profound in a completely unexpected and unanticipated way. It’s an amazing feeling and one to cherish.
I have also written things that were just unclear to other people. If I’m trying to capture a memory in a poem, I sometimes forget other people don’t have that same memory. It becomes my responsibility is to make sure the writing and meaning are clear to a reader.
Rereading “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost, did much more than challenge me to find its meaning. Seeing myself through the lens of this poem has been affirming. The poem reminded me to continue to think about why I write, how I write and for whom I write.
Maybe I learned more in eighth grade than I realized.
Susan Wagner is the author of Unmuted: Voices on the Edge, a collection of hybrid poetry on mental illness and families. A former therapist, Susan facilitated creative and poetry writing group therapies. She has published poetry, short stories and feature articles and taught both creative and business writing. Susan is an editor with The Pearl S. Buck Writing Center and currently finishing her second novel. Her next book of poetry, another in the Unmuted series, will soon be available on Amazon.