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Today's quote:

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The poem of my life


A young man hiking through a forest is abruptly confronted with a fork in the path. He pauses, his hands in his pockets, and looks back and forth between his options. As he hesitates, images from possible futures flicker past.

Images of the young man wading into the ocean, hitchhiking, riding a bus, kissing a beautiful woman, working, laughing, eating, running, weeping. The series resolves at last into a view of a different young man, with his thumb out on the side of a road. As a car slows to pick him up, we realise the driver is the original man from the crossroads, only now he's accompanied by a lovely woman and a child. The man smiles slightly, as if confident in the life he's chosen and happy to lend that confidence to a fellow traveller. As the car pulls away and the screen is lit with gold — for it's a commercial we've been watching — the emblem of the Ford Motor Company briefly appears.

The advertisement I've just described ran in New Zealand in 2008. And it is, in most respects, a normal piece of smartly assembled and quietly manipulative product promotion. But there is one very unusual aspect to this commercial. Here is what is read by a voice-over artist, in the distinctive vowels of New Zealand, as the young man ponders his choice:

It is, of course, "The Road Not Taken" - routinely misidentified as "The Road Less Traveled" - by Robert Frost. In the commercial, this fact is never announced; the audience is expected to recognise the poem unaided. For any mass audience to recognise any poem is (to put it mildly) unusual. For an audience of car buyers in New Zealand to recognise a hundred-year-old poem from a country eight thousand miles away is something else entirely.

But this isn't just any poem. It's "The Road Not Taken", and it plays a unique role not simply in American literature, but in American culture — and in world culture as well. Its signature phrases have become so ubiquitous, so much a part of everything from coffee mugs to refrigerator magnets to graduation speeches, that it's almost possible to forget the poem is actually a poem.

A poem which almost everyone gets wrong. This is the most remarkable thing about "The Road Not Taken" — not its immense popularity (which is remarkable enough), but the fact that it is popular for what seem to be the wrong reasons. It’s worth pausing here to underscore a truth so obvious that it is often taken for granted: Most widely celebrated artistic projects are known for being essentially what they purport to be. When we play "White Christmas" in December, we correctly assume that it’s a song about memory and longing centered around the image of snow falling at Christmas. When we read Joyce’s Ulysses, we correctly assume that it’s a complex story about a journey around Dublin as filtered through many voices and styles. A cultural offering may be simple or complex, cooked or raw, but its audience nearly always knows what kind of dish is being served.

Frost's poem turns this expectation on its head. Most readers consider "The Road Not Taken" to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion ("I took the one less traveled by"), but the literal meaning of the poem's own lines seems completely at odds with this interpretation. The poem's speaker tells us he "shall be telling," at some point in the future, of how he took the road less travelled by, yet he has already admitted that the two paths "equally lay / In leaves" and "the passing there / Had worn them really about the same." The road he will later call less travelled is actually the road equally travelled. The two roads are interchangeable.

According to this reading, then, the speaker will be claiming "ages and ages hence" that his decision made "all the difference" only because this is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us or allotted to us by chance). The poem isn't a salute to can-do individualism; it's a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives.

With so many forks in my path, with so many opportunities gained and lost, with some fifty job relocations across fifteen countries, "The Road Not Taken" became my favourite poem ever since I discovered it ages and ages ago. During all this time it served me as a means of my self-deception before becoming the source of all my regrets as well as my comfort in old age. It's the poem of my life. Thank you, Robert Frost.

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