Cartography: mapping the territory in which we find ourselves  –

We live immersed in narrative,
recounting and reassessing the meaning of our past actions,
anticipating the outcomes of our future projects,
situating ourselves at the intersection of several stories not yet completed.

– Peter Brooks

Broken Record – written nearly a hundred years ago in 1915, Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken is one of America’s most beloved (and frequently misquoted) poems:

The Road Not TakenI think that what appeals to most people about this poem, and what leads to the conventional interpretation of it as supporting the very American idea of “rugged individualism,” or going one’s own way even if that means being a non-conformist, is neatly summarized in the last two lines: “I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”

Several critics, however, have offered other (thus, ironically, unconventional) interpretations which speculate on Frost’s life experience or the specific circumstances that may have served as the impetus for writing it. While the artist’s intentions can never really be known, the poem itself, as an artifact, yields some interesting clues. Take, for instance, Frost’s choice of verb tense: two roads diverged, long I stood, took the other as just as fair, was grassy — all in past tense, i.e. the speaker is looking back.

Ruts — I think that perhaps what makes this poem an enduring favorite is that we can all connect to it on a deeper, sub-conscious level. We like poems and stories we can see ourselves in, relate to. And who among us hasn’t felt the same way about making difficult decisions, especially as they relate to one’s choices or prospective paths in life? I see some parallels between this idea of looking back at the past, and being uncertain about the future in both the biblical story of Lot’s wife, and the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Both pay a heavy price for doubting the counsel of their respective “guide.” Both had been warned: don’t look back.

Lot’s wife looks back and turns into a pillar of salt, forfeiting her life; Orpheus looks back and turns to see his wife, Eurydice, fading back into the underworld he was trying to rescue her from, where she will remain forever beyond his reach. The moral? Some might conjecture the point is wrapped up in separation, loss, and punishment rained down from above for disregarding the warnings, but I think it’s more about giving up attachments to what we know (which is already behind us) in order to look ahead.

Grooves – take the last stanza of Frost’s poem, for example, where the verb tense abruptly shifts in the first line: “I shall be telling this with a sigh/ Somewhere ages and ages hence” — that is, far into the future. Here, the speaker may imagine regaling grandchildren with the story; regardless, I find it quite curious that the speaker would be telling the tale “with a sigh,” as this detail, to me, signals (more often than not) a sense of regret, rather than accomplishment. The bottom line is that we have an immobile speaker at an intersection, looking longingly at the past and projecting himself/herself wistfully into the future (“with a sigh”) — but who, in the entirety of the poem, has not traveled anywhere. The speaker is, in a word, stuck.

— habitual thinking is hard to escape. It requires some stretching, and often some discomfort. What we’re privy to in this poem is one specific moment, suspended in the linear progression of time from past to future, in which we witness the speaker’s decision: I took the one less traveled by. And although the speaker still hasn’t moved, we have been. And that has made all the difference.


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