Saying The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

Robert Frost
Robert Frost

Saying The Road Not Taken

Here I am saying The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost (1874–1963).

At the moment I am on holiday in Ireland. I am trying to memorize a poem every week. This is the second poem that I have learnt. It was rather difficult to recite it, as every time I have tried to recite it I was interrupted. I am in my parent’s house with lots of nieces and nephews and of course my own children. That is why I am reciting it hidden in my bed… Even still you can hear some children if you listen carefully, shouting in the distance, as I say it.

This poem was originally intended as a joke by Robert Frost to his friend and fellow poet Edward Thomas who was famously indecisive, especially on their walks together. This was when Frost lived in England for a short time.

Generally people imagine this poem to be the decision, made earlier in one’s life, about a road not taken. However, having spent some time with the poem you hear that

“and both that morning equally lay

in leaves no step had trodden black.”

So, in fact there is no real choice to be made. The general understanding of this poem, at least in popular culture, is that this choice was difficult and that the narrator made a choice “the road less travelled by, and that has made all the difference”. In fact, both routes are the same. You cannot make a real choice between them. In reality we know that there are rarely situations in which we fell there is a black or white choice.

Perhaps we see all these choices only in retrospect. As the narrator imagines himself somewhere in the future, sighing, regretting the route that he took.

Sometimes we don’t even see what choices there are. We imagine the choices afterwards.

As I was reading about Frost and learning the poem I found it a little difficult. It is beautifully written and yet there are no images really. A yellow wood, leaves that no step has trodden black and a road that bends into the undergrowth. That is what is so beautiful about this poem. It has structure and a stark, simple beauty. It is delightful to see how effortlessly Frost has put the spoken patterns into the meter “though as for that the passing there had worn them really about the same”.

Parallels

hopper.road-maine
Road in Maine by Edward Hopper 1914; Oil on canvas, 24 x 29 inches; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Recently, I have been looking at Edward Hopper‘s paintings again. There are parallels between Hopper and Frost. Hopper was a 20th century painter yet like Frost he seems to have 19th century concerns. Everyone knows his work, at least superficially. We can see that his selection of reality is an interpretive one. His interests seems to be formal ones, also like Frost.

Everything in Hopper’s work is deceptively simple. For me it is fascinating to think that Hopper was also a contemporary of Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko. In the 40s and 50s abstract expressionism was the direction that painting took in America. The expression of the individual. The cool calculated approach of Hopper was no longer relevant.

Learning poems and saying them

It is easier to learn a poem with a rhyming scheme. I thinkthat I will be able to learn many poems. It is an interesting way of approaching a poem. You begin to get inside the poem.

However, I do not know what the point of this is. I do not really know why I am doing this. I think of it as a way of learning forms of poetry (stanzas, iambic tetrameter, etc) and maybe reproducing them in my own writing. Maybe that is what I will tell myself after…

It is hard to recite poetry. What I mean by that, is it is hard to just say a poem in a simple way so that you can hear the words and not the way it is being said. It is hard to say a poem to people.

I tried a couple of times, just in the middle of the day, just to say to somebody “would you like to hear a poem?” It is strange. Maybe we think of poems as being very personal. I know I am not sure if I would like someone to recite poems to me. It is an interruption. I want to know how long the poem will be. It’s like looking at a video on the web and being able to see the time that it will last. We have no attention span anymore.

What form? What for?

So I will just keep learning poems. It is a little like learning songs that no one will ever hear… Or the time spent looking at things that nobody ever knows. Going back to Hopper, you can see from his very detailed notes that he really imagined his paintings beforehand.

I always wonder how much artists really know before they do or make something. It is a mix of both approaches. We never really do know. Then we have to make a choice… And perhaps never do but make believe that we have made a choice afterwards.

So, enjoy the walk?

The Road Not Taken

By Robert Frost.

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.

 

 

The Lake Isle of Innisfree by Yeats

Poetry

Here I am reciting a poem by Yeats, on the the beach. The pauses are because I am reciting by heart. I am doing this in response to a creative challenge on the excellent Lateral Action blog… There is a podcast called 21st Century Creative. It is a first series and I really recommend it to anyone who is interested in creativity. You can go back and listen to all the podcasts. The last episode will be next week but there will be another season very soon. There are excellent interviews with many different creative people.

This episode the challenge was to learn a poem by heart. I do this on a regular basis for my own songs but this has reminded me that I wanted to do it for myself. In this way I can explore poetry from the inside. I also help my children learn poetry for their school homework and they love to do it.

I have developed techniques for memorization which include repetition, analysis of structures, rhyming schemes and visualization. It is always impressive to see how quickly my sons learn poems. They are very good at it but they are also good at learning in advance. In fact one of the main parts of memorizing is sleeping. This allows the text to really live inside of you.

I should really redo the poem and maybe I will this evening!

I will post the results here as I learn some of my favourite poems. There is a huge difference when we read poems and when we recite them.

The line “I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore” is pure music to the ear and in the mouth. It becomes clear when we recite it.

My version: filling myself up with music

As I learnt the poem I repeated it like a mantra, letting the music of the words, the images, fill me up. I recited the poem at the end of the day on the beach to my wife. It was a little difficult. I possibly should have learnt a poem in French but my wife speaks pretty good English.

Incidentally it is very interesting to listen to Yeats’ own reading of the poem : it is not at all the way I hear the music of the poem. You can hear his version at the bottom of this post. Yeats was not as fond of this poem as others are. For him it was a work of his youth…

Earlier in the day as I walked through the streets, reciting the poem, it began to resound more and more with me.

As I swam out in the sea in the evening, I imagined the “lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;” as I stood in the city surrounded with people (“While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core”) I tried to hear the silence and the calm that is at the heart of this poem. As the evening set (“There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, And evening full of the linnet’s wings.”) I was looking at the golden cloud in the sky’s blue grey azure, trying to transpose this memory of Yeats’ childhood holidays onto this noisy mediterranean resort.

This wish to go, to leave where we are (“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,”) fills up the whole poem. I began to hear the poem from inside me.

Reciting this poem on the beach was fun as well, you can hear all the seaside noises…

Here is my recital for what it’s worth.

This will surely lead to some lyrics or words of my own… A personal version of the Lake Isle of Innisfree.

This is also why it is a great idea to learn poems: you then transpose those ideas onto your own material… And Yeats is no slouch when it comes to beautiful words…

Keep creating.

 

Willian Butler Yeats

Here is Yeats’ version: