Poetry Wednesdays

I am instituting a new tradition. Poetry Wednesdays. Because the English major in me just misses poetry. Terribly. Oh, how I loved writing about poetry! I even loved writing poetry, so perhaps one day I’ll share something of my own. But today, because it is 4:00 am (anxiety attacks really mess with my sleep–I slept from 8:00 pm to 3:00 am tonight), I will stick with something simple.

I had this poem memorized by the sixth grade because my father used to teach it, in his Crazy English Teacher days. I saw it misquoted on Pinterest. And it has become rather cliche because people never see the double meaning or the twinge of uncertainty in the sigh at the end. So here it is, and I’ll give you a short something about what I think it means at the end of this post.

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;         5
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,         10
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.         15
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.         20

Ok, so first, the coolest thing about this poem from a poetry, English major-y perspective is that each line makes you pause, just like the guy in the poem. Try reading a line out loud: there’s an extra syllable.

“Two roads di-verged in a yel-low wood” — Not quite duh dum duh dum, is it? That “in a” sticks out. Same in every line.

The thing I think people miss about this poem too often is its ambivalence about having taken the “road less traveled.” In line 11, he says “And both that morning equally lay” — I emphasize “equally” because one is not actually better than the other. He has to choose, and then he says that later in life, he’ll wonder, what if? What if I’d taken an easier path? Would things have turned out differently? That much is clear, right? But he says “I shall be telling this with a sigh” and then does not tell us what kind of sigh. Simple contentment? Regret? Longing? All of the above?

It’s not simple, because really, it’s his choice that makes the road more appealing. The fact that he chose that path is what makes it attractive! How often do we do that? He says that it has, perhaps, “the better claim, / Because it was grassy and wanted wear” but then takes it back! “Though as for that the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” He says in the end that “that has made all the difference” but never tells us what the difference is. He doesn’t know yet–he’s just choosing now. In the future, he’ll be “telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence” but for now, he’s just got to pick on because he can’t walk both.

My wiser and older sister once told me the smartest thing I’ve ever heard anyone say about parenting: you make a choice and you do your best to make the right one, and you never get to find out if it was really the right choice or not. Some things are simple, I suppose. Marrying Nathan? Right choice. No question. Would have been much less happy if I hadn’t done that. In fact, it didn’t even feel like a decision, just an inevitability. Like the family I was born with. We just made it official that we were family. Most things are not simple. Should we have a baby? How should we parent that child? I know what I want, most of the time, but I don’t know how things will turn out, so I can’t really say that I’ve done the right thing. I can only hope.

Just like in this poem, hindsight makes the paths we choose a little more attractive, although, if we’re being honest, they were probably about the same. We will probably end up, ages from now, sighing as we tell the tale. “And then, we had a baby.” And if there’s a teensy bit of ambivalence in that sigh about the timing of that choice, or about the consequences of that choice, then that will be pretty normal. I do not expect to regret having a child. I do expect to wonder if the plan we have made and the choices we are making could have been done differently. And if we had done this differently, then what?

One Comment

  1. Abby said:

    Hi Anne-Marie,

    I was also thinking about a poem non-stop on Wednesday: this Part 6 from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” The last lines are so beautiful to me. It always makes me relax.


    A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
    How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is, any more than he.

    I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

    Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
    A scented gift and remembrancer, designedly dropt, 95
    Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say, Whose?

    Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.

    Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic;
    And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
    Growing among black folks as among white; 100
    Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

    And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

    Tenderly will I use you, curling grass;
    It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men;
    It may be if I had known them I would have loved them; 105
    It may be you are from old people, and from women, and from offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps;
    And here you are the mothers’ laps.

    This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers;
    Darker than the colorless beards of old men;
    Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths. 110

    O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
    And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

    I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
    And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

    What do you think has become of the young and old men? 115
    And what do you think has become of the women and children?

    They are alive and well somewhere;
    The smallest sprout shows there is really no death;
    And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
    And ceas’d the moment life appear’d. 120

    All goes onward and outward—nothing collapses;
    And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

    December 3, 2011

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