Thursday, April 3, 2014

April Is National Poetry Month: Robert Frost in Orange Is the New Black and More

April is National Poetry Month! From the website: Inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, National Poetry Month is now held every April, when schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets throughout the United States band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture.

I encourage everyone to look at the 30 Ways to Celebrate, with a month of poetic activities. My offering is "Revisit a Poem."

The poem is Robert Frost's much anthologized "The Road Not Taken." What prompted the choice is I recently stumbled upon my retort poem—doesn't everybody have one?—which I wrote when I was 13. I had a very poetic yearnings in junior high school, before the angst set in.

I'm not entirely at his "ages and ages" hence stage, but far enough along to appreciate the energy and optimism of early the teen years, and to smile at the ability to mirror the original cadence and rhyme scheme pretty well.

In Defense of the Road Less Traveled

They say the man who had the task
To choose of two roads, when he was asked,
Chose the one traveled upon less.
(I would think that this is best.)

Then they contend that he did sigh
A lament of regret before he died.
To this I say I cannot see
How from his words they hold this to be.

Perhaps my eyes are too new yet
To recognize the anxiety and regret
That they can see and identify;
Through personal experience they sympathize.

To prove them wrong I pray to hold
To this less traveled, regrettable road.
Then show my contentment ages hence
And declare: it did make all the difference.

M.A. Peel, 13-year-old poet

Revisiting the Original
Frost's 1916 poem entered pop culture consciousness last year in Orange Is the New Black in the episode "Blood Donut." On that occasion, Slate's David Haglund wrote a great current-day summary of the nearly century-old debate about the poem's meaning, and dare we say, Frost's intention (paging W.K. Wimsatt's Verbal Icon).

"Taystee Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) makes a passing reference to “the road less traveled,” prompting a brief, agitated lecture from her fellow inmate, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling). “You know,” Piper says, “that doesn’t mean what everyone thinks it means.” snip 
"But Piper is essentially right about the “The Road Not Taken,” which has long been one of the more misunderstood chestnuts in American poetry. In the first three stanzas, the speaker of the 1916 poem looks at one road, then another, which he calls “just as fair.” This second road, he thinks, has “perhaps the better claim,” because it appears less trodden. But he quickly corrects himself, noting that the “passing” of people to and fro “had worn them really about the same.”

Lots of good links in Haglund's piece to voices explicating in various directions, although many back the 'there-is-no-difference-in-the-paths' meme based on the line "had worn them really about the same."

What strikes me now is, how is everyone missing the grassy knoll:

"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."

One side was "grassy and wanted wear" and then he completely contradicts that when he says "Had worn them really about the same."  So what seems like a sweet pastoral poem really has a serious World War One-like disjunction at its core—is anything what we thought it was; dulce est decorum est, pro patria mori?—which gets compounded as we progress to the sigh and beyond.

The other thing that strikes me is the title. He did not title it "The Road Less Traveled" i.e., the chosen path.  His title focuses us first on the unknown, the empty cipher, the path not taken, starting us off immediately with the wistful. He was 42 when he wrote the poem, and he knew a thing or two how these things go.

And Now for the Designers
Chip Kidd did the National Poetry Month poster for this year, focusing on Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass. Sure. Making the other dominant image just a hand, Whitman's actual hand to size from a cast. Hmm. No comment.

My favorite remains Paul Sahre from 2009 and the brilliant visualization of my pal T.S. Eliot.