Words mean. I’m not a big fan of Deconstruction—I know poets who are, but it’s always seemed antithetical to me for poets to deny the meaning and power (no matter how complex those meanings and powers are) of words.
Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is not a Kiplingesque ode to the value of choosing the harder path, no matter how many 4th grade teachers teach it that way. It’s not what the words of the poem say. If you want THAT poem, for crying out loud, teach “If” (in which only male humans are presumed to need what used to be called character, and which is far from being Kipling’s best work) or “Invictus.” Frost’s poem is, far and away, the best known American poem (for a more thorough discussion of the poem and its place in culture, as well as it’s consistent misinterpretation, go here: http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/09/11/the-most-misread-poem-in-america/ ). For a brief take, let’s just focus on the WORDS here and what they say:
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…
So the roads are pretty much the same. This means that the speaker CANNOT have taken a harder road, because there was no harder road to take. The speaker goes on to say that this is a story he’ll be telling “ages and ages hence,” you know, way in the future. So the poem, as many before me have noted, is a juicily complex exploration of the ways we make peace with our lives. Typical Frost. Also much richer and more humane than the frankly cheap misreading that is so popular.
This matters more now than ever, I think. I am already sick of the term “post-factual.” It’s one of those journalistic fads that offer a sort of linguistic comfort to the people who are trying to explain to themselves and us any sort of radical, important, baffling cultural moment of the sort we are in. Fox News is conducting a poll into whether its viewers want an actual investigation of Russia’s cyber-interventions recent US elections, both presidential and congressional. I voted, just for the sake of standing up for facts, but the vote tally was running against real investigation. This is not anything as mild as “post-factual,” it’s ferociously willful denial of truth. Also, no matter how often journalists and editorial-writers use it, the FACT is that the FACTS aren’t going anywhere, and calling the world “post-factual” somehow implies that they can be/have been buried. We communicate facts with words, though not exclusively. Therefore words and their meanings, no matter how contextual and contingent, matter. And repetition does not, in truth, create fact no matter how often it creates belief. Denial does not change facts. Facts can be buried, but like feelings (interesting, that—it kind of suggests that feelings have a parallel reality in some sense), they tend to rise back up eventually. And the rising tends to be unattractive, icky, gut-wrenching, shattering. At the worst, it is too late for course-correction or healing.
Everyone is busy talking about how crappy 2016 has been. No kidding. But it’s a way of ignoring what 2017 could look like. Losing Prince, Bowie, Redbone, and the election could pale in comparison to the results of having a narcissistic, fact-allergic, language-mangling, Putin-flunky in the most powerful office in the world.
Obviously, teaching the younger generation to read Frost’s poem as something other than a mushy addendum to The Boy Scout Handbook will not change or fix any larger situations immediately, but the same sloppiness about language that misreads what may be THE American poem (at least statistically) is cousin to the sloppiness of mind that lets intelligent people not only vote for a monstrosity, but continue to ignore the lies he spews and threats he poses. Where the heck has “paying attention” gone. We’re not post-factual, we’re post-attention. If we’re not bloody careful, we could end up being post-human, and the least of our worries will be making up a story about two roads in an autumn forest and how taking one changed our lives for the (we swear) better. Bull. Frost’s poem’s words tell about an aching attempt to make sense of the choices the speaker’s living with. It isn’t going to work for him. And trying to make words mean what they don’t isn’t going to work for us either.
Just to go for the most obvious cases: “Shell-shock” somehow implied that the shattered men coming back from the Western Front were damaged from having to listen to too many bombs go off. “Slaughter-shock” might have been more honest. We replaced it with “Battle Fatigue,” as though soldiers only needed long naps and coffee to be good to go again. We finally gave it an accurate, if initially confusing, name when we had a war so effed-up and unpopular that it nearly rent the nation—Viet Nam. Now we call what happens to humans who’ve experienced horrors “Trauma” and understand that it fundamentally changes the way their brains work, permanently. I have many days when I think that the Trump election, aside from the enormous factor of misogyny, is the direct product of the trauma of 9/11—that a culture can experience PTSD, and behave very badly in response to the feelings and facts it has attempted to bury. If so, we’d better find a therapist soon, and a good one, because therapists, like poets, are in the business of getting at truth/facts, and rebuilding patterns and lives based on those facts rather than on lies.
So we’ve kind of become, collectively, the speaker in “The Road Not Taken.” We’re trying, with varying degrees of desperation, to justify/explain to ourselves/understand our lives and our choices. And it isn’t going well. The roads are all the same. It only matters what we do once we’re on them. And we’d best make sure we can live (in every sense of the verb) with that. There is nothing inherently noble in choosing a road “just because.” If believing in facts and in the importance of words are going to constitute acts of resistance for the next 4 years, then this is me joining the resistance. This is the road. I am taking it. What difference it does or does not make in the world is not what drives the choice. What difference it makes to my being able to explain my own life in years to come, that is crucial.