Poem and I: The Road Not Taken

I have always felt that one’s encounter with a piece of art- a song, a film, a play, a poem: anything- collides their separate lives together for a purpose that is only visible in retrospect, leaving both the person and the piece of art slightly but permanently changed. Obviously, the impact on the individual is much more profound than on the piece itself, and echoes in other areas of their lives.

One of the most discrete journeys that I’ve had has been with a poem. Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’, to be precise. I remember reading it in school and instantly falling in love with it. The imagery, the plot and an absurd pull towards the narrator, and the way it just spoke to me back then- there was something fresh about it.

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

It stayed with me as I grew into the post-tenth grade dilemma. That horribly overrated point with three crisply drawn paths portrayed as three independent circles on a venn diagram, as if choosing one is falling off a cliff never to resurface again. But even as the cocoons our schools are, they are powerful cocoons. Everything looks like it’s set in stone, the truth intact. Just like the interpretation of this poem we were nudged toward. The poem thus became a bold kick of confidence. That in life we must look for the paths that no one wants to take, and then make something of them. To not be afraid of walking alone. To chin up and take the chances you’ll be proud of later on. To know that the weight of your calls can fill your heart in the distant future. The poem was almost an ekla cholo re.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear

And so after much thinking and deliberation, despite a clear aptitude in the sciences (my aversion to that space didn’t matter to others) and having weighed out priorities of what I’m looking for, I decided to step into the then largely ignored world of Humanities. I took this poem with me. It hadn’t been my only point of argument; I remember sitting my father down and giving him a picture of what I want my life to be full of that had both baffled and convinced him. But the poem had largely backed my consideration, been a reassurance when the tomorrows of my ambition crippled my mind. Because of course, taking the unconventional route is better than following the crowd. The adventurous road is by default a more significant step to take while we’re here in the Universe, trying to create our own ripples. Hell, I even put up a picture in front of a strangely similar path in a forest area, with the poem’s hook written in bright blue. (Look, we all had our phases. Let’s just get over it now, shall we?)

I’ve had a lovely time so far, becoming increasingly fascinated by the human conditions it explores in tandem with the other streams, and also increasingly aware of how much I do not know and haven’t learned. I’ve gotten comfortable and experimental, and have grown more interdisciplinary along the way. It all seems a bit like a farce now.

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.

I guess something began to seem off with the poem midway, despite how much I loved it. I realised that too many people had been buying into things only- I repeat, simply because they’re considered off-beat. Maybe I was borderline one of them too? It was starting to become some kind of crisis with the cool quotient, seeing stories of quitting jobs without an evaluation of satisfaction levels to join the bandwagon of those with glamorous lifestyles with little picture of what it takes to get there. But one must choose based on what one loves, not some flimsy ideas of the mainstream that are prone to be reversed any day, correct? Whether or not one can truly be independent in their examination of these and whether or not free will exists, is a story for another day. Assuming in the affirmative, the drifting off from the immaturity has made my ideas evolve.

I read an article months ago in defense of mediocrity. And then another later on, that explained how one must ask a question to the effect of “What pain do I want in my life?” instead of “What do I want?”

Sometimes I ask people, “How do you choose to suffer?” These people tilt their heads and look at me like I have twelve noses. But I ask because that tells me far more about you than your desires and fantasies. Because you have to choose something…
And ultimately that’s the hard question that matters. Pleasure is an easy question. And pretty much all of us have similar answers. The more interesting question is the pain. What is the pain that you want to sustain?

I find this extremely important, yet understated. It is not to be mistaken for a lack of starry eyed spirit, or some brand of cynicism. I am far on the other side of the spectrum, my hugs will assure you that. However, I do feel like even in the freedom to romanticise any aspect of their existence- which I myself love to engage in- one must and will have to, beyond a point, bring down the dream to everyday life. To de-glamourise and enjoy it in that form. To understand the intricacies of where you’re headed. A time to exercise realism which is sometimes more gratifying.

There’s a TED talk called How to Make Hard Choices that puts this perspective of choices in place.  

We unwittingly assume that values like justice, beauty, kindness, are akin to scientific quantities, like length, mass and weight. So if what matters to us — a child’s delight, the love you have for your partner — can’t be represented by real numbers, then there’s no reason to believe that in choice, there are only three possibilities — that one alternative is better, worse or equal to the other.”

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 wrote my strangely exhausting Boards this year. They mess with you no matter how stress-resistant you are, in all their futility. And you emerge a much better grounded individual. Two more years of survival moulds you, and fortunately, helps you know what parts of yourself to keep and what to discard. Even what paradoxes are worth sheltering. My child-like naivety survives, but it does so with a new more composed, minimalist and effort-centred attitude. Evidently, my pride and insistence of self-importance survives as well, but with a meta sense of it, like in the poem itself.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Frost was nothing short of a smartass. No, seriously. At this point in life, the poem came back to me like a boomerang, but in the form of a commentary. And then everything was clear. In the foreground of larger, more pressing dilemmas with better sources this year, the poet intention was revealed to me. His technique is spot on, unparalleled. So good that the whole planet failed to understand his cryptic point. Instead of the mirror that it is, we all took it to be a pillow. In case you are unfamiliar:

Robert Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken” as a joke for a friend, the poet Edward Thomas. When they went walking together, Thomas was chronically indecisive about which road they ought to take and—in retrospect—often lamented that they should, in fact, have taken the other one. Soon after writing the poem in 1915, Frost griped to Thomas that he had read the poem to an audience of college students and that it had been “taken pretty seriously … despite doing my best to make it obvious by my manner that I was fooling. … Mea culpa.” However, Frost liked to quip, “I’m never more serious than when joking.” As his joke unfolds, Frost creates a multiplicity of meanings, never quite allowing one to supplant the other—even as “The Road Not Taken” describes how choice is inevitable.”  

Read article, here.

For Frost, this was almost a satire on how we love to pretend that our choices matter. That that one choice we’re going to make is somehow going to alter the rest of our lives beyond repair, when really there is no way to be certain of that. Notice how he clearly states they were equal roads in all aspects, just after his bias or desire for bias seems clear. Had Time been his slave, he’d have loved to come back and try the first, but he goes on to talk to his posterity with a sigh. So much for choosing the path that “has made all the difference”. The rhythm, apparently, is supposed to give this away. And you suddenly see that it’s a rationalisation. A lie, almost. A lie you hug in your bed at night mistaking it for hope.

I can almost feel Frost smirking, “Ha! What bullshit.”

It’s ridiculously disappointing at first. It feels uncomfortable, but liberating just after you let go. It’s like someone just told you you don’t matter in the big picture. It feels like hope has been slapped out of you a little, but then, you realise that if you don’t matter, none of your sorrows do either. You can run out on the streets naked tomorrow, and it wouldn’t matter. (JK please don’t.)

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

And of course, it’s poetry. We get a say in what it means for us, whether or not the poet’s intention had been the same. The poem is free to be the ninth grade analysis of it for you. We can all still choose to chase being different. We most definitely will, really. We can still choose to see the poem as the strength to make risky decisions. We will still choose to take pride in where we’ve come, and how it wouldn’t be what it is had we taken the other road.  

“Understanding hard choices in this way uncovers something about ourselves we didn’t know. Each of us has the power to create reasons.” 

We will continue to fit our perceptual bias on our hypothetical thinking. And that’s okay. This is the most remarkable feature of the poem for me, how it can encapsulate two strikingly different, mildly uncomfortable pictures of human nature and still tell us slyly, between the lines, that it’s okay. Our indecision. Our urge to satisfy our egos. Our failures. Our successes. It’s all okay.

And as for me, the poem and I have been on our own little road-not-taken for a while now.

 

There has been a time for the dreamy loophole of misplaced romanticism, I do not regret it. But encounters, like I said, leave their own mark. There is a time for the nuanced approach. It is now. Not to discard the romanticism or the quest for meaning in my choices, nor to attempt to escape the ironies that accompany this piece- no, that would be like disowning human nature, but only to be more balanced and aware in it. Now is the time to look into the mirror, see through the traps of who we are, and smile. Just smile. And (maybe, maybe not) that has made all the difference.

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