Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Graduation Fare

I'm sure you've read it. Everyone has. And everyone and their grandmother knows the last three lines by heart:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

 Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." I wrote a post today over at Hey Look! Books! mocking it. It was fun, but I found myself mocking the reader more than the poem or the writer. You see, it's a good poem and an easy read, but it's so deeply misunderstood by the general populace that it's hard not to make fun of people for getting it so wrong.

Those three lines quoted above are all that most people really know of the poem. If they read the poem or hear it recited, their minds glaze over the bits they don't recognize, like someone mumbling along to the lyrics of a pop song until they hit that catchy chorus. My favorite example of this phenomenon is Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al" - a deep song with beautiful lyrics in the verses, but damn that crazy, catchy chorus, upbeat music, and that silly video! Makes it easy to forget it's a song about people finding themselves in desperate situations where they don't know what to do.

"The Road Not Taken" may not have a catchy chorus, but those last three lines do the same thing. It's upbeat, it's what people want to think of themselves as doing. It rhymes and has a nice rhythm to it, so it's easy to remember.

If you stroll on over to my other post, or to this one if you want a more professional read, or simply read the poem again, you'll find that "The Road Not Taken" is not about taking the less-traveled path and having that choice change your life for the better. It's the story of a man who chose one of two equally-trodden paths and who then plans on lying about the situation in the future to make himself look more impressive. Seriously, read the poem. That's what it's about. Here, read 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
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.

 Just in case anyone wants me to spell it out for them, note that, in the second stanza, the two roads are described as "just as fair," and that "the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same." Then, in case the reader missed that clue, Frost continues in the third stanza by stating "both that morning equally lay/ In leaves no step had trodden black." It could not be clearer that essentially the same number of people have traveled both roads, and that no one had walked down either of the roads that morning. There is no "road less traveled by." 

What there is is a planned lie, spelled out in those final cherished lines. He tells the lie "with a sigh" because he's being overly-dramatic. He's weaving a story to make himself look special - he did what so few chose to do, and that choice has rewarded him handsomely. 

At the very least, that positive outcome has been assumed by everyone who gifts graduates with copies of this poem in one form or another. Is it implied in the poem? Yeah, pretty much. I mean, it's unlikely that you'd lie to someone claiming that this unpopular decision you made is the cause of all your sorrow. The truth would work out so much better for your ego in that case. You'd say, "well, both choices were equally popular, I -- I took a gamble on one and it didn't pay off. Not my fault, just bad luck."

When you make the decision buy a recent graduate a "Road Not Taken" mug rather than yet another copy of "Oh, The Places You'll Go!" you might think you're sending the message that said graduate is a person who makes their own decisions, rather than just doing what's popular, and that that mindset will pay off for them in the end. However, it seems you're really telling them to be a lying, self-aggrandizing, insufferable little prick.

Or, you may simply be telling them that all choices are about equal, it doesn't really matter what choice they make, so long as they can conjure up a good story about it later, if it works out for them.

And really, in the current job market, maybe that's the message you should want to be sending. 

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