“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. . .”
–Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”
In this iconic but oft-misinterpreted poem about decision-making, Robert Frost’s speaker describes the state of all our lives: we cannot have all that we want, but we wish that we could.
I teach my students (based upon the thinking of Dr. Louise Cowan) that poetry is based on the longing for an ideal world. Dr. Cowan calls this the “garden,” the place of primordial harmony, the place where the world is as it should be, where we can enjoy our rightful immortality.
Because we can’t actually reach the ideal world in reality, we can only experience it in fleeting glimpses: being with those we love, experiencing attunement with nature, losing ourselves in art or the beauty of language. In moments like these, time, it seems, halts and we are, for an instant, immortal.
Outside of these fleeting glimpses, we are left to choose between less-than-ideal alternatives. Frost’s speaker must choose a road, longing to experience both, perhaps even longing that the roads could merge into one path, but knowing that he won’t have the time or resources to experience all he wants. His choice is in itself a reminder that the ideal world exists just outside our grasp. Reality demands that most of our choices be second best.
These second best choices create complex emotions. Just as the speaker of Frost’s poem is “sorry [he] could not travel both,” we often want both alternatives involved in any choice because what we really want is to not have to make a choice at all.
But we do have to choose; we have to settle for the less-than-ideal world. We make a choice after careful consideration, and we proceed to the consequences of that decision and to the next choice. Still, along the way, if we are honest enough to listen carefully, a small voice lingers, whispering “And yet. . . .”
From this complexity, from the reality of second best choices, from the “And yet,” poetry arises.
Recently, I have tried to teach students to analyze poetry by identifying its central underlying complexity. For students just becoming comfortable with poetry, this recognition can be difficult. They want to think of complexity as before and after or cause and effect: first the speaker feels this, and then he feels that. First I will choose this road, and then I will take the other.
But complexity arises from feelings that occur simultaneously, from the desire to travel both roads at once, possibilities that are closed to mortal beings. Just as Frost’s poem is titled “The Road Not Taken,” and not the common misattribution “The Road Less Traveled,” complexity originates from the “And yet. . .”
For many young people, this is the first time in their lives when they are faced with life-altering decisions that they must make on their own. They are full of complex emotions as they try to decide whether or where to attend college and what they should pursue for a career path. The future is full of possibilities, but they are, perhaps for the first time, understanding that choices also limit possibilities.
As their teacher, I spend much of the year trying to guide them emotionally and intellectually through these choices. And then comes the spring of the senior year. Their choices begin to be solidified, and they have chosen their roads. Still somewhat fearful, they begin to feel just a little bit settled.
And yet. . . for me, no time of year holds more simultaneous emotions, more longing for impossibility, more complexity, than this.
Right around May 1st, people start asking me, “Well, are you ready for summer?” or “Aren’t you so ready to be done with school?”
I can honestly answer yes.
Yes, I am exhausted. Yes, I am ready to sleep in and inhale books and go to the water park and see family.
I am ready for a few months in which I don’t have to ignore the work I should be doing in order to relax for a bit.
And yet. . .
I can honestly answer no.
My students are high school seniors, and if all goes as it should, they won’t return to campus next year.
I’m never really ready to say goodbye.
I am proud of all that they have accomplished and all the ways I have watched them grow over throughout their senior year; if I have done my job right, this growth should mean that they don’t need my class anymore.
And yet. . . in my ideal world, I could continue to witness their growth and talk to them whenever I want while still setting them free.
These are my second best choices. This is my complexity.
I am so ready to say goodbye to grading papers and calling parents and freaking out over students in trouble and attending meetings and filling out bucket loads of paperwork.
And yet. . . saying goodbye to the drudgery of my job for a few months also means saying goodbye to the young men and women I have developed relationships with over the course of a school year.
In my ideal world, I could have a break from work while still keeping all my students with me. I could travel both roads and be one traveler.
But as Frost’s speaker says, “way leads on to way.” They must go, and I must travel forth on my own roads, my own journey, my own possibilities that lie ahead of me. They and I must each leave this yellow wood and journey on the path we have chosen to paths we know not yet.
We, like Frost’s speaker, have a story to tell of our time together, a story that he promises to tell with “a sigh.” Much has been made of that ambiguous word “sigh,” but I choose to appropriate its ambiguity deliberately here. There are many sighs in the moments of immortality we have forged together this year: sighs of understanding in deep conversations, sighs of incredulity at hilarious mispronunciations, sighs of understanding at moments of enlightenment or stacks of books shared, sighs of appreciation at snarky jokes, even sighs of frustration at the misunderstandings and irritations. We will be able to tell, whatever the emotion, the stories we have made together for “ages and ages hence.”
For 9 short but meaningful months we have tended a garden and arrested time. We have lived in poetry, and that has made all the difference.