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Blog

The Difference

William Coleman

27 diverged woods For years I’ve held my hat in hand after reading “The Road Not Taken” aloud to my eleventh-grade American literature students. Giving voice to a poem made wholly of ambiguity, I tell them, whose mazy lines mocked Frost’s indecisive friend Edward Thomas into war, forces interpretation. I must utter the final stanza’s sigh with something akin to regret, or bewilderment, or sorrow, or satisfaction. I must incline the final line down the path of ruefulness, or complaint, or self-deception, or self-motivation—or even triumph. 

The same poem-limiting phenomenon occurs when I utter "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" and follow its hypnotic beauty—"the only other sound's the sweep / of easy wind and downy flake"—until I find myself saying the final two lines as though tranced, captured by a drowsy globe, lulled toward dangerous sleep.

I am doing injustice to the poem, I tell my students, by saying it out loud. But what else, I’m quick to add, can I do? It’s impossible to say a poem while admitting two mutually exclusive interpretations of its tone. An actor, in one breath, cannot play rue and self-conceit.

But, of course, as is the case when anyone tries to say anything definitive about Frost (or about acting, for that matter), I was misguided. There are, at least (I think), two ways.

The first was found by contemporary poet Dana Gioia. In this recording, made for the participants of Poetry Out Loud—an annual recitation contest for high school students—Gioia, a gregarious former advertising executive whose reading of his own work is mellifluous and expressive, shuts off personality altogether. He presents the poem as though narrating historical events in an educational filmstrip from the 1950s.

The method is ingenious, but takes the risk of troubling the air by withholding what the air most desires from poetry, what Frost’s poem possesses in pure abundance: unabashed musicality.

That is why Robert Frost’s own method of expressing the poem publicly is so extraordinary, nearly as worthy of admiration as the poem itself. I’m shamed to confess that his recitations used to baffle me. I’d cite them when shaking my head about poets who, for reasons I could not fathom, were unable to read their own work well. So devoid of emotion! It’s as through he’s singing a tuneless song!

As it turns out, I was right, without knowing the reason—and have been apologizing to my students for the wrong reason. Reading Frost’s work aloud diminishes it only if one reads it aloud the way I do, demanding self-expression. It’s not how Frost does it.

The tone and tenor of Robert Frost’s best poems is ambiguous; their music goes beyond and beneath personality. What else can he do, to do them justice? He chants.