Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong, David Orr, 2015
Other than the flaky title (though, I must admit that it is spot on!), this is a lovely little book. Orr, the poetry critic for the NYT Book Review, takes on Robert Frost, his poem The Road Not Taken, and America’s rugged individualism in extra-ordinary and sometimes, excruciating detail. In four chapters on the poet, the poem, the choice, and the chooser, Orr argues that almost all of the “90,000 high school valedictorians” get this poem wrong. Having chosen The Road Not Taken for my own high school valedictory in 1963, I could have taken umbrage, but he’s absolutely correct. What most of us interpreted as a paean to the individual making a courageous and against-the-grain choice which then ‘made all the difference’, Orr points out is really a subtle and complicated argument against ‘choice’ and a balancing of free will, determinism, and our life’s narrative. Orr gets into the struggles over Frost’s reputation, over free will and determinism (do we really make choices?), and over America’s emphasis on the individual vs. the collective. This is an excellent book, closely argued, and worth the time, especially if you chose this poem for your high school valedictory!