Saturday, June 1, 2013

Robert Frost, roads not taken, and the poetry of graduation

Graduation speeches make me tense.  The platitudes that saturate such occasions often leave me feeling more skeptical than inspired.  The speeches made at both my high school and college graduation quoted Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.”  In both instances the speaker talked about success and the path one travels toward it.  They both quoted the end of Frost’s poem where taking the road less traveled makes all the difference.  But neither speech tackled to the poem’s beginning: Frost’s description of two paths in a yellow wood bending into the undergrowth, “worn about the same,” two similar-looking trails that veered in opposite directions.  Frost writes, 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.  

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,/I doubted if I should ever come back. Those lines evoke so many instances for me: times when I've left jobs, people, places, relationships, with the wistful hope of returning, times when I've had to make a decision about the future, wishing that I could chose both roads. In my mind by focusing solely on the poem’s last line, the speakers at my commencements missed Frost’s point: the memory of not just the path traveled but the haunting image of the road not taken—the trail that gives the poem its title.

I think this part of the poem often gets ignored because it’s less straightforward, less inspirational.  But to me, this uncertainty isn’t depressing.  It resonates with my experiences of life: with the decisions we make and the way we amble through them, with the paths we trod and the paths we leave behind still wanting wear.  Both Kasey and Joe made choices that brought them here today.  Joe left his family, his high school, the cross country team he captained and the friends he felt familiar with to board at Holden and attend a tiny mountain school.  Kasey imagined her future half a dozen different ways, before she committed to spending the next four years at Boston University.  Both seniors sacrificed: for a path they’re still walking, toward to a future they cannot yet see.    There will be days when both Kasey and Joe will wonder about decisions they made and the places those decisions led them and there will be days when they step back, claiming their road with pride Frost’s narrator presents at the end of the poem, 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…

I love poetry because it’s sparse and imagistic.  It moves like memory, jumping from association to association in a stream of stories and words.  It’s dense with meaning but lingers on images instead of giving us answers.  When writer Cheryl Strayed was asked for advice she recommended buying ten books of poetry and reading them each five times.  When asked why she responded, “Because the truth is inside.” 
Truth unravels our stories, breaking them down to the memories which saturate our senses.  Wisdom doesn’t live in proclamations; it resides in the contradictions that complicate our character.  It’s beautiful in its vulnerability.

In one of my favorite poems, “The Two” by Philip Levine, a man and a woman meet outside a Detroit diner.  Levine writes, 
He's tired, a bit depressed, and smelling the exhaustion on his own breath, he kisses her carefully on her left cheek. Early April, and the weather has not decided if this is spring, winter, or what. The two gaze upwards at the sky which gives nothing away: the low clouds break here and there and let in tiny slices of a pure blue heaven. The day is like us, she thinks; it hasn't decided what to become.

The day is like us, she thinks; it hasn't decided what to become.  I love that line—how it says so much with so few words.  The image gives me a lens to think of my own becoming—my entry into adulthood—low clouds and pure blue slices of heaven, an April sky lit with change, still taking shape.  It’s a moment of promise and potential: a snippet of time when answers and destiny seem ephemeral compared to frying bacon, work-spent breath, poached eggs, and cloud-slivered sky. 
Joe Coffey and Kasey Shultz have a lot to be proud of abut the people they’re becoming:  both Holden graduates have high grade point averages, outstanding test scores, and scholarship offers from prestigious colleges, both graduates are kind community members and leaders the younger students look up to but if I were to write poems or essays or stories about Kasey and Joe those wouldn’t be the details I’d include.  I’d write about Joe Coffey’s half-built boat coming together piece-by-piece on the platform behind my chalet.  I’d write about his paint stained shoes, wood-warn hands, and the crowd that gathers around him every night to watch him construct the vessel he hopes to sail out of the village.  I’d write about Kasey’s braided hair brushing her shoulders as she sits cross-legged on the Kirchner’s couch reading Mary Oliver poems aloud at Poetry Club.  I’d write about the poems she wrote on neon pink sticky notes every day in December and the way they decorated my desk for months, reminding me of ice cream flavors, flirting with babies, and the sun spattered mid-winter sky.  
Both Joe and Kasey are driven and motivated, intelligent and thoughtful.  So what I want for them is more than success.  I want wisdom and insight.  I want boat-building and poem writing, sun speckled braids and saw-dusted feet.  I want them to continue to be as vulnerable to life as they are now--brave enough to fail and courageous enough to look back and wonder.  I want them to get their hands dirty and stop for snacks, to walk the shoulders of back roads and drive two lane highways.  I want them to reflect on both the paths they took and the ones they didn’t with an honesty that leaves them vulnerable to both regret and joy--and when I see them again in future years I want to hear their poems and their stories: their low clouds breaking into pure blue heaven.  
(Sing Holden Prayer of Good Courage) O God you have called us to ventures of which we cannot see the end, by paths never yet taken, through perils unknown. Give us good courage, not knowing where we go, to know that your hand is leading us, wherever we may go. Amen.


  1. Rachael... those two very fine young persons have been fortunate to 'have you in their corner' over the past months of the school year. Looking forward to your visit with us .... John and Tamara

  2. this is simply beautiful. what a gifted writer you are! great to meet you when I visited in May.
    Amy Huacani