The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong

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A cultural “biography” of Robert Frost’s beloved poem, arguably the most popular piece of literature written by an American

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . .” One hundred years after its first publication in August 1915, Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” is so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget that it is, in fact, a poem. Yet poetry it is, and Frost’s immortal lines remain unbelievably popular. And yet in spite of this devotion, almost everyone gets the poem hopelessly wrong.
 

David Orr’s The Road Not Taken dives directly into the controversy, illuminating the poem’s enduring greatness while revealing its mystifying contradictions. Widely admired as the poetry columnist for The New York Times Book Review, Orr is the perfect guide for lay readers and experts alike. Orr offers a lively look at the poem’s cultural influence, its artistic complexity, and its historical journey from the margins of the First World War all the way to its canonical place today as a true masterpiece of American literature.
 

“The Road Not Taken” seems straightforward: a nameless traveler is faced with a choice: two paths forward, with only one to walk. And everyone remembers the traveler taking “the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” But for a century readers and critics have fought bitterly over what the poem really says. Is it a paean to triumphant self-assertion, where an individual boldly chooses to live outside conformity? Or a biting commentary on human self-deception, where a person chooses between identical roads and yet later romanticizes the decision as life altering?

What Orr artfully reveals is that the poem speaks to both of these impulses, and all the possibilities that lie between them. The poem gives us a portrait of choice without making a decision itself. And in this, “The Road Not Taken” is distinctively American, for the United States is the country of choice in all its ambiguous splendor.

Published for the poem’s centennial—along with a new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Frost’s poems, edited and introduced by Orr himself—The Road Not Taken is a treasure for all readers, a triumph of artistic exploration and cultural investigation that sings with its own unforgettably poetic voice.

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About the author

David Orr is the poetry columnist for The New York Times Book Review. He is the winner of the Nona Balakian Prize from the National Book Critics Circle, and his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, Slate, and The Yale Review. He holds a BA from Princeton and a JD from Yale Law School, and is a visiting professor at Cornell University.
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Additional Information

Publisher
Penguin
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Published on
Aug 18, 2015
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Pages
176
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ISBN
9780698140899
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Features
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Language
English
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Genres
History / United States / General
Literary Criticism / Poetry
Poetry / American / General
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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A collection of reviews and essays by David Orr, the New York Times poetry columnist and one of the most respected critics in America today, his best work of the past fifteen years in one place
 
Poetry is never more vital, meaningful, or accessible than in the hands of David Orr. In the pieces collected here, most of them written originally for the New York Times, Orr is at his rigorous, conversational, and edifying best. Whether he is considering the careers of contemporary masters, such as Louise Glück or Frederick Seidel, sizing up younger American poets, like Matthea Harvey and Matthew Zapruder, or even turning his attention to celebrities and public figures, namely Oprah Winfrey and Stephen Fry, when they choose to wade into the hotly contested waters of the poetry world, Orr is never any less than fully persuasive in arguing what makes a poem or poet great—or not. After all, as Orr points out in his introduction, “Poetry is a lot like America, in the sense that liking all of it means that you probably shouldn’t be trusted with money, or scissors.”
 
Orr’s prose is devoted to common sense and clarity, and, in every case, he brings to bear an impeccable ear, an openhandedness of spirit, and a deep wealth of technical knowledge—to say nothing of his shrewd sense of humor. As pleasurable as it is informative, Orr’s journalism represents a high watermark in the public discussion of literature. You, Too, Could Write a Poem is at heart a love note to poetry itself.


From the Trade Paperback edition.
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A collection of reviews and essays by David Orr, the New York Times poetry columnist and one of the most respected critics in America today, his best work of the past fifteen years in one place
 
Poetry is never more vital, meaningful, or accessible than in the hands of David Orr. In the pieces collected here, most of them written originally for the New York Times, Orr is at his rigorous, conversational, and edifying best. Whether he is considering the careers of contemporary masters, such as Louise Glück or Frederick Seidel, sizing up younger American poets, like Matthea Harvey and Matthew Zapruder, or even turning his attention to celebrities and public figures, namely Oprah Winfrey and Stephen Fry, when they choose to wade into the hotly contested waters of the poetry world, Orr is never any less than fully persuasive in arguing what makes a poem or poet great—or not. After all, as Orr points out in his introduction, “Poetry is a lot like America, in the sense that liking all of it means that you probably shouldn’t be trusted with money, or scissors.”
 
Orr’s prose is devoted to common sense and clarity, and, in every case, he brings to bear an impeccable ear, an openhandedness of spirit, and a deep wealth of technical knowledge—to say nothing of his shrewd sense of humor. As pleasurable as it is informative, Orr’s journalism represents a high watermark in the public discussion of literature. You, Too, Could Write a Poem is at heart a love note to poetry itself.


From the Trade Paperback edition.
The Delaware Valley is a distinct region situated within the Middle Atlantic states, encompassing portions of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland. With its cultural epicenter of Philadelphia, its surrounding bays and ports within Maryland and Delaware, and its conglomerate population of European settlers, Native Americans, and enslaved Africans, the Delaware Valley was one of the great cultural hearths of early America. The region felt the full brunt of the American Revolution, briefly served as the national capital in the post-Revolutionary period, and sheltered burgeoning industries amidst the growing pains of a young nation. Yet, despite these distinctions, the Delaware Valley has received less scholarly treatment than its colonial equals in New England and the Chesapeake region.
In Historical Archaeology of the Delaware Valley, 1600–1850, Richard Veit and David Orr bring together fifteen essays that represent the wide range of cultures, experiences, and industries that make this region distinctly American in its diversity. From historic-period American Indians living in a rapidly changing world to an archaeological portrait of Benjamin Franklin, from an eighteenth-century shipwreck to the archaeology of Quakerism, this volume highlights the vast array of research being conducted throughout the region. Many of these sites discussed are the locations of ongoing excavations, and archaeologists and historians alike continue to debate the region’s multifaceted identity.
The archaeological stories found within Historical Archeology of the Delaware Valley, 1600–1850 reflect the amalgamated heritage that many American regions experienced, though the Delaware Valley certainly exemplifies a richer experience than most: it even boasts the palatial home of a king (Joseph Bonaparte, elder brother of Napoleon and former King of Naples and Spain). This work, thoroughly based on careful archaeological examination, tells the stories of earlier generations in the Delaware Valley and makes the case that New England and the Chesapeake are not the only cultural centers of colonial America.
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