John Berryman was hardly unknown when he published 77 Dream Songs, but the volume was, nevertheless, a shock and a revelation. A "spooky" collection in the words of Robert Lowell-"a maddening work of genius."
As Henri Cole notes in his elegant, perceptive introduction, Berryman had discovered "a looser style that mixed high and low dictions with a strange syntax." Berryman had also discovered his most enduring alter ego, a paranoid, passionate, depressed, drunk, irrepressible antihero named Henry or, sometimes, Mr. Bones: "We touch at certain points," Berryman claimed, of Henry, "But I am an actual human being."
Henry may not be real, but he comes alive on the page. And while the most famous of the Dream Songs begins, "Life, friends, is boring," these poems never are. Henry lusts: seeing a woman "Filling her compact & delicious body / with chicken páprika" he can barely restrain himself: "only the fact of her husband & four other people / kept me from springing on her." Henry despairs: "All the world like a woolen lover / once did seem on Henry's side. / Then came a departure." Henry, afraid of his own violent urges, consoles himself: "Nobody is ever missing."
77 Dream Songs won the Pulitzer Prize in 1965, but Berryman's formal and emotional innovations-he cracks the language open, creates a new idiom in which to express eternal feelings-remain as alive and immediate today as ever.
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.