VerseDay: Poetry really does matter

FrostOn Wednesday, I “officially” became a journalist. Through the encouragement of several of my fellow Scrogues here, and my work on a number of issues that I’ve published here, I was accepted for membership by the Society of Environmental Journalists and received notice of my acceptance Wednesday.

It’s an absolutely wild feeling, a strange combination of elation and apprehension. It’s my first real step toward following my passion – writing – and if that step was toward journalism instead of fiction, then that means my need to write has become more encompassing than I anticipated a few years ago. My blogging, combined with finally self-publishing my first “short” story in December, makes me feel like I’m actually making progress toward being an honest-to-the-gods writer. My utter lack of progress on this goal for many years had bothered me a great deal.

But at the same time, I have no professional training as a journalist – I’m trained as an electrical engineer. I’ve never worked for a news outlet as a journalist, and as valuable as I consider my work here at S&R, it’s never really felt like a “real” journalism endeavor as I expect working for a newspaper, magazine, or broadcast media outlet might. At this point it’s been 17 years since I last took a writing class and all of my recent self-education has been in creating plotlines, characters, and describing settings for speculative fiction, not fact and science-based journalism or opinion writing. So what the hell do I think I’m doing applying for membership in a journalism organization?

Even after I submitted the application, I wasn’t convinced that it was the right thing to do. But then this comic strip combined in some dusty recess of my mind with one of the more famous works of Robert Frost, a poem that I’ve been drawn to since I was in high school.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
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.
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 cannot say with any certainty that I’ve started down my own road less traveled, feeling as I do that I’ve got one foot on each and knowing that my family cannot afford to have me resign my engineering position in order to naively pursue a starving writer career. But somehow the power of this poem has given me the strength to continue on with both as best I can.

And maybe I’ll find, somewhere ages and ages hence, that my combined engineering/writer career has become my own road less traveled by.

Thanks to all my fellow Scrogues who have encouraged me to write and, ultimately, to apply to the SEJ. All of you have offered direct and indirect encouragement over the last year, and that has helped me in ways that you may never realize and that I can probably never properly explain.

19 replies »

  1. Congrats and best of luck with the SEJ. Of course, that Frost poem is arguably the most misunderstood bit of writing in the English language, so maybe it makes no difference at all… 🙂

  2. I’ll never claim that the author’s intent doesn’t matter, but there’s a point where your own personal meaning matters too. This is especially true of poetry, where layers of meaning can be built up dot by dot like a Seurat, surreal like a Magritte or Dali, dribbled out like a Pollack, or cut out into Mondrian patterns.

  3. I’ve always thought this poem might be the ultimate test on the intent vs interp question. What do you do when the reader – MOST readers, in fact – decided to interpret the work to mean the exact OPPOSITE of what the author intended?

  4. Brian,

    Congratulations and job well done. You deserve the recognition and I see only good things ahead.

  5. It’s not an either/or, as I’ve noted in discussions here before. Even the most self-aware of artists are doing things they’re not fully conscious of, which means that the reader needs to engage the work in an act of collaborative meaning-making. But if the author’s intent matters not at all, then why is the reader’s dumb ass wasting time reading? Just make whatever meaning you want out of thin air and move along.

    I guess I learned in a context that trusted the writer to know what he or she was doing and it was incumbent on me to begin by trying to understand what that intent was. You then go from there. But it’s just like if we’re talking to each other. I say something to you, and you’re ideally trying to understand what I’m saying. After you satisfy that task, then you consider what else I might be communicating and even ways where I might be unreliable as a communicator.

  6. Conrgratulations, Brian. You’re making yourself useful* as a writer — the first step to making money.

    *Writing something beside fiction or opinion.

  7. I studied this poem in gory detail when I was younger, Sam, so I understand what you’re saying. It’s abundantly clear that Frost is talking as a man at the end of his life and reflecting back on the decisions he’s made rather than as a person in the present trying to choose a path forward. The final line, combined with his “sigh” comment, also makes it clear that his reflections aren’t necessarily the happiest things in the world either. Taking the road less traveled wasn’t necessarily the best choice, and the title of the poem is very much about the road he didn’t take rather than the one he did take.

    “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is a little easier to get, but there’s nearly as much confusion about it as there is this poem.

    I like to think I understand this poem well enough that I’m comfortable with taking my own meaning, independently and in combination with Frost’s intent, from it.

    The fact that this poem is read so often opposite of Frost’s intent is part of the reason I enjoy his work as much as I do. Many of Frost’s poems are like this.

  8. i guess i really don’t get the controversy. it’s written in past tense, ain’t it? so it’s reflective. how else would you interpret it?

  9. Most people interpret it to mean that taking the road less traveled matters. Frost was being ironic – in fact, taking the road less traveled mattered not in the least.

  10. Congratulations Brian! I have been always very impressed by the depth of research and the attention you have put into your environmental column. Most blogs seem to be more of a snapshot of the person’s mindset or a knee-jerk reaction to current events (ie -my last post here), but I really appreciate the effort it takes to create and convey a coherent argument or informative article. Your posts would be equally at home on a scientific journal’s blog. You, sir, put the “scholar” in Scholars and Rogues. 🙂

    And I didn’t know you posted a story online. I’ve got it bookmarked for this evening’s bus trip.

  11. I’m glad to hear it acknowledged that intent vs. interpretation is not an either/or question, particularly since innumerable writers have talked about their own surprising discoveries upon revisiting their earlier work. There is conscious intent, purposeful craft… and then there is always, always the unknowable subterranean pool of influences on even the most self-expressive human mind.

    No text is holy writ, no author’s work is above question or examination, and no critic’s judgment is the final word, Harold Bloom be damned. Sure, there’s always the complete asshat, generally working on a thesis, who insists on stretching the bounds of reasonable interpretation to the point of idiocy. But that leaves a wide fair field for intelligent speculation, doesn’t it?

    And even if that magic 1-800-ASK-WILL hotline did exist, I have a feeling that the Bard would be too damn busy to answer the phone. Busy writing.

    Bravo, Brian.

  12. Brian,

    Of all people, I can relate to this. I, too, walk a delicate balance between the career I need to pay my bills (technical writing/Web design) and the career that fulfills me (journalism and punditry). You need the one for stability and solvency, and the other for professional and personal satisfaction. And I have no doubt you can do it–your skill at crafting the work you post here is proof that you can make it happen.

    Congratulations. 🙂

  13. Sam,

    As I said before, the greatest works often grow larger than themselves and take on unintended meanings and unforeseen consequences. This criticism of “The Road Not Taken” addresses the issue well, if a touch snobbishly.

    I respect plain, honest communication, where the writer doesn’t feed it to you with a spoon, but nor does he bury his true meaning under ironic reversals and twists of language to the point where what he’s saying and what you are hearing bear no resemblance to one another.

    Sometimes it matters more to say what’s on your mind than it does to prove to the reader just how smart you are.

  14. I don’t deny that the ironic interpretation is what Frost intended – I can quite easily read the poem in such a way without any trouble. As with most art, however, it’s very difficult (if not actually impossible) to separate intent from interpretation within the confines of the art itself. Only with additional information from an external perspective (ie Frost himself) can we truly know intent, which we thankfully have in this case.

    I will admit, however, that until this discussion, I had either not heard or not remembered that Frost’s intent was to be ironic.

    I suppose then, by nature of the failure of this Frost poem, he exceeded his intent entirely unintentionally.

  15. I don’t know, Brian. Sometimes you need external contextual information, but in the case of this specific poem I think there’s plenty to make his intent clear unless you proceed from an assumption that a writer is never ironic. I mean, look at what you’re being told by the narrative and ask yourself a simple question: in what way has taking the road less traveled made a difference and what evidence is provided?

  16. None, of course, which is your point. But similarly, there is no evidence to suggest that he is being ironic either – there’s nothing at all.

    Which is probably why so many people have felt so free to interpret this poem in such grand fashion – it’s so wide-open that it allows the reader to paint their own meaning upon it.