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The Most Misread Poem in America

September 11, 2015 | by

Everyone knows Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”—and almost everyone gets it wrong.

Frost in 1913.

From The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong, a new book by David Orr.

A young man hiking through a forest is abruptly confronted with a fork in the path. He pauses, his hands in his pockets, and looks back and forth between his options. As he hesitates, images from possible futures flicker past: the young man wading into the ocean, hitchhiking, riding a bus, kissing a beautiful woman, working, laughing, eating, running, weeping. The series resolves at last into a view of a different young man, with his thumb out on the side of a road. As a car slows to pick him up, we realize the driver is the original man from the crossroads, only now he’s accompanied by a lovely woman and a child. The man smiles slightly, as if confident in the life he’s chosen and happy to lend that confidence to a fellow traveler. As the car pulls away and the screen is lit with gold—for it’s a commercial we’ve been watching—the emblem of the Ford Motor Company briefly appears.

The advertisement I’ve just described ran in New Zealand in 2008. And it is, in most respects, a normal piece of smartly assembled and quietly manipulative product promotion. But there is one very unusual aspect to this commercial. Here is what is read by a voice-over artist, in the distinctive vowels of New Zealand, as the young man ponders his choice: Read More »

David Orr: Lost in the Archives, Summer 1996

August 8, 2011 | by

A. R. Ammons.

“Locality,” said Frost, “gives art.” It’s an aphorism that directs us toward, well, directions. But when we’re talking about space, we’re also usually talking about time—which means it’s important to think about when, not just where, an artist finds the locality that’s going to be doing the giving.

These questions have particular relevance to the Summer 1996 issue of The Paris Review because the subject of “The Art of Poetry” interview is A. R. Ammons. Ammons has been slightly out of fashion since his death in 2001—fame, as Emily Dickinson observed, is fickle food—but he was a bracingly intelligent writer, and his relationship to the idea of place is intriguing. In part, it’s intriguing because he can’t seem to determine whether he is actually Southern after having lived for three decades in the north. Consider:

INTERVIEWER: You’ve spent more time in the north [at Cornell].

AMMONS: Much more. I lived the first twenty-four years in the South. I’ve been in Ithaca more than thirty years.

INTERVIEWER: Are you conscious of being a Southerner here?

AMMONS: I don’t hear my own voice, but of course everyone else does, and I’m sure they’re all conscious of the fact that I’m Southern, but I am mostly not conscious of it. In the first years, I was tremendously nostalgic, constantly longing for the South: for one’s life, for one’s origin, for one’s kindred. Now I feel more at home here than I would in the South. But I don’t feel at home—I’ll never feel at home—anywhere.

On one hand, this is the kind of thing poets like to say because it recalls the expatriate glamour of the early twentieth century (“I have beaten out my exile,” announced Pound, in the most self-satisfied formulation of this maneuver). On the other hand, Ammons wasn’t just a poet. Read More »


David Orr: Lost in the Archives, December 1985

May 9, 2011 | by

Philip Larkin.

Philip Larkin was the first poet I understood. He wasn’t the first poet I could write a reasonably coherent college essay about (that was probably George Herbert), nor was he the first poet whose poems I memorized (Vachel Lindsay, although in fairness, I was twelve). But Larkin was the first poet whose sensibility I felt I grasped in most of its dimensions: he appeared not as a blueprint, but as an actual structure. And a very peculiar structure at that. When I think of Larkin, I imagine a cathedral filled with cheap gray metal desks, or possibly a strip mall with a belfry. Indeed, Larkin combines so many opposed elements of lyric tradition and modern consciousness that he comes close to being the writerly equivalent of a folly—and he has a folly’s ability to seem simultaneously monumental and embarrassingly personal.

Yet people still often describe this complicated figure in one of two fairly straightforward ways. The first is to claim that Larkin is a wry poet of good-natured grumbling and resolute sanity, a portrait that has the virtue of being so inaccurate as to form a likeness in negative. The second way, which became more prevalent after Andrew Motion’s dirt-dishing biography was published, is to claim that Larkin was a nasty man whose poems are filled with secret nastiness that reveals the fundamental nastiness of … well, something really nasty. Great Britain, maybe. (I’ve written about some of these issues before; you can read further here, if you’re curious.)

Maybe it’s enough to say that Larkin—like Stevie Smith, like Bishop—is the kind of poet we seem bent on reducing, in part because he often seems desperately eager to contain something about himself. One of the more interesting perspectives on Larkin appears in an essay by Donald Justice from 1995. Justice’s nominal subject is Larkin’s short yet masterful poem “Coming,” but the real topic is exactly this kind of restraint:

It has been claimed for Larkin that he was never sentimental, never brutal. But the truth is that I find him both sentimental and brutal, though in different poems, or in different parts of the same poem … Irony, diffidence, skepticism, wit: not all of these together are enough to keep out a certain unreasonableness of feeling—the sentiment, the sentimentality—that keeps rising up out of Larkin’s poems. Actually, it is what saves them. Doesn’t everybody really know this?

Everybody doesn’t know it, actually. Even now.

Read More »


David Orr: Lost in the Archives, Spring 1974

April 18, 2011 | by

W. H. Auden.

The best thing about The Paris Review, aside from the editors’ formidable liquor stash, is the magazine’s sense of history. Sure, there are older American literary journals (The Yale Review was founded, no joke, in 1819), but The Paris Review has had a consistent idea of itself for longer than many publications that predate its debut in 1953. Of course, that consistency makes some aspects of the magazine vulnerable to, oh, for example, parody. But it also makes The Paris Review’s archive a useful tool with which to survey an art—and one’s personal response to that art—over several decades. So for the next month or so, that’s what I’ll be doing for the gracious and impeccably shirted Lorin Stein, and the equally gracious (and presumably impeccably shirted) Thessaly La Force.

Let’s begin at the beginning, which for me was the spring of 1974.

In the poetry world, this was a season of uncertainty and transition, as seasons in the poetry world so often are. The popularity of the “deep image” style associated with James Wright and W. S. Merwin was just beginning to wane; John Ashbery was on the brink of arriving at his full prominence (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror would complete the only hat trick in the history of the major poetry awards in 1975); and W. H. Auden, whose hand both stirred and hindered several currents in American poetry, had died only a few months earlier. In fact, Auden is the subject of the “Art of Poetry” interview in the Spring 1974 issue, lending a poignant touch to that meticulously casual series. This being Auden, things get pretty droll pretty quickly:

INTERVIEWER:  Do you have any aids for inspiration?

AUDEN:  I never write when I’m drunk.


INTERVIEWER:  Have you read, or tried to read, Finnegans Wake?

AUDEN:  I’m not very good on Joyce.  Obviously he’s a very great genius—but his work is simply too long.

Read More »