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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Frost’

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 »

Staff Picks: Peasantry, Propaganda, Playground Crises

May 29, 2015 | by


A still from Forbidden Films: a nitrate film vault in the Federal Film Archive in Hoppegarten, Germany.

9781555974466After several years of hearing Norwegians describe Dag Solstad as their greatest living novelist, I finally read Shyness & Dignity—and got some idea of what the fuss is all about. Like the title, the plot is defiantly unprepossessing: a high school teacher notices something new about the play he’s teaching (for the umpteenth time), and this discovery triggers an existential crisis on the playground. The part that every Norwegian remembers is when the hero beats his umbrella to death against a water fountain, but behind this moment of high drama lies an amazingly compact story of one career, two marriages, and the history of Western philosophy, with particular attention to Kant and 1968. It is suggestive, sad, and extremely funny. I’ve already forced my copy on a friend. —Lorin Stein

Felix Moeller’s disturbing new documentary, Forbidden Filmsbegins outside the fortified bunker where Nazi propaganda films, still banned by the German government, are stored. There’s such a high quantity of nitro-celluloid, an archivist tells the camera, that the facility officially qualifies as an explosive device. It’s a somewhat heavy-handed attempt to literalize Moeller’s central metaphor: seventy years after their creation, the films still have the capacity to ignite controversy and endanger viewers. Moeller documents the rare screenings the government allows, as audiences turn up in droves for … what, exactly? the novelty? the danger? a dose of national guilt? (Film archives take note: turns out you can sell out a black-and-white movie just by slapping on a ringing endorsement from Joseph Goebbels.) I left the theater stunned at the propaganda films’ ability to grab and sway 2015 audiences—to frighten elderly Germans, to shock students, and to galvanize neo-Nazis, who still use the films to attract teenage followers. It’s worth seeing the look on the face of a middle-aged German man as he walks out of a screening and praises an anti-Polish film for its educational qualities: more people should know, he says, that it was really the Polish who started Word War II by persecuting and interning ethnic Germans. —Rebecca Panovka
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Architectural Blasphemy, and Other News

April 20, 2015 | by

Le Corbusier’s Dom-Ino House, 1914.

  • Readings from Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, and Czesław Miłosz are among the new recordings released by the Library of Congress, which has finally digitized some seventy-five years of magnetic-tape reels.
  • Poetry is, to some extent, the art of “anti-aphorism,” “seemingly wise but ultimately ungraspable”: “I believe that to read poetry, one must have a mind of poetry. You must enter a state where you come to understand meaning-resistant arrangements of language as having their own kind of meaning. It’s quite similar to those Magic Eye posters from the nineties: If you haven’t figured out how to look at them, you can’t believe that anyone really sees the dolphin.”
  • In late eighteenth-century London, Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies served as a kind of vade mecum for the seasoned brothel-goer, endeavoring to list “the most celebrated ladies now on the town.” It was so salacious that its creators eventually wound up in jail. A sample listing for one Mrs. Banner speaks of her “irresistible eye”; her “favourite spot below” apparently “calls for the Priapian weapon,” eager “to receive it in her sheath at its most powerful thrust up to the hilt.”
  • In the early twentieth century, Le Corbusier concocted Maison Dom-Ino, a blueprint for standardized housing with all the hallmarks of modernism: he envisioned a skeletal structure of concrete slabs. His idea was never realized, but decades later, Italian architects borrowed liberally from his designs, and now Maison Dom-Ino rip-offs freckle the countryside: “It’s a design innovation that’s been turned into something, especially in Italy, that is regarded as something completely the opposite. It’s a form of architectural blasphemy. It became synonymous with an eyesore, and a dilapidated landscape.”
  • On Frank Stanford’s new collected poems, What About This: “More than anything, like Basho, like Li Po, like Emily Dickinson and Yeats, Stanford was a poet of the moon. The moon cycles through nearly every of his poems. And it’s never the same moon sliver. The moon gravitates as a  ‘beautiful white spider,’ ‘a dead man floating down the river,’ ‘a woman in a red dress / standing on the beach.’ It’s ‘a plate with no supper,’ ‘a clock with twelve numbers,’ it’s ‘swollen up / like a mosquito’s belly’ … ”

Conservative Radicals

March 26, 2015 | by

frost meet the press

Frost on Meet the Press in 1955.

First, a general note: At what point do we stop celebrating the birthdays of the deceased? Yes, Robert Frost was born on this day in 1874, and yes, that would make him 141 today—had not death intervened in 1963, when, at eighty-eight, Frost had already been around for a good while. At a certain point, can’t we just say that today is “the anniversary of his birth”? The word birthday no longer seems to apply—in the normal range of things, it starts to feel a bit macabre. One begins to imagine cakes and party hats on gravestones. Read More »

Mending Wall

September 23, 2014 | by

Photo: Nigel Mykura

Colette once wrote that it’s impossible to write about love while you’re in it. (I’m paraphrasing.) I think the same is true of depression, although for different reasons. Love is too euphoric; depression is too tedious. It is not dramatic, it is not romantic. It is boring—to experience, to be around, to recollect. The rest of the time, when one is well, it is interesting only to the extent that a structurally unsound house is interesting to live in—you don’t think about it most of the time, and then occasionally you’re reminded to be careful, or to shore it up. (I can’t continue that metaphor because I have no idea how one goes about strengthening buildings. Mortar? Supports, probably.)

In the house where we grew up, the garage had a series of long cracks running up the stucco of its back wall. No one ever fixed it, but we were told sternly not to play near that wall. Instead, I would climb about twenty feet up a nearby pine tree, crawl onto the roof of the garage, and read there, or sometimes just run up and down the shingled peak, although I wasn’t habitually a physical risk-taker.

The only times my state of mind worries me are those times when Elves fails. Elves is the one thing that can always make me laugh—well, smile, anyway. The elves I mean are the ones in “Mending Wall,” wherein Frost’s speaker, walking the length of a crumbling fence with his hidebound neighbor, speculates  about the forces that tear it down. “I could say ‘Elves’ to him.” I love the idea of someone saying “Elves” to someone else; having the thought of it.

When I would get sad and grim and joyless and my college boyfriend would see a cloud cross my face, he would sometimes lean over and whisper, “Elves.” He would say it in a very stentorian way, often at the strangest moments—on the Cyclone at Coney Island, or in the quiet car of a commuter train. It was always enough to jolly me out of myself for the moment. Often, just thinking it is enough. While that’s in the world, we’re okay, or we will be. Read More »

Calm Down with Some Landscapes, and Other News

June 17, 2014 | by


Li Shan, Wind and Snow in the Fir Pines, mid-twelfth to early-thirteenth century

  • Robert Frost: the least understood of the great modernists.
  • Marshall McLuhan: the most understanding of early teenagers.
  • I never dreamed of being a dominatrix, as a child might imagine driving a steam train, but when I became one I learned a trade as intricate, and as British, as that of the steam-engine driver.”
  • In twelfth-century China, the Confucian elite knew how to blow off steam: “In lieu of a literal return to nature, court figures would instead purchase landscape paintings and hang them on their walls. When they felt their souls growing jaded and heavy from quotidian concerns, they’d gaze at the lush scenes and transfer themselves into the place of their inhabitants—ink-brush silhouettes holding fishing rods, gathering plum blossoms and sipping a refreshing beverage in a rustic tavern.”
  • “You would think that a theme park attraction called the Palace of Unicorns would be a charming fantasy world. You’d be wrong. Located within Suoi Tien Cultural Theme Park in Ho Chi Minh City, the Palace of Unicorns is a graphic depiction of Buddhist hell.”