I was in Starbucks talking to a woman about her alma mater, a small liberal arts school, and she said smugly that going there had “made all the difference.” She was confident that I would get the reference to Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” with its ending: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --/I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.” And I did. And I should have just let the conversation continue on easily. But I didn’t. I couldn’t help saying, ‘Yeah, I ordered a large coffee. And that has made all the difference.” She looked at me puzzled. Was I mocking her? Well, no. And kind of.
A small coffee would have made all the difference as well. Every choice – large and small -- makes all the difference. This is revelation, truism, and banality. The statement that feels epic: The Sun Will Rise Today! – and it is epic. What a miracle a sunrise is. But the statement itself is about making a statement.
“The Road Not Taken” has become a clarion call for not following the crowd. I’ve heard it in speeches, conversations, and years ago saw Monsters.com use it as a commercial. Break away. Don’t go where most people do. Yet there are multiple problems with this. For one, to take a path is to remain on a worn trail that others have gone. You’re still not a wild bushwacking rebel. For another, it’s funny that people keep turning to the same lines to trumpet difference and pseudo-individuality. The paradox of poetry as bumper sticker anthem. (I once saw Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” on the back of a car, and I want to believe that the owner was being ironic. I want to, but . . . ) Most significantly, as many have pointed out, there is a difference between what the speaker says he or she is doing and what the situation actually is. The paths are equally worn. No one has trod either that morning. The choice is between two ways that look similar, but the narrator realizes that “ages hence,” whatever choice he or she makes will be justified with the thought “I – I took the road less travelled by.”
The poem ends up being a complex assessment of human psychology and justification. We have to make choices. Some are equivalent – Pepsi or Coke -- but we’ll come up with reasons later to feel like we did the right thing.
I too went to a small liberal arts college. The woman and I took the same path and read the same poems and buy coffee at the same places, but I – I interpret the experience different. I -- I don’t agree with the mainstream. I -- I don’t give an easy response in conversation. I . . .
Frost has our number.