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Roads Not Taken

July 2016

One poem that you can safely assume that an American student has encountered is Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." It is in many anthologies used in schools and has become a phrase used by people who may not even know the source. It's so much of a classic, that it's almost a cliché.

An article by Katherine Robinson on goes into greater detail than your high school English teacher may have in discussing the poem.

Did you know that Robert Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken” as a joke for a friend? That friends was fellow poet Edward Thomas who took walks with Frost. Apparently, Thomas was quite indecisive about the path to take and sometimes expressed regrets later about the one not taken.

Frost wrote the poem in 1915 and told Thomas that after reading the poem at a college, he was surprised that the audience had been “taken pretty seriously … despite doing my best to make it obvious by my manner that I was fooling. … Mea culpa.”

From the poem's opening decision about choosing a road, to the conclusion that the choice has made all the difference, there is an odd and somewhat surprising word journey.

Initially, the speaker wishes he travel both roads, but admits that the one he took looked "just as fair" as the other and people using both roads had "worn them really about the same.”  Despite the usual interpretation of the poem, it's important to note that the two roads are more similar than not - "And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black." This month's prompt is to consider roads not taken. Of course, roads come in many forms - not all looking like a road. So, is this a classic poem that is prompting us to write about choices and decisions and regret?

Frost wrote this poem when Europe was deep into WWI and a year before America would enter the war. Frost sent the poem to his friend Edward Thomas, who, like many readers to follow, did not see it as a joke (about him) but as a serious meditation on decision-making. He may have even connected the poem with the war and America's entry into it. Shortly after receiving this poem in a letter, Thomas enlisted in the army and was killed in France two months later.

At the end of the poem, the speaker says he will "be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence."  Is that a sigh of content or regret?The answer depends on how you view the final lines:
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Has the difference been a good one or is there the regret of the opening? The speaker really would like to have taken both roads, but knows "how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back."

And if both roads were both very similar, how much of a difference would there have been in his life if he had chosen the other?There are certainly "roads" you did not take, but that may have been a good or bad decision. It may not have been been your choice. Or you may have make the choice casually or quite unaware that it would carry any significant consequences.

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


The map was confusing. It looked
like the main road kept going straight;
and the lesser road I wanted
turned off to the side. I made the hard turn –
backed up, cranked the wheel. An angle
no one engineered. A few
nice houses, then everything went to
warp and rust, scattered around curves,
disappearing in needle-fall or hiding
behind woodpiles as if they didn’t care
for neighbors. The road dwindled
to one-lane dirt; dropoff blurred by big-leaf
maple that caught sunlight before letting it go
to dark. A Forest sign warned No
Maintenance. I turned around as carefully
as I made that first wrong turn.
Retraced my wheel-tracks, found the place
I was looking for. A disappointment.
I wonder where that other road has gone.
I’ll never find it again. Its blessing
of trees leaning over a single dirt path
to veil, to shelter what had been
so beautiful.

Taylor Graham

(I’ve heard that some other poet stole this title.
When I find out who he is, he’s in big trouble!)

It’s a long, long road from here to where?
I do not know but wander there.
From whence I came seems like a dream;
tomorrow’s path is still unseen.
The road that I chose not to take
still haunts my days, my grave mistake…

R. Bremner


There he was on the fifth date
Acting in a shy comic script
As the famous poetic line,
'Do I dare, to eat a peach,'
Wondering if she likes me
Or did she say to herself
He is an ordinary road
That promises a bureaucratic life
With a predictable salary
While I see myself
The wife of a northern woodsman
And while splitting logs to feed a stove
Writing romance novels.
That sell thousands of copies.

Together, there were many choices,
About the road they had taken,
He wondering if she liked him
How many big Os of pleasure
Did she anticipate
While she saw a clan of kids
Enough to fill an old red barn with shouts.

Or the two roads might be
A game of black jack;
At what point will he go for broke
With an ace and a jack for twenty one
Or hold for five low cards for double,
With fate being an impersonal
Professional dealer.

The poem was written
In the great wars time
When one thumbed photos
Of battle fields, in black and white ,
The trenches filled with still bodies
Where maximal risk and minimal rewards
Came as orders from above
About death below.

After the teacher had gone over
The top of the poem, 'It is about choice'
And then reading it with trenchy irony,
He called it a riddle
A path to an empty cottage
Where either grandmother lives
Or the brothers Grimm's witches hangout
(Or Hansel and Gretel's witches' hangout)
With a cold stove
Where a griddle lies hot
From the noon sun
Or cold and damp from night's dew.
It is for you to decide the future.

Edward Halperin


The list is getting longer:
courses not taken
that may have led to another life;
chances not taken
that may have taken me down a beautiful or deadly road;
offers for jobs, business opportunities, relationships,
all avoided for another path.
Regrets? Not really.
I think it was Pascal who said
You can't change anything without changing everything.
No chance to return to a crossroad
and go the other way.
No time machines,
no paradoxes that would disturb Einstein's universe
or mine.

Pamela Milne


Bessie Smith still died here in Clarksdale,
Whether the white doctor helped or not.
But the story of a bastard, spiteful, white man fits the blues,
And so lives here at the junction of Highways 61 and 49;

As does the one of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil to play the guitar,
The instrument Satan stole from heaven when he was cast out.
But it’s all a lie.
It was Tommy Johnson, another blues singer, who sold his soul.

Robert Johnson just stole that story,
Like he stole his tunes about snakes, and other men’s women,
And so deserved the poisoned whiskey that he drank.
Son House said he probably stole that too,

And that Johnson’s soul wasn’t worth more than a proper tuning.
But what does it matter how these stories got here?
Only the blues matter, for in the end,
The truth is pain.

So these shrines, of sorts, are built.
The Ground Zero, recreated like a 1930’s bucket of blood juke joint,
So that white tourists can get goose flesh
Drinking whiskey from clean glasses,

Wishing they had brought their Swiss Army knives along
To carve their names into the bar;
And next door at the Delta Blues Museum,
Where the same tourists can stand in Muddy Waters’ shot-gun shack

And forget that they too would
Have abandoned Bessie Smith if the chance had been theirs,
Or wouldn’t have made such a profitable deal with the devil.
For a moment they feel at one with the sharecroppers of the Blues,

Whose dreams were bent on a guitar string;
Whose love was sucked out through a harp as if it was snake venom through a bite.
They step inside that life for a while
And confiscate their reasons for being so sad.

After all, pain is truth.

Ron Yazinski


Between poles of opportunity,
Between desire and fear,
We stumble through our lives
Flailing far and near.

Do we choose to become?
Only ourselves to blame?
Or, tugged by forces,
Pegs in a game?

Is choice an illusion? A phantom
Dreamed by bearded men
To scare us to obey? Are hell
And heaven mere invention?

Driven by selfish genes,
Do we promote our seed
At others’ expense? Subvert the
Public good to fill our need?

We squirm and writhe together,
Goaded by our lust;
Then blame the world around us
When all is turned to dust.

Beyond our waking dream
The cosmic dance unrolls
Speeding to tomorrow,
Careless of our woes.

Yet always there’s an option
At every step we take.
To be, or not to be—
An engineer’s logic gate.

So, pushed by predilection,
Pulled by time and place,
We make our lives’ decisions
With, or without, God’s grace.

Robert Miller