A Frosty Look

I promised on Thursday that I would offer up my second University of Northern Iowa Student-as-Critic Faculty Writing Award-winning “essay” sometime soon. That sometime is now (and tomorrow).

Once I had won “The Department of English Language and Literature Award for Distinguished Writing on Literature by a High School English Teacher,” in 1991 and entered student writing again the next year, I realized perhaps I owed it to the generous UNI English department to submit something again that next year. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any new essay to send them. I had recently composed a choral reading keys analyzing and interpreting Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” which could be said to constitute a kind of literary criticism and distorted essay. So I sent a clean copy of that along with the student essays to UNI in 1992. Astonishingly I won again. Evidently there weren’t very many (if any) other teacher essays submitted, although the professor heading the workshop session featuring my essay seemed very pleased by it for some reason.

I have broken my choral reading/essay into two parts for today and tomorrow, which actually makes a kind of sense. The selection begins, after some supposedly amusing conversation/debate between the three groups of “students” involved in the presentation piece, with a pretty standard constructive section on Frost and the structure of the poem, which is what you get to read today.

This little kind of-essay actually originated with my perceptions and recollections of some student debates in class about this poem and other pieces of literature. In this, the more or less negative students are the Grouches, the goody-two-shoes suck-up students are the Readers, and the Vacillators are caught between those two extremes.

Taking “The Road Not Taken”

GROUCH 2:  Poetry?

GROUCH 1:  Oh, boy, am I thrilled.

GROUCH 5:  Me too.

GROUCH 2:  Poetry?

GROUCH 3 and 4:  What fun!

GROUCH 5:  Why not just kick us in the head and get it over with?

GROUCH 2:  Poetry?

GROUCHES:  Whose brilliant idea was this?

VACILLATORS:  Uh, I … uh … don’t know … really …

GROUCH 1:  Who do you think?

READERS:  All right.  What’s your problem?

GROUCHES:  Poetry!

VACILLATORS:  Poetry … ?

GROUCHES:  Yeah, poetry.

GROUCH 1:  Who wants to read some stupid poem?

VACILLATORS:  Us?

GROUCH 3:  Maybe you.

GROUCHES:  Count us out.

READERS:  Wait a minute.  We’re in this together.

VACILLATORS:  We are?

READERS:  You’re not going anywhere.

GROUCHES:  So you say.  We’ve got better things to do.

GROUCH 4:  It looks like we’ve come to a parting of the ways.

VACILLATORS:  Maybe they’re right …

READER 5:   Isn’t that what the poem’s all about anyway … ?

READERS 1, 2, 3, 4:  “A parting of the ways”?

VACILLATORS:  Is it?

READER 5:  Of course it is.

GROUCHES:  Wow.  Isn’t that wonderful.

VACILLATORS:  I like it.  Don’t you?  It’s okay.  Sort of …

GROUCHES:   Yeah right.  Uh-huh.  Don’t make me laugh.

GROUCH 1:  I didn’t understand one word of it.

READER 4:  Now you’re exaggerating.

READER 5:  That was Robert Frost—

GROUCHES:  Robert Who?

READERS:  Robert Frost,

READER 3:  (1874-1963), the “New England bard” …

READER 4:  … among the most popular of twentieth century American poets …

READER 5:  … admired for the blend of colloquial—

GROUCHES:  Huh?

VACILLATOR 2:  Everyday speech.

READER 5:  … and traditional in his verse …

READER 1:  and hailed as the fitting heir, in his response to nature, of Wordsworth and Emerson…

VACILLATORS:  Or so says the Oxford Companion to American Literature.

READERS:  He’s America’s best loved poet.

GROUCH 2 and 3:   “Best loved” by who!!

GROUCH 1 and 4:   Dweebs like you?

VACILLATORS:  Hey, you just rhymed!

GROUCHES:  We just what?

READERS:  Rhymed.  You just rhymed.

GROUCHES:  Listen:  we don’t rhyme.

VACILLATORS:  But you just did …  “Who” … “You” …

GROUCHES:  What are you talking about?

READERS 1 and 2:  They’re talking about the elementary techniques of traditional poetry.

GROUCHES:  Oh, boy.  Here we go now.

READER 2, 3, 4:  Meter and rhyme are the foundations or corner-stones of poetry.

GROUCH 5:  Oh, sure.  I understood that.

GROUCH 2, 3, 4:  Poetry rhymes and has a beat.

GROUCH 1:  I learned that in kindergarten.

READER 3:  Meter establishes the length and rhythm for each line of a poem.

READER 5:  Each line has a certain number of feet, and lines are described by the kind and number of feet.

VACILLATORS:  And the poet has to stick to that pattern?  Whew!  Hard.

READER 1:  In “The Road Not Taken” Frost is using iambic tetrameter.  It means there are four …

READERS 2, 3, 4, 5:  (that’s the tetrameter part)

READER 1:  … iambic feet in each line, like this:

READERS 2, 3, 4, 5 and VACILLATORS:  “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

READER 5:  Some lines follow the four-stress, eight-syllable pattern perfectly …

READER 1:  … whereas others include a little variation for interest.

READERS:  And that’s the meter of the poem.

VACILLATORS:  And he still makes it sound like he’s just talking to us.

GROUCH 5:  I thought this all started talking about rhyme, not rhythm.

GROUCH 1:  It did.

READER 3:  Rhyme?  Okay.

READER 2:  Rhyme unifies stanzas through an established repetition of final sounds.

READER 4:  A stanza is a group of lines unified by rhyme pattern …

READER 3:  And rhyme is the similarity or likeness of sound existing between two words.

VACILLATORS:  Like:  “time” and “crime” or “yellow” and “fellow”.

READERS:  “Dumb” and “scum”!

GROUCHES:  Okay.  So how does it work?

READER 1:  In Frost’s poem, each stanza is five lines …

VACILLATOR 3:  And there are four stanzas.

READER 5:  Each stanza has the same rhyme pattern:

READERS and VACILLATORS:  a b a a b

GROUCHES:  Huh?

VACILLATOR 5:  Rhyme schemes are marked with letters to indicate repeated or new sounds.

GROUCH 2:  I get it!  Five lines with two rhymes mixed around each other.

GROUCH 3:  Cute.  So it rhymes.

GROUCH 5:  But I still don’t know what it means.

VACILLATORS:  Yeah.  She’s right.

READER 4:  She’s right?

VACILLATOR 1 and 2:  All we know is its beat …

VACILLATOR 3, 4, 5:   … and that rhyme thing.

READERS:  You don’t have any idea—

GROUCHES:  None!

READERS:  … what it means?

VACILLATOR 5:  Well, maybe some idea.

VACILLATOR 3:  Let’s see …

VACILLATOR 1:  There’s a guy in this woods …

VACILLATOR 2:   And he comes to where the path divides …

VACILLATOR 4:  And he has to decide which way to go.

GROUCHES: Yeah.  Okay.

GROUCH 5:  And he looks at them both…

GROUCH 2:  And then takes the one nobody else takes.

GROUCH 1: And for some dumb reason he’s going to be talking about all this someday down the road—

GROUCH 5: I like that “down the road.”  Get it?

GROUCH 3 and 4: “Down the road?”

ALL THE OTHERS:  We get it.

READER 4:  Well, making sense of a poem is pretty straightforward.

READER 3:   We just look at what the poem actually says.

GROUCHES:  Big deal.

READER 2:  In a poem there are certain basic factors to remember:

READER 1:  Most poems are spoken in the first person by someone we call the—

GROUCHES:  Poet!

READER 4:  —Speaker.

READER 2:  The speaker in a poem often is not expressing the same ideas as the poet would.

READER 3:  And most poems focus on a certain situation—in this poem the woods where the paths divide.  It’s fall, and—

GROUCHES:  How do you know it’s fall?

VACILLATOR 2:  I know.  “Yellow woods.”  They’re yellow because the leaves change color in the fall.

READERS and other VACILLATORS:   Hey!  Yeah!  That’s good!  He’s taking a walk in the woods in the fall!

GROUCH 4:   Aren’t autumn leaves more red?

GROUCH 3:   Or gold?

VACILLATORS:   Or yellow!

GROUCH 1:   Or kind of dead and brown.

VACILLATOR 2, 3:   That’s a real nice thought.

GROUCH 5:   Maybe the woods just look yellow because … —it’s morning!

READERS:  What!!?

GROUCH 5:   Sure, in the morning light, at dawn, everything can kind of look sort of … yellow.

other GROUCHES:   Okay!  Good one!  You got ‘em there!

GROUCH 5:  Besides, the poem says later it’s morning.

VACILLATORS:   “And both that morning equally lay … “

READER 5:  All right.  Let’s say it’s fall —or morning—, and the speaker finds he can go two ways in this woods.

VACILLATOR 5:  He’d like to go both roads…

GROUCHES:   But no one person can do that.

READER 1:  So he checks one out as far as he can see, but then takes the other one—

GROUCH 4:  Because it’s the one nobody else took.  I’ve heard all this.

GROUCH 1:   Right.  Back in junior high, my social studies teacher told me that.

VACILLATORS:  Oh, yeah!  It was on one of those cute little posters with the pictures of bunnies and trees and stuff …  And each one had some quotation.  She said this poem meant …

GROUCH 2:   “Be yourself.”

GROUCH 5:   “Go your own way.”

GROUCH 3:   “Avoid peer pressure.”

GROUCHES:   “Find your own path through life.”

VACILLATORS:  Sounds good.  I guess we understand it now.

There you have it so far. We will continue with the actual interpretation tomorrow…

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

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