I know. I said I was going to use Poetry Friday to celebrate Poets Who Aren’t Dead Yet—and Robert Frost clearly does not qualify. But “The Road Not Taken” is as much alive as my granddaughter, Heidi, who had to memorize it for a poetry unit in the second grade. Bless Ms. Purcell, her teacher, for knowing her well enough to give her such a challenge. Bless all good teachers, everywhere!
First, Heidi is a child whose favorite book at two was one that had page after page chock full of pretty little watercolor sketches of stuff, each page a different category: clothes, toys, buildings, tools, etc. It was the only book she wanted me to read to her—and I had to read it exactly the same way every single time, naming each item, pointing to it. (If I ever went too fast or too slow or, God forbid, tried to skip a page or leave anything out because sometimes on the fifth or six reading I got a little squirrely, she sternly reminded me to “do it right.”) After months of her obsession with all this stuff, I began to wonder if she was becoming a miniature materialist. So one day when I reached the end of the book for what seemed like the millionth time and she said, “Again!” I asked, “Why do you like this book so much?”
“I yuv words,” she said.
Of course, I read it again. And again. And again.
Wednesday evening, she got caught up in a new set of delicious words, working to memorize her poem. She was anxious at first. “It’s long,” she said. But she got through the first stanza pretty quickly and moved on to the next. And next. We stopped occasionally to look at the words—what they meant and how they worked on the page. We talked about how words work differently in poems than in stories. I told her the poem as a story, so she wouldn’t just be memorizing words but would feel the flow of them. She got the idea of making choices and, I think, even that with some choices there’s no going back.
The third stanza kind of did her in. She was tired, restless. Plus, it was bedtime.
“No problem,” I said. “Your brain needs a rest, anyway. We’ll have time to work on it before you have to go to school in the morning. Plus, I bet you know it better than you think you do.”
I was right. She woke up and said the first three stanzas absolutely perfectly about two seconds after she got out of bed.
She was thrilled.
“That’s how your brain works,” I said. “It kept on memorizing while you were asleep. Is that cool, or what?”
She said the three stanzas over and over—brushing her hair, looking for her shoes, getting dressed, in between bites of cinnamon rolls, twirling around in circles, marching through the house—reveling in the beautiful words, amazed at what her brain dreamed into being.
She learned the last stanza easily, and added it to the mix.
“Want to record yourself saying the poem?” I asked. “If you practice, then listen to yourself you’ll get even better.”
“Nah,” she said
“But what about this? ‘Somewhere ages and ages hence’ you’ll be able to hear your eight-year-old self reading this poem.”
I saw her imagine this.
“Okay!” she said.
She recited the poem a few times. I read it to her so she could hear the feeling in the poem and the way lines turned into sentences. She said it a few more times. Then she said it again, perfectly.
“Bravo!” I said. “Fabulous! You nailed it!”
She smiled a smile as big as the sun.
I hope Frost’s poem will be the first of hundreds of poems that Heidi will love all through her life. Thinking of her listening to this recording ‘somewhere ages and ages hence,’ hearing our two voices which I hope will call back the winter night she spent at my house when she was eight-years-old, memorizing it, an exquisite mix of joy and sadness wells up inside me. And that time thing, always that time thing.
Timelessness, time pressing.
I marvel at the path I took so long ago. Eighteen years old, my first day as a freshman at Indiana University, and I tagged along to the Commons with a bunch of girls, where I met Steve and took the path he offered, one that turned out to be rich, complex, surprising, and challenging in a million different ways. And which led, eventually, to Heidi and her assignment to memorize “The Road Not Taken” on Wednesday evening.
There are (rare) moments when I absolutely believe that every single path I took, living my life, was the right one, because if I’d made a different choice I’d have ended up a different person, in a different moment. Heidi, at two, saying “I yuv words” was one of those moments. So was listening to her eight-year-old voice learn Frost’s poem.
Here’s Frost's poem, in case you never had a teacher like Ms Purcell who made you memorize it.
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.