Truth Is Like Poetry and Most People Hate Poetry

Misreading of The Road Not Taken

Posted Jan 22, 2017

There’s a great line in the film The Big Short, “Truth is like poetry.  And most people fucking hate poetry.”    

After the film, thinking about why poetry so gets so little love and so much hate I googled “most popular American poem” and found The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost.  I had memorized the poem in grade school and remembered reciting “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.  I took the road less travelled by and that has made all the difference.” Which seems nice and yellow wood is kinda pretty so… fine. It seems totally fine. But why do Americans love this totally fine poem more than any other totally fine poem? I thought maybe it has something to do with rugged individualism –- “I’m no follower!  I go my own dang American way and good for me I didn’t take the stupid road.”

But then I decided to re-read the poem and noticed a line I had forgotten.  The two roads had been worn the same. So both that morning equally lay. Huh.  So it wasn’t actually the road less travelled by.  The two roads were identical.  The narrator is deceiving himself at a later point in time, seeing agency in retrospect when there was none in actuality. But it turns out it’s the incorrect reading that’s responsible for catapulting The Road Not Taken to number one because most people fucking hate poetry.

I’m thinking maybe it’s because true things are uncomfortable. The most truthful person I know is 50-yr-old autistic woman named Franny Pear.  My husband Tim and I befriended Franny and her mother Mavis eight years ago when they were living on the streets.  Mavis passed away last year, but we continue to, in various ways, help Franny – a little financially, but mainly by driving her to various social services while incessantly playing her favorite song Dancing Queen.

Little complicating tidbit about Franny:  Franny is in love with my husband and would be thrilled to find out I was dead. I get this sense when Franny says things like “I know Jim married you Maggie but things could have been different.  It could have been me with handsome Tim on easy street.  And anything could happen on easy street, Maggie. Yeah.” 

So the question you might be asking is why?  Why help this woman who has overt designs on my husband and would be happy if my life were to be untimely snuffed out? And you might think I would be well poised to answer this question, but not true. There are plenty of things I do which I find totally baffling. And I honestly couldn’t tell you why I help out Franny Pear.   Although I did come up with a list of possible motivations.

1. Genuine human empathy.  I am sure simple compassion enters into the equation to some degree, but I suspect in the pie chart of motivations it’s a rather measly piece, a piece of pie perhaps suited for an elderly diabetic lady on her birthday.

2. Self-image pampering. And this I suspect is a rather big slice of the pie, a slice for a plump pie-happy couple, the action of caring allows me to sculpt my self-image in way I find flattering.  I am able to upgrade my personal avatar, my existential bitmoji to something I’m more pleased with.

3.Truthfullness. I find Franny’s unfiltered honesty fascinating and often very poetic. Once she said in a way that just broke my heart, “There are things that nobody knew about except my mother and me.  We were like an island of two.”

But then she’ll say things, “You may think you live on easy street, Maggie, because you made good decisions but if your parents didn’t educate you after fifth grade you wouldn’t have been able to write anything, and you wouldn’t have married Tim if you didn’t look like Katherine Heigl – like Katherine Heigl, but not as pretty, not as pretty, ask anyone, Maggie. Yeah.”

What Franny is saying is that I am the product of a variety of forces that I want to take personal credit for; an idea which threatens the self-image I’ve so painstakingly constructed.  Like The Road Not Taken poem Franny is pointing out my tendency to believe, “Well I took the road less travelled by and that has made all the difference.”  Like most people in our culture, I am privileging the narrative of agency over the narrative of fortune.  And I think that privileging actually creates a lot of unnecessary pressure.

What a relief it would be to give up my preoccupation with how well I’m doing.  I have slavishly dedicated myself to the construction of an image that nobody but me sees.  Nobody but me is pondering the question: How does Maggie Rowe stack up against others as an overall human being?  Especially in comparison to other 42-yr-old tall artificially blond women in the arts and entertainment industry?  How is Maggie Rowe compensating for her decision to not have a child?  Is what she is doing instead enough to justify that decision?  What is she doing instead and why can’t she be better at it?   What’s keeping her from getting a better overall existence score in comparison to an arbitrary sampling of other human beings?… I mean, why can’t she catch up to Katherine Heigl?

This joyless psychic activity has sucked up more of my energy than perhaps any other life endeavor. I’m starring in a shitty movie only I can get on VOD then streaming it over and over and over.   And I wonder if that energy might be better spent.

Like Franny says, “It’s not your fault that you live on easy street.  But it’s not my fault I don’t. That’s just how things landed.” Which I think is true and very poetic and I like that. But then Franny will say “Katherine Heigl is going to get old, you know, and then she won’t be pretty anymore and you’re going to get old too and you’ll be even less pretty than Katherine Heigl because you were less pretty to begin with and that’s the truth Maggie. That’s the truth.” And I think… I fucking hate poetry.