I have been kicking myself because my fourth grader, Frank, did not choose Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” for this week’s class poem recital. That’s right, in this era of free form learning, where no one is ever wrong but only exceptional in some special way, my boy Frank has a teacher — Miss Klimczuk at Community Park School in Princeton — who actually demands that students memorize a poem and then recite it to the class. They get points for memorization, clear recitation, eye contact with the rest of the class, and degree of complexity of the poem. As far as I know they get zero points for creative re-creations of lines that they may not have committed to memory.
It’s been a challenging and rewarding part of the school year. At a time when my fourth grader has been captivated by video games and cartoon shows on television, he has had brief moments of — dare I say it — intellectual excitement as he committed to memory such poems as “Hymn” by Edgar Allen Poe and a clever but complicated little poem from last year’s U.S. 1 Summer Fiction Issue, “Poetry’s A to Z,” a 26-line poem in which each line started with the next ascending letter of the alphabet.
His poetic zenith (if not exactly genius) was memorizing a “Visit From St. Nick,” otherwise known as “The Night Before Christmas,” the 540-word, 58-line poem that we all recognize but few of us ever know completely from memory. Frank got a straight A on the school project and then earned rave reviews from the relatives, in front of whom he recited it at each stop during the holidays.
So for the latest poem I suggest he try something by Robert Frost. “The Road Not Taken” seems like the perfect choice — the one that would be most accessible to other fourth graders as well as to the teacher and parent:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both . . .
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
But being the good parent, not the pushy parent, I want to give the boy a choice. So I extract from the Internet another Frost poem, called “The Telephone.” This is one Frost poem that doesn’t have that hook that we find in so many of the popular Frost works: “I took the one less traveled by” or from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening:”
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
To my chagrin Frank picks “The Telephone,” a daunting little poem featuring either one or two imagined conversations between the poet and some special but unidentified friend.
In this era of free-form dissemination of news and culture, there is something to be said for these common literary experiences, simultaneously enjoyed: The poem we are all familiar with; the movie everyone has seen. New Jersey librarians have just selected Princeton writer John McPhee’s 1967 nonfiction book, “The Pine Barrens,” for the annual one-book literacy program. Everyone is invited to read the book and join in discussions throughout the spring.
Good choice. I still vividly recall reading the New Yorker magazine article that led to the book. It was a Friday evening in early December, 1967, and I was running for chairman of the Daily Princetonian. Two other candidates and I were sequestered in a dorm room while the rest of the staff debated and voted on who would be the next boss of the student newspaper. I got lost in the McPhee work, and when the outgoing editor arrived to announce my victory, I at first didn’t realize he was talking to me — engrossing stuff, those Pine Barrens.
This week I’m looking forward to seeing a newly released film for a change — “Perfect Score,” about some high school kids and the SAT. It’s the movie that has a tie-in to Princeton and ETS and that requested some old issues of our paper to add Princeton verisimilitude to some scenes. I wrote a column last year about the legal rights you gladly sign away in exchange for the very slim possibility of getting some cinematic exposure — alluring stuff, those movies.
So now I’m kicking myself about the obscure poem that the fourth grader is attempting to commit to memory. It’s a little too long to reprint here, but it starts like this:
‘When I was just as far as I could walk
From here today,
There was an hour All still
When leaning with my head again a flower I heard you talk.
I have been reading it, and re-reading it, and I am still trying to understand it. But now, finally, I have stopped kicking myself. Maybe the fourth grader has taken the road less traveled, after all.