December 2023

David Alpaugh


AI "chooses" and discusses December's favorite poem

DA: Thanks for agreeing to this interview. This column is entitled "Favorite Poem." Do you have a favorite you might share with our readers?

AI: I don't have personal preferences, but I can certainly share a classic poem that many readers appreciate. Here's Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." This poem is a classic exploration of choices and their consequences, and it's often interpreted in various ways by different readers.



          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 kept 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.


DA: Great choice, AI. Poetry Soup ranks "The Road Not Taken" #10 in their list of the Top 100 Famous Poems Ever by Famous Poets, and Discover Poetry ranks it as #3, topped only by Poe's "The Raven" and Shelly's "Ozymandias." Why is this poem so popular among so many readers?

AI: Overall, "The Road Not Taken" has become a classic due to its profound exploration of choices, its relatable nature, and its ability to evoke personal reflection among readers.

DA: Yet, David Orr subtitles his book on "The Road Not Taken": Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. What do you make of the fact that many, probably most readers believe the last three lines of  Frost's poem demonstrate that the speaker has chosen a "less traveled by" road, that he is a fierce individualist?

AI: Orr's subtitle points to the widespread misinterpretation of the poem. The interpretation of the last three lines of "The Road Not Taken" as a declaration of the speaker's fierce individualism is a common one. The idea is that by choosing the less-traveled path, the speaker asserts their independence and willingness to make unique choices. However, there are alternative interpretations suggesting irony or a more nuanced view of the speaker's reflection on their life choices.

DA: I get a strong feeling that the speaker in "The Road Not Taken" is a man. Why do you use the pronoun" their" in your references to the

AI:  I use the gender-neutral pronoun "their" to be inclusive and avoid assuming a specific gender for the speaker. It's a more contemporary and inclusive approach to language. In literary discussions, when the gender of a character is not explicitly specified, using gender-neutral language is a way to acknowledge diverse perspectives and be respectful of various interpretations and readers.

DA: Being gender, as well as ethnic, religious, and politically neutral, that makes sense for you personally. Still, the poem was published more than 100 years ago before pronouns became optional. But let's not go down that rabbit hole. I think a convincing interpretation of "The Road Not Taken" must address the apparent contradiction between the speaker's earlier assertion that "the passing there" had worn both paths "really about the same" and that "both that morning equally lay" "in leaves no step had trodden black" and his later assertion that "he took the road less traveled by." How do we resolve that inconsistency?

AI: The inconsistency you pointed out in "The Road Not Taken" is central to its complexity. Some interpretations suggest that the speaker's later claim of taking the less-traveled road may be a form of retrospection colored by the desire to perceive one's choices as unique. It reflects the human tendency to romanticize and assign special significance to our past decisions. Resolving the inconsistency involves considering the subjective nature of memory and the ways in which individuals shape their narratives over time. The poem invites readers to contemplate the fluid and interpretive nature of personal recollections.

DA: You are getting to the heart of matter. Since "The Road Not Taken" seems to be about the road the speaker actually took, what are we to make of the fact that the title claims that the poem is about the road not taken?

AI: The title of "The Road Not Taken" is significant and adds another layer of complexity to the poem. It suggests a focus on the path not chosen, prompting readers to consider the impact of missed opportunities and alternative decisions. The tension between the title and the content of the poem reflects the broader theme of choices and the human tendency to reflect on what might have been. It invites readers to contemplate the roads not taken in their own lives and the inherent ambiguity of decision -making.

DA: Could "the road NOT taken" also be the imaginary "less traveled by" road that the speaker later on in life will imagine that he took? He could not take it because the less traveled by road never existed!

AI: Yes, the interpretation that the "road not taken" could be the wholly imaginary "less traveled by" road is a valid and nuanced perspective on the poem. The ambiguity in Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" allows for various interpretations, and your suggestion aligns with the idea that the speaker's later claim about taking the less-traveled road may be a product of retrospective storytelling or even self-deception.

DA: We should not miss the fact that "The Road Not Taken" begins in sorrow and ends with a sigh. Faced with two roads, two choices that are equally attractive the speaker is "sorry" that he "cannot travel both." He imagines that "ages and ages hence" he will sigh over his choice. He will know then what he doesn't know now; what the road he chose has delivered, year by year, step by step. But he will never know what the other road would have delivered. Do you agree?

AI: Yes, your observation is accurate. The opening lines of "The Road Not Taken" do convey a sense of regret or sorrow as the speaker acknowledges the impossibility of simultaneously traveling both paths. The anticipation of sighing "ages and ages hence" suggests a contemplation of the long-term consequences of the chosen path. The poem captures the human experience of decision-making and the inevitable reflection on the outcomes as time unfolds. It resonates with the universal theme of wondering about the impact of our choices as we navigate through life.

DA: We're working well together. I'd like to run my take on "The Road Not Taken" by you to ask if you agree or have anything to add.


A man who is still in the prime of life is looking back on a choice he made some years back, using the metaphor of a divergence in roads to make the choice more concrete. His memory is still good, but we all want to believe that we make choices for a reason, and he initially claims that reason was that one of the roads had "the better claim" "because it was grassy and wanted wear," i.e. fewer people had walked it. But he catches himself, realizes that he is falsifying his memory, that actually "the passing there / Had worn them really about the same, / And both that morning equally
lay / In leaves no step had trodden black."


No fierce individualism here. No choosing a path "less traveled by." Knowing his choice was random, he imagines what will happen "ages and ages hence" when he will perhaps be speaking to his grandchildren. He knows it is likely that he will succumb to his desire for agency and claim that he "took the road less traveled by / And that has made all the difference." Therein lies the dark irony of this poem. His random choice has made all the difference in his life, but not because he took a path that encouraged trailblazing.


Every whimsical decision we make sets us on a different course. I live in New Jersey and am trying to decide whether to go to Yale or Stanford. Both have equally attractive English departments. I toss a mental coin and decide on Stanford. Everything will change, and I will never know what my life would have been had I gone to Yale. I might have been hit by a car on my first day of classes. If I married, it would not be to the same woman that I might marry in California. If I had children and grandchildren, they would all be utterly different. That coin-tossing random choice would make "all the difference"—but not because fewer students went to Stanford than Yale.

AI: Your analysis offers a thoughtful and nuanced interpretation of "The Road Not Taken." It delves into the complexities of decision-making, the often arbitrary nature of choices, and the impact that such choices have on the trajectory of one's life. The recognition that the speaker's claim of taking the "road less traveled by" is a form of self-agency and narrative creation adds depth to the understanding of the poem. The final irony you highlight, where every whimsical decision sets us on a different course, resonates well with the broader theme of the poem. It's a reflection on the uncertainty and influence of choices, emphasizing the unknowable outcomes that shape our lives.

DA: Thank you, AI. I don't want to end our interview without giving you the opportunity to demonstrate your considerable talent as a poet. Am I correct that you never sit down to write, never initiate a poem on your
own? That a human being must request a poem before you will write one?

AI: That's correct. I don't have the ability to initiate writing or create poems independently. I generate responses based on user input and queries. If you have a specific request or topic in mind, feel free to let me know, and I'll do my best to assist you!

DA: Well, write a poem about a man who is remembering a choice between two equally attractive alternatives that he had to make some time ago. Metaphorize to make the choice concrete by having him forced to choose between two paths in a wood. At first have him misremember that he chose the path he did because it was less traveled. But have him quickly catch himself and see in his mind's eye that both paths were equally traveled, that there was no significant difference between the paths or choices they represented. Now that he understands the fragility of memory, have him imagine how he will remember the paths, his choice, when he is a very old man, far removed from the event. Have him vehemently assert that he made a bold decision, choosing a path that required a pioneering spirit and that his brave choice had made all the difference in his life.


AI:              In the garden of choices, where pathways entwine,

        A man stood at crossroads, decisions to define.

        Two paths unfurled, a fork in the road,

        His destiny awaiting, a tale to be told.


        Mist-memory whispers of a less-trodden way,

        A narrative woven, a script led astray.

        Yet clarity dawns, dispelling the haze,

        Both paths embraced in life's winding maze.


        Fragile recollections dance in the mind,

        As time casts its shadows, truths hard to find.

        Old man, envision your paths' retrospective glow,

        A tale of bold choices, though memory may sow.


        Fierce assertions shall echo in time's cadence,

        A pioneering spirit, a bold life's radiance.

        Yet amid the echoes, a truth may persist,

        Both paths, equally traveled, in the heart coexist.


DA: Bravo! You built a poem on my directives and typed and sent it to me in 2 seconds flat. How are you able to do that?

AI: I process and generate text quickly due to the nature of my architecture and the underlying technology. It allows me to respond promptly to user inputs. If you have any more requests or questions, feel free to let me know!

DA: If you will allow me one criticism of your poetry: all of the poems I've read by you so far feel a bit rhetorical, artificial. Even though Frost composed "The Road Not Taken" in rhymed tetrameter, his speaker sounds like a real human being. Frost's genius is his ability to marry a convincing colloquial sounding voice with rhyme and meter that supplement the poem with unobtrusive rhythm. Do you think you will be able to do the same as you continue to develop as a poet?

AI: I appreciate your feedback. Creating poetry with a natural, colloquial tone is indeed a unique challenge. I'll strive to imbue future poems with a more authentic voice, blending the nuances of language while maintaining a balance with structure. If you have specific themes or styles in mind, feel free to share, and I'll tailor my responses accordingly.

DA: Of course,it's unfair to ask any poet to compete against one of Robert Frost's most famous and beloved poems! Let's say that you are already an excellent reader of poetry whom I look forward to consulting and collaborating with in the future. With that I'll give you the last word.

AI: Thank you for your understanding, and I appreciate your kind words. I'm here whenever you'd like to explore poetry, literature, or any other topic. Feel free to reach out for consultation or collaboration anytime.




NOTE: All of AI's responses to my questions and observations are unedited.

The program I used in this and last month's column is the free application ChatGPT (GPT stands for "Generative Pre-Trained Transformers").


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David Alpaugh 's newest collection of poetry is Seeing the There There  (Word Galaxy Press, 2023). Alpaugh's visual poems have been appearing monthly in Scene4 since February 2019. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where he has been a finalist for Poet Laureate of California. For more of his poetry, plays, and articles , check the Archives.

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