Taylor Swift, Robert Frost, and Me

I’m sure you can absorb this from other disciplines, but here’s an important lesson I got from studying literature, in particular poetry: the part that doesn’t make sense is what makes it make sense.

Here’s what I mean: often when you read a poem, there’s a line or a word or an image or something that’s hard to make sense of, or that clashes with what you think is the meaning of the poem.

For an example, let’s go to Robert Frost and the Most Widely Misinterpreted Poem of All Time! That’s right, it’s “The Road Not Taken!” This is widely presumed to be a poem about how important it is to find your own path. In my years as a teacher, I heard it referenced in graduation speeches as such at least twice.

But if this is a poem about how important it is that the speaker chooses the road less traveled by, as they say at the end, how do you make sense of these lines?

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_.

In short, the speaker tells us quite explicitly that both roads are exactly the same, wear-wise. This makes no sense if you believe the poem to be about how important it is to choose a path others haven’t taken. So you have to re-think your interpretation. If the speaker of the poem declares both paths to be equal and later declares one to be less traveled by, they are probably a liar, an idiot, or both.

The poem is actually mocking the speaker as someone who overthinks even the smallest choices and then mythologizes their indecision. But the only way you can arrive at this is if you find an interpretation that incorporates all the data.

Now I’m certainly not saying I apply this strategy across the board. Most of us, certainly including me, have a natural instinct to just ignore inconvenient or contradictory evidence that might force us to change our interpretation.

I was thinking about this when someone shared this video from TikTok user winningyourcustodybattle about Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift. (The relevant part is from 0:40 to 2:00). Basically she says that Travis Kelce’s rage-fueled attack on Andy Reid at the Super Bowl is an important data point that Taylor Swift should take into account when figuring out what kind of person he is, and that when we’re in love, we often gloss over data that contradicts our interpretation of what a person is like. In essence, what she’s saying (and, to be clear, there’s a wee bit of victim blaming that may or may not be intentional in her video, and I do not endorse that) is that Taylor should pay attention to the details that don’t make sense in order to make the whole make sense.

It’s like when celebrities are caught doing racism or something else horrible and they say, “this isn’t me.” Ah, but it is. It may not be the person you strive to be, but it is the person you are.

There are political implications to this as well. Because in the United States, we are taught from a very young age that the United States is the Greatest Country on Earth, and sure, there have been some hiccups along the way, but this is a country built on ideals of human rights and freedom, and when we intervene in other countries, our actions stem from a sincere and noble desire to spread freedom.

This of course leads to a tautological understanding of American foreign policy: “we are the good guys, and therefore if we do something, it is by definition good.”

This interpretation of the United States is really, really hard for us to shake. You learn about slavery (with the horrors glossed over and a focus on the battles of the civil war, if you had my US History teacher), but that’s one of the aforementioned hiccups. Yeah, we blew that one, but we’re still all about freedom.

And the more you know about the US, the harder it becomes to hold on to this interpretation. I’m not going to enumerate all the shameful things the US has done in the rest of the world—the information is easy to find. This country has committed terrible atrocities and has spread misery and authoritarianism. You can’t know that the US backed a genocidal government in Guatemala and maintain your interpretation that the US government is the good guys. Well, you can, but the more of this inconvenient evidence that piles up, the harder it is to maintain the comforting illusion that America is Captain America.

Nationalism is a cornerstone of fascism, which is why the fascists don’t want anyone learning history, but it’s also why they don’t want them learning how to interpret texts. (This of course also has to do with the fact that the fascist movement in the US is filled with nominal Christians who certainly don’t want people interpreting the Bible on their own lest they become socialists.). Because if we manage to break through our comforting denial and admit that this is what this country is, then who’s going to volunteer to fight for it? If the basis of US foreign policy is not a noble dedication to freedom but an utterly venal and banal greed, who in their right minds would risk their lives for such a project?