04/17/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

AIG and the 'Road Not Taken'

What does Robert Frost's famous poem have to do with the insurance giant, anyway?

Quick: What do rocker Melissa Etheridge, self-help guru M. Scott Peck
and troubled insurance giant AIG have in common?

Answer: A common misreading of one of America's most famous poems.

All have made use of a line from Robert Frost's 1916 poem, "The Road
Not Taken," to label their work, or their image, or both. The poem, in
which the narrator stands in a "yellow wood" and ponders which of two
paths to take, ends, "I took the one less traveled by, / And that has
made all the difference." It's popularly read as a paean to American
rugged individualism.

Peck, who died in 2005, likely promoted the misreading. Considered a
founding father of the self-help genre, his 1978 book, The Road Less
, spent 694 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

Etheridge referenced the poem in 2005, after she beat back breast
cancer and released the compilation album, Greatest Hits: The Road
Less Traveled

Start looking for the New England poet's famous road and you'll see it
everywhere. A few years ago in San Francisco, healthcare giant Kaiser
Permanente covered public transit stations with posters showing two
trails in a forest. Viewers were urged to take the "road less
traveled" toward better health.

As for American International Group, as it was being rocked by an
Enron-like accounting scandal almost four years ago, it placed in the
New Yorker magazine a colorful eight-page insert of poems titled
"Well-Versed: Poems for the Road Ahead," led by Frost's verse.

Apparently the firm, which on March 2 announced 2008 fourth-quarter
losses of $61.7 billion, thought Frost could help us choose the
correct path to financial security.

As it turns out, of course, AIG and many other financial giants were
only on the road to ruin. The federal government, which threw AIG a
$150-billion lifeline last fall, recently agreed to send $30 billion
more. Now AIG says that millions of that cash will go to pay executive
bonuses. With the country facing, according to our president, a "day
of reckoning" after years of false dreams and funny money, perhaps
it's time for a closer reading of Frost's poem about choices.

For decades, literary critics have pointed to a contradiction at the
heart of "Road" that, once you see it, sticks out like a sore thumb:
The two roads in the yellow wood aren't so different after all.

At the poem's start, the narrator hits the fork in the road, examines
both paths and laments he cannot "travel both / And be one traveler."
He decides to take the one with "perhaps the better claim / Because it
was grassy and wanted wear."

This observation, however, is immediately taken back: "Though as for
that, the passing there / Had worn them really about the same."

The next line too stresses the similarity of the two paths: "And both
that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black."

Only in the fourth and final stanza does the narrator, imagining a
time in the future, transform the path he chooses into "the one less

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.

In the most cynical of critics' readings, that sigh is the sentimental
one of an old man looking back and fictionalizing a mundane moment (or
an inscrutable choice) in an act of self-aggrandizement.

Frost himself sometimes warned audiences that the poem was
tricky,according to critic William H. Pritchard in Frost: A Literary
Life Reconsidered
. The poem, Pritchard writes, "sounds noble and is
really mischievous."

Of course, like all good poems, "Road" has many layers and meanings.
But the popular reading of it as a tribute to nonconformity -- AIG
reprinted "Road" opposite an illustration of a lone, blue figure
moving upstream against a crowd of black silhouettes -- crumbles under

"Readers imagine Frost is saying, 'Be your own man, do your own thing,
march to the beat of a different drummer,' " said Jay Parini, a poet,
novelist and Frost biographer who teaches at Middlebury College.
"That's nonsense. The truth is, the way parts before us, and we just
don't know which is the right fork."

Yet a solely ironic reading of "Road" falls flat too. The poem's
resonance and endurance, in both high school English classes and
advertising copy, are surely because of its evocation of real, deeply
felt sentiments. Closely allied to indomitable American individualism,
for one, is American optimism. Self-made men and women can and do
shape their successful futures, we believe.

We're less comfortable, though, asking for help.

Last fall, perhaps Americans did stand in a yellow wood, facing two
choices: a Republican cast as a maverick and a Democratic newcomer who
cried for change. Now, as these winter months turn to spring, we hope
those paths were truly distinct. And we wait to see if President
Obama's leadership -- combined with an American coming-together, not a
standing-alone -- might make all the difference.

Brian Shott, a freelance writer in Oakland, has written for the San
Francisco Chronicle and New America Media. This article originally
appeared in the Los Angeles Times.