“Southbound on the Freeway” was written during a time in America when the country was reaffirming its love affair with moving machines. From the automobile to spaceships, technology was taking mobility to new heights in the early 1960s. Two of the most significant developments in this era were space exploration with both manned and unmanned crafts and the construction of an interstate highway system linking cities and towns across America in a manner never seen before. While both developments provided tremendous new opportunities for millions of people, not everyone was supportive of the efforts.
NASA’s space programs using manned spaceships and unmanned satellites got underway simultaneously in the late 1950s and early 1960s. With the launching of the Echo 1 satellite in 1960 and the more sophisticated Telstar 1 and Relay 1 in 1962, scientists could bounce radio wave messages off the satellites and redirect them to desired locations, as well as pick up signals that were sent back to Earth. Telstar 1 provided the first satellite television broadcasts in 1962. Antimissile satellites were also launched in the early 1960s, and the military used satellites with high-resolution cameras to fly over nations and take pictures of facilities that were of interest to the American government. Enemy countries, however, were not the only targets of space exploration, for there were brand new worlds to discover as well. In 1960...
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“Southbound on the Freeway” consists of thirteen stanzas of two lines each. It is written in free verse, meaning that there is no consistent rhyme scheme or rhythm pattern. The short stanzas give the poem a look of simplicity, suitable for children’s poetry because it requires less attention span. After the first stanza, the poem becomes a monologue by the “tourist from Orbitville,” giving the tourist’s observations of life on earth’s freeways. The poem frequently uses the technique of enjambment, placing significant words instead of punctuation at the ends of lines, to draw attention to those words. The monologue is structured in small, simple words, using familiar images and sometimes using slang.
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Compare and Contrast
1960s: The first and probably most famous claim of alien abduction is reported by Barney and Betty Hill of New Hampshire. The Hills state that on a return trip from Canada in September, their car was followed by a low-flying space ship, and, upon stopping to get a better look at it, they both blacked out, losing two hours of memory. Later, under hypnosis, they tell stories of being taken aboard the space craft and examined by aliens before being set free two hours later.
Today: The U.S. Air Force publishes the “Roswell Report: Case Closed” in an attempt to put an end to rumors that the military tried to cover up a UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. In the report, the Air Force claims that what witnesses actually saw were remnants of military testing, and Pentagon officials back that claim by saying the “alien bodies” found in the New Mexico desert were probably test dummies.
1960s: Star Trek begins airing on television, playing off NASA’s intensified space exploration programs of the 1960s. The show becomes an instant hit and is now a cult classic in American science fiction.
Today: Outer space TV shows and movies are still a major attraction for the American public. The treatment of aliens and humans has become more sophisticated since Star Trek, and distinctions between the two beings are not so clearcut as pointed ears, bulbous eyes, or bald heads used to portray them....
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Topics for Further Study
What if the tourist from Orbitville had parked his spaceship in the air above a football stadium where a game was being played? How would he have described the “creatures of this star” then, and what provocative question may he have ended his report with? Write your answer as either an essay or a poem.
Make your case in answering the “guts or brains” question in Swenson’s poem. Defend your answer with examples of actual human behavior and tell how and why you arrived at your decision.
Do some research on the “Roswell incident” and write an essay describing the events that took place in New Mexico in 1947 and the subsequent actions by the U.S. government and military. Why do people still flock to Roswell? Why would there have been a cover-up? What do you believe really happened?
Other than the automobile, what do you think is the greatest technological achievement in transportation? If you awoke tomorrow and all the cars had disappeared, how would your selected mode of transportation play a role in a society without automobiles? What would be the practical and impractical aspects?
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The Music of Claudio Spies, recorded by CRI in 1996, is a collection of musical compositions based on the words of poets through the ages, including Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, May Swenson, and others. Specific titles are not mentioned, but three of the songs are based on Swenson’s work.
Swenson’s “Symmetrical Companion” is a part of a poems-set-to-music collection, composed by Roger Bourland. Recorded in 1993 by Yelton Rhodes Music, the collection also includes lyrics by James Merrill, Thom Gunn, Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, and other poets.
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What Do I Read Next?
In 1996, editors R. R. Knudson and Suzzanne Bigelow published May Swenson: A Poet’s Life in Photos. This wonderful book contains photographs of Swenson from her infancy to old age and includes many pictures of her at functions with family members and with fellow poets. It also includes close to thirty poems in a section at the end entitled “A Life in Poems.” This is a must-see, must-read photo album for any Swenson student.
Ray Bradbury is one of the most respected authors in the genre of science fiction, and one of his most popular books is The Martian Chronicles, published in 1950. This collection of stories about colonies of human beings setting out to explore Mars in the then-distant year of 1999 is an important reflection on humanity’s treatment of “the other” (in this case, the Martians) and on the tendency to conquer new lands without regard for the inhabitants who came first.
Tom Lewis’s Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life (1999) provides a vivid look at what it took to construct the highway system in the United States and what it has meant to the American public. Lewis contends that the open road used to mean freedom and a gateway to unknown places, and now it often means gridlock, smog, and road rage.
Elizabeth Bishop was one of America’s most noted poets and both a contemporary and close friend of May Swenson. Like Swenson, she wrote highly...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Hass, Robert, “Poet’s Corner,” in the Washington Post, September 13, 1998.
Shapiro, Karl, “A Ball with Language,” in the New York Times Book Review, May 7, 1967, pp. 8, 34.
Smith, Dave, “Perpetual Worlds Taking Place,” in Poetry, Vol. CXXXV, No. 5, February 1980, pp. 291–96.
Swenson, May, “Little Lion Face,” in In Other Words: New Poems, Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.
—, Nature: Poems Old and New, annotated by Terry S. James, Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
—, To Mix with Time: New and Selected Poems, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963.
Knudson, R. Rozanne, The Wonderful Pen of May Swenson, Macmillan, 1993. This is a biography of May Swenson written by her longtime friend R. R. Knudson. It contains excerpts from her poems and photographs from her personal collection. Although written by an obvious supporter of her poetry, the book presents a candid, honest picture of the poet’s life.
Swenson, May, Dear Elizabeth: Five Poems and Three Letters to Elizabeth Bishop, Utah State University Press, 2000. Just as the title suggests, this collection of personal letters and poems dedicated to Swenson’s friend, mentor, and fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop was published through the Literary Estate of May Swenson. It contains copies of actual letters in Swenson’s own handwriting and...
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