Southbound on the Freeway Themes

Themes

Technology Versus Human Intelligence May Swenson’s “Southbound on the Freeway” is a poem that is frivolous on the outside and serious on the inside. Its whimsical premise of a naïve alien from “Orbitville” parking his spacecraft in the air above an American freeway is deceptively simple. But the humorous aspect should not obscure the underlying theme of human intelligence and human control pitted against the machines mankind has created. This is not, of course, a new or unusual theme, but Swenson’s treatment of it in this poem is a bit curious. Here, she scrutinizes humanity through the eyes of an inhuman being. This allows for a more objective—albeit, funny and skewed—look at one of the most poignant questions to arise from the age of technology: are humans still in control or are we just trying to hang on for the ride?

Ultimately, the poem leaves that question unanswered, but the lack of resolve only adds to the disturbing assertion put forth by it. To the tourist from outer space who has never before seen an Earthling, all those things racing by below must be the inhabitants of this world or the “creatures of this star.” His mistake, of course, is recognized soon enough by the reader who knows that what he is actually describing are vehicles, not people. Cars and trucks, however, are the dominant objects in the alien’s sight, so his confusion is not difficult to understand.

The fact that there are so many of these objects reinforces the notion that technology appears to be running amuck. Americans love their automobiles, and, to the unknowing tourist, they are their automobiles. In addition, Swenson cleverly blurs the distinction between man and machine even more by assigning roles and a hierarchy among the cars, much like that of human society. The police car, or other kind of emergency vehicle, “with a red eye turning / on the top of his head” is shown respect by the other cars who slow down or move aside to let him pass. This creature, the tourist assumes, is someone special.

The most significant address of the technology versus human intelligence theme in “Southbound on the Freeway” comes at the end of the poem when the purpose of actual human beings—“Those soft shapes, shadowy inside”—is questioned. Are they the guts or the brains of the “hard bodies” in which they ride? Before one hastily responds that of course they are the brains, perhaps a little...

(The entire section is 998 words.)