Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem conveys Americans’ loves of the automobile, competition, skill, and freedom. The poem’s inclusion and focus on the blue-eyed driver sucking “upon” the dead cigar and on the Mercedes driver suggest that the competitive instinct extends from the middle to the upper class in American society. The strong, sometimes colloquial verbs—“ups it,” “pull back,” “pulls out,” “hit the blinker,” “veer down,” “flash by”—suggest the enthusiastic vigor of the rivalry, which also has overtones of combat, as in the poem’s title. Competition’s relation to power is suggested not only by the detailing of the jockeying for position (many of Bukowski’s poems deal with horse racing), including the poem’s last three-line numerical report, but also by the actual word “power” in the 1984 version, in the speaker’s report of crossing a traffic signal, “they make it as I power it and switch back ahead of them/ in their lane”; “power it” and “in their lane” are deleted in the same lines of the 1999 version.

Paradoxically, the competition, because of its shared emotions and artfulness in driving, creates a team: Three times the speaker uses the simile “we are as a team,” and he reports near the poem’s end “we are moving in perfect anger” (1984) or “we are moving in perfect formation” (1999). In contrast to the sort of hostile, warlike dehumanizing identification of adversaries by epithet rather than...

(The entire section is 508 words.)