Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 424
“On the Move” is perhaps Gunn’s best-known poem. It perfectly and sympathetically captures the ethos of motorcycle gangs. The poem opens with images of birds following “instinct” and “some hidden purpose.” They have a secure place, since they are “nested.” This, of course, contrasts them to human nature; people are racked with uncertainty and have only a “baffled sense” because they lack instinct and defined purpose. The poem is the fullest exploration of a theme that has obsessed Gunn from the start of his poetic career.
In contrast to the ordinary person, who remains baffled, the motorcycle gangs “strap in doubt—by hiding it, robust—/ And almost hear a meaning in their noise.” They have escaped from the plight of the divided and approach—even if they never reach—the instinct of animals. Gunn describes them as “flies,” metaphorically connecting them to animals. Where they travel is a matter of chance rather than logic or even moral choice. For Gunn, a life that is open to chance, even if it is dangerous or destructive, is preferable to the intellectual paralysis to which modern people are prey.
The motorcycle gang is portrayed, however, as scaring “a flight of birds across the field.” They are antagonists to the birds of the first stanza. The birds must yield to the will. The actions of the motorcycle gangs, even if destructive, are a solution, if only a partial one. They escape “discord” and damnation by moving “always toward, toward.” In continual flux, they avoid the anxiety of thought to which many are prone.
The last stanza resolves the contrasts. The motorcyclists pass through towns on an endless quest. They find a solution in joining “the movement in a valueless world.” They are neither “birds” nor “saints,” however, since both “complete their purposes.” They are, instead, an alternative. By staying in motion, they may reach no “absolute” or completion, but “One is always nearer by not keeping still.” They are precisely between the given purpose of animals and saints and the sense of meaninglessness and lack of definition that people are constantly condemned to experience.
“On the Move” is a philosophical poem. It confronts the condition of humanity in a world without God or values. How in such a world is one to find a direction or purpose? Gunn’s qualified answer is the “willed” action of a band of motorcycle riders who refuse to submit to the anxieties and dislocations of modern life. Gunn discovers freedom in a group of people who have rejected conventional social mores.
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