The Poem

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Last Updated May 8, 2024.

"On the Move" was published in 1957, three years after Gunn moved from Cambridge to California, where he took up a graduate fellowship at Stanford University. The poem reflects his interest in existential philosophy and the burgeoning youthful motorcycle culture he found in 1950s California, documented in Marlon Brando's iconic film The Wild One (1953).

The motorcycle gang, serving as the central, extended metaphor in Gunn's renowned poem, embodies an existential approach to human life. They restlessly and compulsively pursue an ill-defined and unattainable end: finding meaning in their otherwise meaningless lives. 

The manufactured and aggressive freedom of bikers is compared to the more natural, spontaneous, and dignified freedom of the animal kingdom. Birds have a "poise"—dignity and liberty—derived from their uncomplicated ability to be in tune with their natural instincts and place in the natural world. 

The bikers are also compared to the "saints," uncomplicatedly spiritual beings whose courage in their convictions rested on their certainty of a transcendent, spiritual dimension no longer guaranteed in the post-religious modern world. In Gunn's world, human beings are limited by their disengagement from their "baffled sense" and their dependency on language, an imperfect medium of expression and communication.

The biker gang is described as the "Boys." The capital letter and the plural imply their solidarity and collective identity, while the choice of the word "boy" suggests a youthful naiveté and fragility. Their position astride their motorcycles is described in highly physical terms, stressing both their homoerotic appeal and their vulnerability. 

The uniform dress of the bikers depersonalizes them, rendering them a universal symbol rather than single individuals. Their freedom is attractive, but it is also in some sense brutal, cruel, and crude – defined by "uncertain violence." The bikers blast their way through their more naturally harmonious natural surroundings, frightening away the birds the poet admires at the poem's opening (20).

The poem ultimately finds existential meaning in the biker's ill-defined movement itself. In the absence of the spiritual certainties that characterize the lives of the saints, the bikers continue to pursue a final transcendent end despite their goal being ill-defined and perennially elusive. The bikers are commended for their courage "to dare a future." Movement and the concomitant pursuit of meaning become an end in itself because to stop moving is to stop living and engaging with the world around us.

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