Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 563

“On the Move” is a poem about how one defines oneself through actions. Driven by instinct or will, one is able to articulate one’s purpose only en route, through the act itself. This is as true of the motorcyclists as it is for the poet.

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“On the Move” is the opening poem of The Sense of Movement (1957), which Gunn said was inspired by the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. A major tenet of Sartre’s existentialism is that one derives authentic meaning in one’s lives not from any preconceived notions of what one should be, but from one’s own actions. One cannot know what one is except through what one does. Because one is, as Sartre says, “condemned to be free,” one must take full responsibility for one’s actions and, thus, for one’s existence.

Self-definition through engaged action is the ultimate existentialist act. If one could rely on instinct, as birds do, there would be no question of authenticity. Since the individual has free will, however, he or she must exercise it and take the consequences. The myth of the American motorcyclist is one of Gunn’s favorite figures for the restless, searching, often inarticulate existential hero. His doubt is part of his charm. His restless motion, instinctual or willed, is, consciously or unconsciously, a creation of meaning through “movement in a valueless world.”

The articulation of that meaning is no more the task of the motorcyclist than it is the task of birds. Just as the birds are the pretext for asking questions about the human activity of the motorcyclists, the motorcyclists are the pretext for the poet’s articulation of the meaning of movement. More important than where they have come from, or even where they are going, is why. What drives them? What are they seeking? These questions are only rhetorical for all but the poet, whose authentic action is to capture “the dull thunder of approximate words.” Like the motorcyclist, the poet “strap[s] in doubt—by hiding it” behind a confident pose so as to appear “robust,” even though he “almost hear[s] a meaning in [his] noise.” This is not hypocrisy, however, because the pose is a necessary protection, like goggles and jacket; it is not an end in itself, but the gear that gets him to his destination.

One of the paradoxes of the poem is that the motorcyclists, who pretend to be individualists, run in packs. They are always referred to as “they.” They think of themselves as unconventional, yet they are locked into a uniform and a posture. They think they act on instinct, yet they travel “the taken routes.” They are “the Boys,” who “almost hear a meaning in their noise”—but not quite. Their group “impersonality” is in strict contrast to the “One” of the poem, who is able to interpret their motion precisely because he stands apart from their group mentality and outside their action. The poet may identify with them, but he must also articulate his difference from them. “Exact conclusion of their hardiness/ Has no shape” until the poet makes it. “They burst away,” but “One is always nearer by not keeping still.” The ambiguity of the poem’s last line suggests that the motorcyclists may or may not create what they are looking for, while the poet, in the action of the poem, has.

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