Southbound on the Freeway

by May Swenson

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Swenson's Use of Humor

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The humor in May Swenson’s “Southbound on the Freeway” is unmistakable, but so too should be the seriousness of the poem’s central concern regarding modern humans’ dependency on technology and machinery—the automobile in particular. Hardly anyone would deny that Americans love their cars, relying on them for pleasure trips and unmapped adventures, as well as for more practical purposes such as getting to work or traveling for business or important personal reasons. But there may be a darker side to this seemingly wholesome, progressive, even natural human appreciation of technological advancements. “Southbound on the Freeway” addresses the more dubious side without sacrificing the whimsy and fun of its premise. Perhaps the best way to examine this poem is to look at it with the same mixture of humor and seriousness that Swenson applied to the subject.

“Orbitville” is as hokey as it gets when naming a town in outer space, and Swenson was well aware of that. But it paved the way for such a silly scenario as a naïve alien parking his flying saucer in the air and reporting what he thinks is an account of earthling life, making mistakes all along the way. Some of his errors, though, are simply misconceptions. He has never seen a human being before, so it seems plausible that all those things moving around below are this society’s inhabitants. But what is his excuse for calling a planet a star? Surely, a being who hails from a world so scientifically advanced that its people can go on trips throughout the universe must know the difference between the two. (And we can assume that the poet did as well, since she was an astronomy buff and enjoyed reading science material for pleasure.)

Perhaps, though, the key is in the first line of the poem. The alien is a “tourist.” Nowhere does it say that he is an astronaut or a scientist of any kind. This adds to the poem’s whimsy in that we can liken the speaker to the average-Joe tourist standing in his Bermuda shorts with a camera hung around his neck, gawking at some foreign site which he has never before seen. He may not be quite so bright either.

The visitor from Orbitville also makes a curious observation in regard to what he believes are the inhabitants’ “transparent parts,” obviously, the car windows. He readily assumes that “you can see their guts,” but is he referring to the people inside the cars or simply the insides of the vehicles— dashboards, steering wheels, and such? Later, when he describes “Those soft shapes / shadowy inside,” it is clear that he is talking about the humans, but his confusion at that point is not evident in the earlier part of his report. It is not necessary to clear up this discrepancy in order to understand or enjoy the poem, but it does hint at the tourist’s uncertainty about what he is seeing, making him seem not as self-assured as his matter-of-fact tone first implies. In turn, this doubtfulness is a clever bridge between the humor and the seriousness of the poem. The levity of its surface content is suddenly darkened by the unavoidable question of just who or what is in control.

But Swenson does not bring that question up until the last line of “Southbound on the Freeway.” First, she allows the reader to enjoy getting to know a little more about the alien visitor while he gets to know the people of Earth, or so he thinks. Here, the reader has the advantage of watching him watch us, which for most...

(This entire section contains 1543 words.)

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of the poem, is more revealing of the unwary tourist than of humans. Apparently, he is as clueless about roads as he is about the people who drive on them. In Orbitville, everyone must fly, for the alien mistakes the highways for “diagrams—or long / measuring tapes—dark / with white lines.” This imagery reappears later in the poem when the tourist reports that the inhabitants “glide, / like inches, down the marked / tapes.” But not only do the creatures “glide” down the road, they also “hiss” as they go. This word lends a second, more devious, meaning to the tape measure imagery—snakes. Perhaps this implication is a part of the bridge between fun and sobriety. After all, it does appear just before the question of control arises.

Poet, editor, and critic Dave Smith is a fan of Swenson’s poetry, and he asserts in an article for Poetry magazine that “There are two central obsessions in her work: the search for a proper perspective and the celebration of life’s embattled rage to continue. Her poems ask teleological questions, and answer them, insofar as answers are ever possible.” “Southbound on the Freeway” certainly presents a lesson about proper perspective, demonstrating in a light-hearted, yet poignant, manner how warped people’s (or other beings’) beliefs can be, based on the knowledge they have of the scene set before them. But this is not the core message in the poem. To use Smith’s term, the poet was more interested in asking a “teleological” question and letting that be the stimulus to get the reader thinking. “Teleology” is defined as the doctrine that final causes exist, particularly in nature, and that there is an ultimate design or purpose in nature. In this poem, the question is whether the purpose of mankind’s intellectual ability and technological intelligence are ultimately designed to make us the masters of the machines we create or simply the guts of the things that have taken on a mind of their own. It is a good question and not one that Swenson necessarily answers.

If the tourist from Orbitville were to take a stab at answering his own question, how may he approach it? Consider what he has observed while parked in the air above the freeway: thousands of similarly shaped, hard-bodied beings move quickly in parallel lines—some going south, some going north, but all sticking to the track, or “long / measuring tapes,” they have been placed on. The scene is similar to a human being standing over a rat maze, in which all the walls of the labyrinth have been configured into straight lines and the confused animals run to and fro, to and fro, without apparent purpose.

Given the alien’s limited frame of reference, it would not be surprising for him to decide that “Those soft shapes” inside “the hard bodies” are their guts, not their brains. The movement he witnesses does not show evidence of any intellectual endeavor. Instead, it all appears monotonous and mindless. The only hint of conscious decision making that the tourist sees is the show of respect for the creature with the “red eye turning / on the top of his head.” This act, however, is minimal compared to the continuing line of beings moving back and forth in rote fashion. From this perspective, it appears that the ultimate purpose of humanity is to become a part of the designs we create.

But not all should be left as doom and gloom in Swenson’s poem. A case can be made for a more positive teleological theory as well. Aliens aside, the human capacity for intelligence and technological know-how has proven its worth many times over throughout history, and, apparently, pre-history. The fear of American culture being taken over by machines— from outer space or from our own factories— is a more recent concern. The onslaught of the industrial age, followed by the technology age, has caused some human beings to feel out of control of their own lives, even their own destinies. But most people, especially those who grew up with televisions, airplanes, freeways, and, certainly now, computers, do not think twice about the products that they not only use everyday, but that they depend on. It is this dependency that has riled some people over the past several decades, but it is safe to assume that those same folks do not ride horses or walk everywhere they go and that they do own a TV and have perhaps even briefly surfed the Internet.

The truth is modern human beings do rely on the speed, efficiency, and comfort that has derived from technological advancement, and the automobile is one of the most cherished advances. Its increased use necessitated the construction of a major interstate highway system, and, even if it looks like a long, black measuring tape or a long, black snake, it is still a practical, intelligent solution to the problem of rapid growth. In spite of cynical naysayers and warnings of the coming Armageddon between man and machine, American drivers will not give up their vehicles for anything, including threats of pending disaster. Most would actually be amused at the question posed by Swenson’s tourist from Orbitville, feeling quite confident that they know who is in charge as they make they way southbound, northbound, or in any other direction on the freeway.

Source: Pamela Steed Hill, Critical Essay on “Southbound on the Freeway,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Hill is the author of a poetry collection, has published widely in literary journals, and is an editor for a university publications department.

Imagery, Metaphor, and Simile

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At first glance, Swenson’s poem may seem a bit out of the ordinary to the unsuspecting reader. The reader may inquire as to who this mysterious tourist could be and wonder where this so-called Orbitville is located. Yet, he still continues reading, allowing a willing suspension of disbelief to carry him through the twenty-six lines of simple text. By the end of the first stanza, the reader realizes with a certain delight that the story is told from the viewpoint of a traveler from another planet. What is this mysterious creature observing from above? At first, the reader naturally assumes that the poet, May Swenson, is describing humans because she calls them the “creatures of this star.”

As the description continues, the reader begins to comprehend that the visitor is mistaken. For as Swenson slowly begins to flesh out her description, the reader sees that she is describing something inherently more mechanical: these aforementioned creatures are actually automobiles! The genius behind this work is that Swenson never uses the word car, yet all readers are aware by the poem’s end that she is describing cars as humans know them. To effectuate this objective, Swenson relies heavily on the poetic devices of imagery, simile, metaphor, and personification to describe the familiar scene of cars traveling southbound on a freeway.

The use of the literary device of imagery is unquestionably the most prominent in the poem and jumps out at the reader with deliberate intention. Imagery can best be described as a picture made out of words. It allows the poem to become a puzzle, or an object of interpretation rather than a literal description such that we would find in a novel. Imagery is the vehicle that makes poetry concrete as opposed to abstract. For Swenson, the world is comprised of images because everything is described rather than named. She paints a verbal picture for her readers so accurately that they can make no mistake as to what is being portrayed on a literal level. The literary understanding of imagery has changed over the generations. Imagery once signified all the objects and qualities of sense perception referred to in a poem, whether by literal description, by allusion, or in the vehicles of simile and metaphor. As the face of poetry evolved, imagery became synonymous with figurative language, and one of the most essential components of the contemporary poem.

The paramount concept behind imagery is that imagery does not necessarily imply a visual reproduction of the object because some readers may experience visual images while others do not after some prompts. Further, even among those who conjure up images in their mind’s eye, the details of each reader’s image will probably vary greatly. As in this case, a poem may itself be a single image composed of a multiplicity of images. Each line completes another piece of the puzzle, so as to fill in an empty canvas with an increasingly complete picture.

For example, the words “creatures” and “star” in the second stanza demonstrate the use of obscure language to force the reader to stretch his imagination. Although there is little confusion that Swenson means “inhabitants” and “planet,” her use of less appropriate words allows the reader to compensate with his own imagination. Her word choice also lends authenticity to the inherently unbelievable premise that aliens are authoring this poem. Certainly, an alien might call Earth a star rather than a planet and would not know to call Earth’s inhabitants humans. Those are our words. Swenson comments that “through their transparent parts / . . . you can see their guts.” These “transparent parts” may reference windows or sunroofs, and the “guts” perhaps the steering wheel, dashboard, or even the person driving. The notion of aliens perceiving cars as insects or lower life forms is both amusing and grotesque. Further, it gives readers an uncannily new view of the world they once took for granted.

The description of the scene from above is resoundingly beautiful in its simplicity. The four eyes, with the two in the back, are obvious references to head and tail lights. The reader has undoubtedly stood many times next to a car without noticing the eye-like qualities of its headlights. The next description in the poem is that of the five-eyed “creature” with one-turning eye. This is a creature that the others respect, by going slowly and allowing him to wind around them as he passes. Although the description of a bird’s eye view of a police car is so obvious to the reader, the reader can readily see that the alien interpretation is equally feasible. Swenson even employs a sound imagery, in the phrase “they all hiss as they glide.” One can nearly hear the sound of the cars whizzing past on the freeway. In this sense, this work employs more than visual sense, which is a pleasant surprise, as most poems are content to only conjure images.

The description of the hissing sound and the notion of the cars “respecting” one another are examples of personification. Personification occurs when the author or poet assigns human or animal traits to objects. An example would be to say that the morning “awoke and stretched its weary arms.” Some literary critics also call this device the pathetic fallacy when applied to living but inanimate things like plants, under the theory that it is morbid and unnatural to assign life-like qualities to unnatural objects. Yet, in this poem, the use of personification adds to the authenticity of the premise that automobiles are “alive.”

Swenson, a naturalist who revels in depicting ordinary objects with imagination, has assumed a third-person point of view in other works. By deconstructing an aspect of human life so familiar that humans take it for granted, Swenson demonstrates that even the most mundane of objects is a potential subject for a poem. Likewise, in many of her other poems, she utilizes the same gift of creative description to clue the reader in to the object of the work without revealing the specifics. In “Little Lion Face,” for example, she describes a sunflower thusly: “Little lion face / I stopped to pick / among the mass of thick / succulent blooms, the twice / streaked flanges of your silk.” Using the same metaphorical techniques she uses in “Southbound on the Freeway,” Swenson writes an entire poem about the beauty of a sunflower without once using the word sunflower. One can see strains of the same breed of innocence in “Southbound on the Freeway” because Swenson assumes the same pseudo-childlike levels of observation.

This approach to poetry is philosophically comparable to the approach of abstract or cubist painters such as Picasso. In such paintings, the artist distorts a familiar shape so that the viewer must infuse some imagination into dissecting the meaning behind the art. Swenson gives the reader cryptic verbal clues as to the object portrayed but does not disclose it completely. In this sense, the poet has demonstrated an ability to see the world though geometry, through lines and shapes. In Swenson’s world, to write a poem is to reach for a multitude of words in order to describe something rather than divulge the mystery outright. The most interesting aspect of this piece is that it represents a subject and a viewpoint that most poets would not think worthy of exploration with a pen and paper. Why, one may ask, would someone choose such an unusual subject matter and viewpoint for a poem? The skyward view of cars traveling on a freeway is not overtly fascinating, pithy, or romantic. Readers frequently assume that a poem is a vehicle for exposing a facet of an author’s personality or background. Unquestionably, some poets view their chosen art form as a medium for sharing some of their hard-learned wisdom with the rest of the world.

At first glance, this poem does not seem to teach the reader anything about the world. Readers might walk away musing at Swenson’s creativity, but they may not ask themselves why she chose this particular topic. However, after rereading the lines, the reader may get the sense that Swenson is poking fun at human society. By the poem’s end, readers gain a refreshing new insight into the bizarreness of the modern world, where human creations are sophisticated enough to resemble life forms to an unsuspecting extraterrestrial. The fact that an automobile resembles a life form to an unsuspecting observer could be a compliment to the unparalleled technological industry of the contemporary world. However, on the other hand, the fact that an observer from Orbitville could reasonably mistake the hard chassis of a car for an intelligent life form is potentially pejorative for human society. Swenson seems to be saying, “What do humans value in society?” Are human inventions the most apparent and noticeable aspects of this culture? Is engineering reflective of the true brains of human society? One may get the sense that Swenson believes advanced technologies are destructive to the natural world.

In her aesthetic portrayal of unassuming objects, Swenson could even have been described as the fringe of the San Francisco Beat Movement of the 1950s. This movement, which evolved out of intellectual meetings between bohemian poets in San Francisco and New York, spawned such famous names as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. These unconventional writers were reacting to the post World War II fervor and the beginning strains of McCarthyism, and their writing reflected a subtle angst for American popular and contemporary culture. The three recurring themes of the Beat movement are candor in thought and language, spirituality, and environmentalism. Swenson, who was born into a Morman family in Logan, Utah, often wrote poems depicting nature as a recurring theme. This technique allows the reader to rediscover something ubiquitous in his environment all over again.

Furthermore, the fact that Swenson elected to describe the scene of cars traveling rapidly in open spaces may be indicative of her Western American upbringing. She left Utah after finishing her bachelor’s at the University of Utah to move to New York City. Although she worked mostly on the East Coast and never returned to Utah to live, much of her poetry reflects a love of the natural world, which was not likely gleaned from living in cosmopolitan areas. We can almost see her writing this poem while perched on a mountain overlook in Logan, Utah, furrowing her brow at the sight of cars whizzing by on the freeway below her. Once domiciled in New York, she became a poet who corresponded frequently with other influential female poets of the twentieth century, most notably Elizabeth Bishop. Although less known in popular culture than Bishop, Swenson is revered in many critical circles, especially among sensual women writers.

As James S. Terry notes in his annotation of Nature: Poems Old and New, “Swenson’s gift is to observe and catalog accurately while stretching possible meanings to a higher imaginative level. She is therefore both abstract and concrete at once. A vision akin to William Blake’s is mixed with a homely vernacular diction like Robert Frost’s or perhaps Roethke’s, so that even the darker subjects are luminous with Swenson’s unusual or new perspectives.” Further, critic Robert Hass, in selecting Swenson’s Question as the Poet’s Choice in his Washington Post column on September 13, 1998, called Swenson a “wonderful and not very wellknown poet . . . in the quirky tradition of Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop.” Perhaps Swenson will someday posthumously receive the recognition she deserves.

Source: Lisa Fabian, Critical Essay on “Southbound on the Freeway,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Fabian is a former student of poetry.


Critical Overview