Southbound on the Freeway

by May Swenson

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Historical Context

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“Southbound on the Freeway” was written during a time in America when the country was reaffirming its love affair with moving machines. From the automobile to spaceships, technology was taking mobility to new heights in the early 1960s. Two of the most significant developments in this era were space exploration with both manned and unmanned crafts and the construction of an interstate highway system linking cities and towns across America in a manner never seen before. While both developments provided tremendous new opportunities for millions of people, not everyone was supportive of the efforts.

NASA’s space programs using manned spaceships and unmanned satellites got underway simultaneously in the late 1950s and early 1960s. With the launching of the Echo 1 satellite in 1960 and the more sophisticated Telstar 1 and Relay 1 in 1962, scientists could bounce radio wave messages off the satellites and redirect them to desired locations, as well as pick up signals that were sent back to Earth. Telstar 1 provided the first satellite television broadcasts in 1962. Antimissile satellites were also launched in the early 1960s, and the military used satellites with high-resolution cameras to fly over nations and take pictures of facilities that were of interest to the American government. Enemy countries, however, were not the only targets of space exploration, for there were brand new worlds to discover as well. In 1960 Pioneer 5 was launched on a journey to the Sun; Mariner 1 and Mariner 2 left for Venus in 1962; and another pair of Mariners headed for Mars in 1964.

While some Americans grumbled about the expense of the unmanned satellite probes, many others questioned the cost, danger, and effectiveness of sending astronauts into space. The first man in space was actually a Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, who orbited Earth in 1961. But the Americans were not far behind, sending John Glenn into orbit to circle the planet three times in his 1962 mission. Glenn was part of the Mercury space program that saw other launches in the early 1960s, followed by the Gemini program in the mid-1960s, during which American astronauts made their first space walks.

In the latter part of the decade, the Apollo program became the biggest scientific project in history, culminating with the moon landing in 1969. But in spite of the marvels of sending human beings to other planets and of all the discoveries that came from it, many Americans did not find the risk and expense worth it. In the decades since the 1960s, that sentiment has not changed much, particularly in light of the Challenger disaster in 1986. But the same is not true when it comes to Americans and their cars.

As early as the 1920s, the number of automobiles on the road was increasing at such a fast rate that soon there were millions of cars for only several hundred miles of pavement. Lawmakers began to consider the best ways to fund construction of more paved roads, but the Depression of the 1930s followed by World War II put highway projects on the back burner for nearly two decades. After the war, America saw some of its most prosperous times to date, and much of it was due to new technology. Just as the automobile had replaced the horse and carriage, television replaced radio and for many travelers, airlines became the transportation of choice over buses and trains.

By the 1950s many states had developed their own road construction projects to keep up with the increased traffic, but it was obvious that a major undertaking was needed to meet the demands of a...

(This entire section contains 939 words.)

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highly mobile public. Those demands were met with the passing of the National Defense and Interstate Highway Act of 1956, authorized by President Eisenhower and providing for the construction of over forty thousand miles of four-lane highways all across the country. It was a public-works project rivaled only by the construction of the Great Wall in China.

The significance of an interstate highway system for the military was fueled by Cold War anxieties over possible nuclear or other attacks on American soil. Highways would provide faster movement of troops and military vehicles, more efficient evacuation of citizens, and makeshift landing strips for warplanes facing emergency situations.

But these sobering reasons for building thousands of miles of roadways were outweighed by the more frivolous self-interests of a car-crazy public. Americans love freedom, and the ability to hop in a car and end up at a beach or a mountain resort in a matter of hours instead of days is all a part of being free. Faster travel time was important not only in planning vacations, but in creating one of the most significant cultural changes in the nation’s history: the birth of the suburbs. Many urban residents were tired of overcrowded conditions and high crime rates, and the opportunity to move to more open rural spaces and still hold jobs in the cities was very appealing to them.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, new suburbanites bought up prefabricated homes in communities just outside town as quickly as contractors could build them. Driving to work on the highway became trendy, as well as self-satisfying. But while some historians claim that the interstate system provided new employment opportunities and helped to link rural areas and small towns to the rest of the country, others point out that the creation of the suburbs and the “commuter” worker led not only to the decay of inner cities but to the destruction of farmland and personal property as well. Some even say the massive web of highways simply made Americans more dependent on their vehicles. Most drivers would not deny that, nor would they consider it a problem.

Literary Style

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“Southbound on the Freeway” consists of thirteen stanzas of two lines each. It is written in free verse, meaning that there is no consistent rhyme scheme or rhythm pattern. The short stanzas give the poem a look of simplicity, suitable for children’s poetry because it requires less attention span. After the first stanza, the poem becomes a monologue by the “tourist from Orbitville,” giving the tourist’s observations of life on earth’s freeways. The poem frequently uses the technique of enjambment, placing significant words instead of punctuation at the ends of lines, to draw attention to those words. The monologue is structured in small, simple words, using familiar images and sometimes using slang.

Compare and Contrast

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1960s: The first and probably most famous claim of alien abduction is reported by Barney and Betty Hill of New Hampshire. The Hills state that on a return trip from Canada in September, their car was followed by a low-flying space ship, and, upon stopping to get a better look at it, they both blacked out, losing two hours of memory. Later, under hypnosis, they tell stories of being taken aboard the space craft and examined by aliens before being set free two hours later.

Today: The U.S. Air Force publishes the “Roswell Report: Case Closed” in an attempt to put an end to rumors that the military tried to cover up a UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. In the report, the Air Force claims that what witnesses actually saw were remnants of military testing, and Pentagon officials back that claim by saying the “alien bodies” found in the New Mexico desert were probably test dummies.

1960s:Star Trek begins airing on television, playing off NASA’s intensified space exploration programs of the 1960s. The show becomes an instant hit and is now a cult classic in American science fiction.

Today: Outer space TV shows and movies are still a major attraction for the American public. The treatment of aliens and humans has become more sophisticated since Star Trek, and distinctions between the two beings are not so clearcut as pointed ears, bulbous eyes, or bald heads used to portray them.

1960s: Activist Ralph Nader begins his consumer protection campaign by lambasting the auto industry for unsafe products. Nader’s publication of Unsafe at Any Speed led not only to the halt in production of General Motors’s “Corvair,” but eventually to the creation of the Center for Auto Safety and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Today: While safety features are some of the most touted selling-points of car manufacturers in the United States and abroad, unsafe products are still routinely revealed in the auto industry.

Media Adaptations

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The Music of Claudio Spies, recorded by CRI in 1996, is a collection of musical compositions based on the words of poets through the ages, including Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, May Swenson, and others. Specific titles are not mentioned, but three of the songs are based on Swenson’s work.

Swenson’s “Symmetrical Companion” is a part of a poems-set-to-music collection, composed by Roger Bourland. Recorded in 1993 by Yelton Rhodes Music, the collection also includes lyrics by James Merrill, Thom Gunn, Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, and other poets.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Hass, Robert, “Poet’s Corner,” in the Washington Post, September 13, 1998.

Shapiro, Karl, “A Ball with Language,” in the New York Times Book Review, May 7, 1967, pp. 8, 34.

Smith, Dave, “Perpetual Worlds Taking Place,” in Poetry, Vol. CXXXV, No. 5, February 1980, pp. 291–96.

Swenson, May, “Little Lion Face,” in In Other Words: New Poems, Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

—, Nature: Poems Old and New, annotated by Terry S. James, Houghton Mifflin, 1994.

—, To Mix with Time: New and Selected Poems, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963.

Further Reading Knudson, R. Rozanne, The Wonderful Pen of May Swenson, Macmillan, 1993. This is a biography of May Swenson written by her longtime friend R. R. Knudson. It contains excerpts from her poems and photographs from her personal collection. Although written by an obvious supporter of her poetry, the book presents a candid, honest picture of the poet’s life.

Swenson, May, Dear Elizabeth: Five Poems and Three Letters to Elizabeth Bishop, Utah State University Press, 2000. Just as the title suggests, this collection of personal letters and poems dedicated to Swenson’s friend, mentor, and fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop was published through the Literary Estate of May Swenson. It contains copies of actual letters in Swenson’s own handwriting and exposes some of her deepest thoughts about a woman she cared deeply for.

—, Iconographs, Scribner, 1970. Swenson used the word “iconograph” to refer to her “shape” poems—works that typographically and visually represent the subject of the poem. For example, a poem about an animal may reflect that animal’s shape on the page. This 1970 collection highlights Swenson’s appreciation for nature and science and gives the reader a good idea of how wide her scope was in terms of both subject matter and format.

—, Made with Words, edited by Gardner McFall, University of Michigan Press, 1998. This is an extensive collection of Swenson’s prose— from excerpts of her fiction writing to essays about her thoughts on poets and poetry—as well as an interview. The book provides an excellent look at how Swenson created her work and what she believed about the entire creative process.


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