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Revisiting A Very Old Lesson

May 4, 2022

I don’t know why it has stuck with me all these years. It’s funny the bits and pieces of literature we collect from our childhood, like a random junk drawer. Nothing too important, but each thing we at one point thought was useful to keep.

I kept two lines from a poem I heard in school years ago. I’m not even sure how many years. It could have been 8th grade. It could have been earlier or later. The lines were,

the others respect him
and go slow
. . .
are they their guts or their brains?

It’s a poem about an alien watching cars. Like I said, a random bit of text in my literary junk drawer. Eventually I decided to try to find it. Google can find anything, right?


The poem is called Southbound On The Freeway by May Swenson. Here’s the entire poem.

A tourist came in from Orbitville,

parked in the air, and said:

The creatures of this star

are made of metal and glass.

Through the transparent parts

you can see their guts.

Their feet are round and roll

on diagrams or long

measuring tapes, dark

with white lines.

They have four eyes.

the two in the back are red.

Sometimes you can see a five-eyed

one, with a red eye turning

on the top of his head.

He must be special

the others respect him,

and go slow

when he passes, winding

among them from behind.

They all hiss as they glide,

like inches, down the marked

tapes. Those soft shapes,

shadowy inside

the hard bodies are they

their guts or their brains?

It’s apparently a very famous poem. There’s plenty of analysis on the internet. At the time I’m sure I was mostly caught by the clever misdirection of showing respect to the five-eyed creature. And, of course, the last line of guts vs brains.

Now that I look at the poem, I see much more. The poem is written in free verse. That means the author didn’t attempt to use rhyme or meter. I disagree with Robert Frost who famously said,

“Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”
– Robert Frost

Swenson created 13 two line stanzas. But, unlike traditional verse, she chose to not capitalize the first letter of each line. It makes the reader unsure if the poem is an actual poem or an essay.

The poem itself is masterful. On it’s surface it’s whimsical, silly even. And yet, it forces us to step outside ourselves. We are forced to consider how we and our action look to outsiders. Why do we do the things we do? How does that look?

I had some wonderful English teachers growing up. Ms Thomas, my Freshman and AP English teacher was especially good. I remember things she taught me. And yet, I don’t remember if Southbound On The Freeway was one of her lessons.

Whoever introduced it to me managed to get it stuck in my literary junk drawer. I’m glad I finally took it out and displayed it on the shelf.

Stay safe

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. Order Miscellany II, an anthology including his latest short story, “The Mercy System” here

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