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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 60· No. 1 > Poetry of the Open Road

Summer 1996
Vol. 60· No. 1

Poetry of the Open Road

by Tamara Broberg

"Oh public road ... You express me better than I express myself."

- Walt Whitman, "Song of the Open Road"

In a mobile society, roads have a special meaning to us. They take us to and from work and school. They take us to visit friends and relatives. They symbolize rites of passage - birth of a child, first date, senior prom, wedding, and even death. There is almost always a road associated with every place we go and every important event in our lives. Yet, often roads are minor details in our memories of important moments. Because roads are everywhere, we often forget them.

Poets have long recognized the parallels between roads and life. Often, the references to roads in poetry are metaphorical. They make us think of our lives and how we have lived them. Some poets portray roads as the conventional path followed by everyone. Because of this, following a road is like following someone else's way, not one that you have chosen. In the poem "The Road Not Taken," Robert Frost compares choosing the road less traveled with choosing the path in life less traveled. This, he contends, has made his life better:

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood and I --

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

"The Calf Path," written in 1895 by Sam Walter Foss, was a popular humorous poem during the early days of the good roads movement. In it, Foss describes how a crooked path originally carved by a calf walking home developed into a major road traveled by hundreds of thousands of people. The poem becomes a moral statement that says:

For men are prone to go it blind

Along the calf paths of the mind,

And work away from sun to sun

To do what other men have done.

They follow in the beaten track;

And in, and out, and forth, and back.

Other poets portray roads as a source of freedom. While the Frost poem has a tone of quiet reflection and the Foss poem one of humor, the Walt Whitman poem "Song of the Open Road" is light-hearted and evokes a sense of exhilaration brought on by exploring life on the open road:

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,

Healthy, free, the world before me,

The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

The "road of life" is a metaphor that almost everyone has heard, and one that is frequently used by poets. In "Road Life," Reg Saner uses a cross-country road trip with his family and the people he encounters while traveling to show his progress through life. Saner sums up his nostalgic feelings about life on the road and life in general in the final stanza of the poem:

How do you love them, these touches only the road could imagine!

Because the road still tells a good story about small figures pretty much like yours charging against the horizon.

And tells how, against astonishing odds often including themselves, most people get where they're going.

Even in the hurtle and chinook of the vast swashbuckling diesels you hear it.

And, during hushes between, in these small secrets traded by birds.

Artistic depiction of ancient travel.Artistic depiction of ancient travel.While early Americans explored roads on foot and on horseback, modern Americans are equipped with the automobile, which is meant to help us get from here to there even faster. Sometimes, however, so many cars choke our roads that it is impossible to get anywhere. In "Traffic," Stephen Dobyns describes being stuck in traffic as being "jammed together with my enemies, people no better than chunks of wood, impediments to my dinner, as I was an impediment to theirs." These lines reflect the feelings of many Americans, who are often rushed to get things done and don't like anything to get in their way.

As roads became more and more important to the American way of life, the need for a limited-access highway system became more necessary. The development of the interstate system and other highways made it even easier to "wander." The whole basis of American life has been to "move on" and "discover." Interstate highways made it possible for us to get from here to there even faster by taking away the restrictions - stop signs, traffic lights, and intersecting traffic. As American cities developed, roads became less of a mystery and a path of discovery and more of a representation of escaping the hassles of modern day living. This idea can be seen in the Tony Hoagland poem, "Perpetual Motion":

Do you hear me,

do you feel me moving through?

With my foot upon the gas,

between the future and the past,

I am here --

here where the desire to vanish

is stronger than the desire to appear.

James Griffin, a writer in the Federal Highway Administration's Office of Motor Carriers, wrote a poem entitled "Interstate." Griffin sees the interstate as a connector of cities, joined by barren landscapes in between:

Between the passions of cities

and pale towns

lie unrequited distances

empty stretches

of unnamed landscape

curving and lifting

in a sleep of light

where the soul travels

far out into wide

fields and wilderness.

These unrequited distances hold a sense of mystery and even fear of the unknown. Yet, one can still see the sense of discovery.

Highways and roads have become the subject of many a modern day poem. In fact, an entire book of poetry entitled Drive, They Said - edited by Kurt Brown and published by Milkweed Editions in 1994 - contains poems about Americans, their cars, and the roads they drive. The book is comprised of poetry written by various American poets. The poems by Reg Saner, Stephen Dobyns, and Tony Hoagland mentioned above can be found in this work.

While some poets are inspired by roads, others are inspired by the sights they see while traveling on them. One poet, A.R. Ammons, was moved to write a book of poetry entitled Garbage while driving down I-95 in Florida, where he spotted a smoldering pile of the stuff. In Garbage - a work that won both the Bobbitt Prize and National Book Award for Poetry - Ammons makes general observations about life and the way we live it.

As Walt Whitman wrote in "Song of the Open Road":

Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,

Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,

Strong and content I travel the open road.

This excerpt shows how roads have come to symbolize the thing that we as a nation value the most - our freedom. As evidenced by the many poems named above, roads have different meanings to different people - some good, some bad. One thing, however, is certain; roads will continue to be a major part of our lives and will continue to symbolize the essence of our culture.

Tamara Broberg is a writer in the Office of the Associate Administrator for Program Development.

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