When written with the intent of being read, poetry is a form of humanism, a means of putting someone’s thoughts in closer proximity to other people. The practice of artfully arranging words to communicate an ideal/situation/experience to a reader invokes the dignity of everyone involved in the transaction. Poems emerge from and enter our human bodies, speak to our human instances. Even misanthrope poets engage in the humanist act of crafting language to connect their miserable existences to others’. Poetry is an occasion of closeness.
To state the obvious, the advent of cars was transformative. Suddenly, we could get away from each other. Industry could distance itself from commerce and commerce from residence. With cars, we needn’t proximity to our workplaces. Vast swaths of the American landscape were crafted for the man in his machine. From long lonely stretches of desert highway to dense meshes of urban overpasses, this land was made for you and me in our vehicles. For our vehicles to touch one another is an obvious problem. The road is an occasion to create and maintain distance.
Southern California’s mountains are majestic—incendiary, purple, awash in murk. Its valleys hum and swish with motors, tires complaining over roads. A child of divorce with Mom in the valley and Dad in the mountains, I was reared in a car. My first time living away from daily car rides I became ecstatic. Age 20, my cousin and I spent a summer working at a Girl Scout camp in Alaska. I swung my arms and spontaneously sprinted—living on my own two feet, living on the land, I felt freer than I’d ever imagined. At age 24 I moved away for good—to the dense rails and efficient busses of Taipei, the water-bound and buckled roads of New Orleans, to cycle through clinging mists in Oregon.
Seeing the faces of other commuters changed me. They were weary, exuberant, quotidian and unusual. Moving more slowly through cities enamored me of their habits—timed flashes, turning trees, egrets stilting through bayous.
In dreams I still fling up and down mountain roads that rear and buck through fog.
While they present curated experience, to meet people in poems is to reckon with their idiosyncratic perspectives: where they overlap with your own, where they vary; tender comparison, sharing. To meet people on the road is to reckon with catastrophic risks. Each vehicle represents the potential to irreparably damage my body and my economic prospects. Each vehicle represents my potential to demolish myself and others.
Maybe it is a failure of my character, but I have a hard time mustering love for my fellow humans when we are wrapped in glass and aluminum and hurling ourselves toward destinations. Maybe it is a failure of my imagination, but I have a hard time loving the landscape when I blur past it.
The privacy of a personal vehicle insulates the particular—tinted windows ensure the inside isn’t visible, that the intimacy within stays hidden from observers. Poetry—at least some of it—does the opposite, making art out of the personal; showing, telling. The poems that I tend to love gain energy from idiosyncrasy—the precise things that are tucked away into the privacy of single-family dwellings here in car country.
But this is the landscape we have made, the landscape on which and out of which we write. To write for lovers is to write for the roads that bring them to each other. To write for friends is to wish their cars carry them safely to and from their literature. To write for readers is to strain against the confines of the automobile age and it’s insulation and distance. As roads carry us farther away from each other, poems whisper, “Come closer.”