On The Move by Thom Gunn
This poem titled On The Move, from Gunn’s second collection, is his most well-known work, and one of the most famous of all post-war poetry. The aimless yet frightening movement of a motorcycle gang becomes a metaphor for modern man’s sense of alienation and lack of purpose in the film. Gunn employs a variety of interconnected metaphors in On the Move, all of which stem from the central notion of mobility.
A sociological “footnote of the fifties”:
The poem serves as a social footnote from the 1950s. Western youthful black-jacketed motorcyclists have become apt emblems of restless energy and violent mobility. The poem’s subtitle, “Man, you gotta go” suggests an unwillingness and inability to stand still. It is the poem’s epigraph.
The first four lines of stanza one describe a natural setting. Birds flit around in an active manner, doing what comes naturally to them. While unaffected by humanity, the birds are at peace with their surroundings. The pronoun ‘One’ in line 6 is ambiguous and functions on multiple levels. It is a reference to the poet, the people (mankind), or, by extension, the motorcyclists. This is typically difficult to convey in a classroom setting. I usually keep it at the poet’s level, and if a brighter student notices the possible options, I let the conversation go as far as they can. The message becomes clearer later in the poem when the author identifies with mankind’s underlying experience of indecision. In the final words of the poem, mankind (or the bikers, or the poet) moves with vim, yet it does not know what it is doing and cannot communicate its views effectively. A disturbance is generated by the attempt at articulation – ‘an uncertain violence.’ Humans are disconnected from themselves and their surroundings. (See verse four for an example of how people lack the impulse to direct their behaviours.) It is worth noting that the phrases ‘dust’ and ‘thunder’ predict the appearance of ‘the Boys’ in stanza two. Even the word ‘baffled’ has multiple meanings, depending on whether it refers to frustration or an exhaust silencer.
Stanza two begins with a small and insect-like perspective of the motorcycle gang in the distance. They get bigger as they go closer, and the roar of their motors gets louder. Riders are soon seen astride their formidable machines. They all look the same in their leather costumes (‘donned impersonality’). Line two’s revolting imagery imply rejection and possibly alienation. ‘… held by calf and thigh…’ suggests the gang’s physical (sexual?) mastery of the machines. Lines 7—8 deal with the gang’s uniformity in clothes and behaviour – two deliberate features of the group. The uniforms, their communal way of life, and their continual activity virtually give them a sense of purpose in life, which may help them overcome their self-doubt.
In Stanza three, the Boys are attempting to establish their manhood but are unsure of their own toughness. They know where they are going, but they are not sure where they are going. The motorcyclists disturb the birds, which the poet sees as indicative of modern life: nature must now subject to man’s will and control. This control is frequently haphazard and uneven. Modern man creates ‘both machine and soul’ – he intentionally builds his views and characters – and he employs both of these aspects (which he cannot totally control) to take tremendous risks in uncommon or unique ventures. Men do not move (or are motivated) solely by instinct, as birds do, but by their own acts of will — men have some control over their activities.
Stanza four implies that man’s (or the poet’s) endeavours to mould his future should not be criticised. Because man is just half animal, he cannot act only on instinct, as birds do. Man must make choices. These are challenging decisions, and it will help him if he joins a gang or a wave of human change (‘movement’: line 5) that will provide him with moral support and principles with which he can identify while in that group. The gang’s acts give ‘the Boys’ the impression that they are at least getting somewhere, but there is no idea how or when the adventure will end (death being an accepted absolute).
‘The Boys’ do not pause for long in the final stanza. Soon, these confident(?) young guys mount their man-made machines and roar away. Their style of existence (the path they take) has no final destination or resting place, and it does not acquire natural fullness, as do the lives of birds or saints. Although they may not receive a sense of fulfilment or completion from life, they do feel as though they are moving someplace – which is preferable to sitting and doing nothing at all. In his book Poetry 1900 to 1975 (Longmans 1985), George McBeth writes on the poem’s ending:
‘The poem’s final three lines have enormous authority and may represent Gunn’s core concept of life.’
In general, the poem’s views are similar to existentialism’s philosophy: men have no God-given purpose, but must define themselves (line 34), create their own souls (line 22), and choose their own destinations (line 31), thus constructing some form of value system where none previously existed (line 30). (Also in his book, McBeth claims that Gunn has a “clearly articulated group of attitudes.”) These appear to be that man is a being with free will whose identity is based on his ability to select and shape his own future via his own activities. This philosophy is based on Jean-Paul Satre and Albert Camus’ existentialism.’)
Furthermore, men retain some degree of free will: life is a journey with an unpredictable, if not impossible, conclusion. Moving quickly can convey the impression that a person is reacting passionately to life’s challenges. Man, on the other hand, is unsure if what is being moved ahead is good or bad.
It is worth noting the poet’s reluctance over having definite aims in life. Nonetheless, he appears to connect with and understand them, and he does not want them to be condemned. He even appears to like their powerful machines, their collective feelings, and their mindset that it is preferable to be active than than inactive.
Finally, Gunn demonstrates how the bikers’ action, because it is merely a “part solution” leaves the basic existential dilemma unresolved, regardless of whether there is a solution or only a “part solution” to man’s lack of purpose. Thus, for Gunn, man’s life is a fight in which a type of success is earned in defeat through action. The poem can be interpreted in three ways: as an illustration of the poet’s heroic posture, a social footnote from the 1950s, and a nicely finished piece of imaginative writing.