Stephen Dunn’s The Sacred and Louis Simpson’s The Classic: A Comparison of Themes in Two Poems about Cars

            The car has become a part of modern culture all over the world - Stephen Dunn’s The Sacred and Louis Simpson’s The Classic: A Comparison of Themes in Two Poems about Cars introduction. Like the personal computer and the television, the car is not simply the engine-run machine that it was decades ago. It has become symbolic of the personality and lifestyle of car owners, and in a macroscopic sense, even a measure of the collective economic and social status of a community or society. The car is an extension of its owner like his clothes. It is a necessity like having a home and drinking water. It is also a topic for everyday conversations as common as the weather. Two poems, Stephen Dunn’s The Sacred and Louis Simpson’s The Classic, explore two differing viewpoints about owning a car and making it a part of one’s life.

            In The Sacred a teacher asks the class what their sacred places are. One student points to his car as the most sacred place of all, “being in it alone, his tape deck playing.” It is a place where he can be himself and only think about “things he’d chosen” Other students speak about their rooms, but “the car kept coming up”.  One could also play music in the room and expose one’s real self in the haven of this personal and private space exclusive to the room owner. However, it cannot beat the feeling of being in a “car in motion.” Inside a speeding car, with the music and the hum of the engine filling the driver’s sense of consciousness is like being lost in prayer or meditation. Praying to “the bright altar of the dashboard” takes the individual sitting behind the wheel “far away” into a trancelike state where he simply concentrates on the road, the traffic, speeding along, and nothing else. The car is a sacred place because in the few minutes or hours when one is driving, the experience makes the person achieve a certain high. The poem elevates the car by ascribing these elements of sacredness to it.

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            While The Sacred is a romantic way of viewing the role of the car in the life of its owner, American Classic is realistic to the point of being harsh in its criticism about the car. The first image presented in the poem, “a car stopped off the road/ and a man trying to repair it” is described by the poet as a “classic American scene.” Meanwhile, a woman, the companion, “stays in the car…and stares back at the freeway traffic.” Both people “look surprised and ashamed/ to be helpless.” They blame their car for putting them into the shameful predicament of being stuck in the middle of the road while traffic goes by them, the other cars seemingly better and more dependable than theirs. They feel betrayed: “to think that their car would do this”. While the first poem is sincere, this second poem is sarcastic. The car is actually a harmful thing as it spews carbon dioxide into the air and the poem pokes fun at how car owners do not recognize this but instead put so much importance to owning cars and getting the best that they could possibly afford. The poem ironically declares that cars that let down their owners make the latter “not such good Americans.” The obsession that society has attributed to cars is such that to own a car that breaks down in the middle of the street is form of embarrassment. It is the feeling of “being left out” because your car breaks down while those of others do not.

            Some people might argue that a car is only a machine. If it breaks down it can be fixed. Others survive without cars. However, a fact is that even non-car owners depend on these machines for going places be it through using public transportation or riding in other people’s cars. They, too, would surely understand how it feels to be inside a speeding car, to get lost in the hypnotic combination of music from the car stereo, the rushing wind, and the humming engine.  They too, would surely understand the feeling of embarrassment to wait on the side of the street as a flat tire is being replaced, as the engine is being fixed, or while waiting for the tow truck to arrive. The car has elicited both praise and criticism because people have allowed it to become an integral part of their lives. Therefore, while the car serves its owner, it would gain his approval; but if it lets him down, it would incur his disapproval.

 

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