By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
It was Marinetti and the Futurists who perhaps made the definitive statement about the poetic potential of the motorcar: ‘We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.’
But in fact, ever since the automobile or motorcar began to appear on our roads, poets have been trying to find a means of poetic expression appropriate to this new invention. Here are ten of the greatest automobile or car poems.
Rudyard Kipling, ‘To Motorists’.
It’s fitting that Kipling heads this pick of the best poems about cars for several reasons: first, in being born in 1865 and having made his name as a writer in the 1880s, Kipling was perhaps the oldest writer to see the potential of this new invention for the poet; second, Kipling wrote a whole collection, The Muse among the Motors, in which he parodied the styles of earlier poets and wrote poems about cars as Robert Herrick etc. would have written them.
And here it is the short, pithy style of Herrick’s poetry that he pastiches as he offers a warning to motorists:
Since ye distemper and defile
Sweet Herè by the measured mile,
Nor aught on jocund highways heed
Except the evidence of speed …
Banjo Paterson, ‘The Lay of the Motor Car’.
Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson (1864-1941) was an Australian bush poet, journalist, and author – one of two Australian poets to feature on this list. Paterson pays tribute to the thrill of ‘We’re away! and the wind whistles shrewd / In our whiskers and teeth; / And the granite-like grey of the road / Seems to slide underneath.’
Henry Lawson, ‘The Motor Car’.
Lawson was another Australian bush poet. Published in 1907, ‘The Motor Car’ – unlike Paterson’s poem – doesn’t exactly sing the praises of this new technological invention:
The motor car is sullen, like a thing that should not be;
The motor car is master of Smart Society.
’Twas born of sweated genius and collared by a clown;
’Twas planned by Retribution to ride its riders down …
Percy MacKaye, ‘The Automobile Poem’. MacKaye (1875-1956) was an American playwright and poet, who in this sonnet captures the rapturous feeling of speed as the world rushes past us while we take to the roads in a car. Probably the first ever Petrarchan sonnet about the car!
Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘The Little Car’. Apollinaire (1880-1918), a French avant-garde poet, was one of the first to incorporate the recent invention of the motorcar into his poetry.
In this poem he recalls a car journey he made in August 1914 – the month of the outbreak of the First World War. The poem was written two years ago and is haunted by war: that fateful car journey saw Apollinaire and his friends heading off to fight.
T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land.
Eliot’s 1922 masterpiece contains several references to motorcars, such as the ‘sound of horns and motors’ that signal Sweeney’s arrival at Mrs Porter’s brothel in the spring, and the ‘closed car at four’ the nervous woman and her husband will take when it rains. So the poem as a whole deserves to make this list, especially when we consider the taxi that throbs and waits in the third section, too …
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, ‘Driving A Cardboard Automobile Without A License’.
An entertaining ‘just-so story’ of a poem from one of America’s finest contemporary poets (b. 1919), about how the poet’s own parents supposedly met – while his father was driving a cardboard automobile without a licence on ‘a fun-ride at Coney Island’. The final three lines are wonderfully tender.
Gregory Corso, ‘Last Night I Drove a Car’.
A lesser-known figure in the Beat movement, Corso (1930-2001) offers a short poem about reckless driving – as one might expect from a poet associated with the Beat movement…
Mark Vinz, ‘Driving Through’.
The American poet Mark Vinz (b. 1942) here uses the car journey through a nondescript town as a metaphor for deeper emotions relating to nostalgia and unfulfilled potential. Never has the expression ‘you’re only driving through’ been quite so poignant.
Simon Armitage, ‘Hitcher’.
A masterly poem from the current UK Poet Laureate, ‘Hitcher’ is a dramatic monologue spoken by a man who hires a Vauxhall Astra car and picks up a hitchhiker, whom he promptly beats up and throws out of the car.
Why he does it he doesn’t reveal, making this a dramatic monologue in the truly unsettling tradition of nineteenth-century poets like Robert Browning. It’s also a fine conclusion to this pick of the best poems about motorcars.
Discover more classic poetry with these birthday poems, short poems about death, and these classic war poems. We also recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.