Saturday, April 12, 2008


The story that human beings are most inspired by is the hero’s journey.

In the story of Icarus, a young man, full of ambition and excitement, plummets to his death because he flies too close to the sun. How are we to interpret this death? Ovid suggests the story of Icarus is a cautionary tale: Fly the middle way! We can neither be ruled entirely by reason (the sun) nor by passion (the sea). We must balance these in order to live effectively.

But in Anne Sexton’s poem "To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Triumph," the poet writes:

Consider Icarus, pasting those sticky wings on,
testing that strange little tug at his shoulder blade,
and think of that first flawless moment
over the lawn of the labyrinth.
Think of the difference it made!

Here, Sexton is talking about breaking through boundaries, testing the limits of what is considered possible. In this context, Icarus's adventure amounts to a freedom of the imagination from previous constraints:

There below are the trees, as awkward as camels;
and here are the shocked starlings pumping past
and think of innocent Icarus who is doing quite well:
larger than a sail, over the fog and the blast
of the plushy ocean, he goes.

I love this part of the poem; it is the perfect description of how we look back at our former constraints and see how "awkward" our thinking had been.

In the final section of the poem, Sexton asks us not to feel sorry for Icarus but rather to admire him:

Admire his wings! Feel the fire at his neck
and see how casually he glances up and is caught,
wondrously tunneling into that hot eye. Who cares
that feel back to the sea? See him acclaiming the sun
and come plunging down while his sensible
daddy goes straight into town.

Who cares that Icarus failed, she asks. He tunneled into that hot eye of the sun and in that moment he was fully alive. Icarus embraced pure knowledge, while his "daddy," safe but sadly "sensible," "goes straight to town."


Anonymous said...

Do you know that I read the complete collection of Anne Sexton's poems some years back, and did not remember this one? I love your interpretation. Now I REALLY get it. Now it will not be forgotten. Thank you! Teagrapple

ggw07 said...

“Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard.”
“Saints have no moderation, nor do poets, just exuberance.”
“It doesn't matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was.”
“The beautiful feeling after writing a poem is on the whole better even than after sex, and that's saying a lot.”
Anne Sexton

Yes- The hero's journey is everywhere- Anne Sexton is amazing!

ggw07 said...

Rare Film Clips Of The Poet Anne Sexton

Erin said...

Hi Theresa! I do not believe I have read this poem, and I love it. You've inspired me to pick up some Sexton from my bookshelf. (I'm starting to miss grown-up books after reading so many designed for children!)

V said...

That`s a beautiful poem.

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"I was no better than dust, yet you cannot replace me. . . Take the soft dust in your hand--does it stir: does it sing? Has it lips and a heart? Does it open its eyes to the sun? Does it run, does it dream, does it burn with a secret, or tremble In terror of death? Or ache with tremendous decisions?. . ." --Conrad Aiken


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The Secret of Hurricanes : That article in the Waterville Scout said it was Shake- spearean, all that fatalism that guides the Kennedys' lives. The likelihood of untimely death. Recently, another one died in his prime, John-John in an airplane. Not long before that, Bobby's boy. While playing football at high speeds on snow skis. Those Kennedys take some crazy chances. I prefer my own easy ways. Which isn't to say my life hasn't been Shake-spearean. By the time I was sixteen, my life was like the darkened stage at the end of Hamlet or Macbeth. All littered with corpses and treachery.

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