National Poetry Month Day 5: Anne Sexton and W.H. Auden

For day five, we’ll go a tiny bit less contemporary. I fell in love with Anne Sexton’s “To a Friend Whose Work has Come to Triumph” when I was in high school. It was one of the poems we studied in Academic Decathlon, which meant that I had to memorize it and know pretty much everything about it. For some of the poetry, this was like torture, but I didn’t mind too much with this Sexton piece. I’ve always enjoyed the story of Icarus, and the language in this rendition is especially rich.

To a Friend Whose Work has Come to Triumph

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!
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. 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.

I’m also a fan of Breughel’s painting of the fall of Icarus, which inspired the following poem by W.H. Auden. This was another decathlon poem, so I guess I must have learned something useful after all in four years of the program. I was exposed to a great deal of beautiful art, literature, and music. These works still stand out as some of my favorites.

Musee des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.


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