NOT GOOD: How Sixth Graders Feel About Icarus’s Fall

by Laura Gamache

Last Wednesday night at Benaroya Hall, after MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize Finalist Lucia Perillo read her poem, “Rebuttal,” she remarked that she understands how people can feel that poems are inaccessible. For this poem, for example, one would need to be familiar with Bruegel, Icarus, and Auden, which got me thinking about sixth graders.

A few years ago, when Seattle middle schools consolidated language arts and social studies classes into blocks, I found out my sixth grade classes would be studying the ancient Greeks. Greek myths are full of outsized doings – and many have been incorporated into video games, cartoons and movies, as I found out when we started talking about some of them. I had begun reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and used that Roman’s take on the Icarus myth to refresh my memory of Icarus, his father, the Minotaur, and the Labyrinth on Crete.

The first time I told the Icarus myth, I brought in paintings as visual broadening – I’d found a website with images from a first century A.D. Pompeian wall painting, to Pieter Bruegel’s “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,” to Matisse’s blue starry sky “Icarus,” to Kent Lew’s “The Fall of Icarus,” as well as many others I didn’t choose to use.

Researching Bruegel’s painting, I discovered W.H. Auden’s poem, “Musee des Beaux Arts.” I told the kids the title came from the name of the Belgian museum where Bruegel’s painting is displayed. Emory University’s website has the poem with an image of Bruegel (the Elder’s) painting beside it. It will also refer you to “Landscape With The Fall of Icarus” by William Carlos Williams, another poem I found and have had sixth graders read.

I had a great time researching and putting together my handouts, but what would the kids make of this? The fantastical story of a father and son being able to fly away from their imprisonment on Crete over the Greek islands in a time when only birds and insects could take to the air is also a cautionary tale, of course. One boy I will never forget could not get over Icarus’s fatal mistake. He pelted me with questions and offered several happier endings. He thought of Icarus as a real boy, maybe even someone who could have walked into our classroom, had he lived. His response was extreme, but this is a very old story we are still telling and painters are still painting. The kids and I considered that question seriously, and then they wrote their poems, after Ovid, after Bruegel, after Auden, after William Carlos Williams.

Here’s a poem by Ashley Roman, then a sixth grader at Hamilton International Middle School:

ICARUS

Oh what a heavy burden,
To fulfill this creature’s every wish
In fear of pain,
if not done so.
We must be set free,
but not by ship,
for the waters are crowded with many fleets.
The only way to escape
is to fly.
We shall make wings to soar into the floating ocean of
blue.
But do not fly too close to the sun
for the wings are made of wax.
And of course,
foolishly,
I did not listen.
And now I
fall,
fall,
fall.

-Ashley Roman (from Six Ways of Looking at a Potted Plant, 2002-2003 WITS Anthology)

In another class, a sixth grader set Icarus’s story as a pantoum:

ICARUS

In the sky he flew
His wings made of waxen glue
His father told him “follow me”
They were escaping from misery

His wings were made of waxen glue
In the sky his father flew
They were escaping from misery
and the Minotaur too

In the middle his father flew
Icarus did not follow him
They were escaping from the Minotaur too
Too close to the sun the wings melted

Icarus did not follow him
His father told him to “follow me”
Too close to the sun the wings melted
In the sky he flew

-G. J-B, Eckstein Middle School

And here are two poems from Chris Davis’s sixth graders, Spring of 2009, at Hamilton:

ICARUS’ STORY

Icarus was dragged along with his father, not knowing
what to do. Trapped with a beast half-bull, half-man.

To escape, they must mimic the bird, soaring gently
through the sky.

Spiraling, spiraling, down, down, down. Plummet
towards the sea as if shot by a sling.

-E.K., Hamilton International Middle School

I love how that one does not give you the word “drown” at its end. But I can hear it.

ICARUS POEM

Gliding through the sky,
Icarus finally is free,
Despite his father’s warning
He soared with glee.

He envied the golden plover
for it can soar with grace.
He tried to intimidate it,
for jealousy filled his heart.

He followed the golden plover,
doing this and that to impress it.
He zoomed upward,
then somersaulted backwards.

The golden plover,
trying to shake him off
flew in circles and flew away.
Tired of watching him.

Icarus filled with glee,
joy filled him,
he flew this way and that,
but little did he know.

He fell in triumph
for he was too near the sun.
No! His father yelled,
and down his son went.

-A.Z., Hamilton International Middle School

A golden plover! I had to look it up to see the bird A.Z. imagined in the sky with jealous Icarus.

Looking for poems for this blog, I found a poem written by the boy so moved by Icarus’s old, old story:

NOT GOOD

There it was, falling from the
sky, twisting and turning like it
was stuck in a tornado. In the
middle of the tornado, I thought
it was a bird, and it was for awhile.
It had wings, oops not anymore,
then it hit me as it hit the water.
It was a boy. Splish, splash, blub,
blub, he lasted for a while, until
he was no more.

-S.R., Mr. Ellis’s 6.5 L.A. Class, Eckstein Middle School

These sixth grade poets and the others in classes with them would have gotten the references in “Rebuttal.” They looked for Icarus in Bruegel’s painting, and found “that tiny leg sliding into the bay”, and S.R., like L.P. felt the insult that the Old Masters “never made suffering big enough.” Then they wrote poems that showed how they, like these artists before them, freshly encountered Icarus’s story with their own hearts and quirky visions. The next time I expose sixth graders to Icarus, Bruegel, Auden and Williams, I’ll tell them what L.P. said, and I just might read them her poem.

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One Response to “NOT GOOD: How Sixth Graders Feel About Icarus’s Fall”

  1. KP Subedi Says:

    Excellent illumination ……. A great idea for teacher like me to how to approach poetry writing class based on this myth. I think same can be dome with any poems that we take into the class.

    Thanks to the site
    KP Subedi
    Nepal

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