So you’ve heard the myth, the warning about getting too proud of your accomplishments. At the very least they sternly told you to be very cautious; don’t be foolish and attempt the impossible. The myth of the fall of Icarus, who either ignored, or in that moment of elation, simply forgot the warnings of his father Daedalus.
When they escaped imprisonment on the wings that Daedalus fashioned out of wax and feathers, the wise father told him to not fly too high, for the wax could melt, and not to fly too low or he could up in the sea, the feathers weighted down with water.
But Icarus was an enthusiastic young fellow. Isn’t that the sort of thing we old folks tell our youngsters? Learn from us; be safe; don’t push yourself beyond your own limits. Do you ever wonder if maybe their limits are greater than we imagine them to be? And even if we prove to be right, why should their fall be seen as failure?
No one else ever flew so close to the sun, so why judge this accomplishment only by its conclusion? Often those who critique our failures are not even so brave as Daedalus, who managed his flight well enough at a lower altitude. No, our harshest critics have never even attempted naked flight, having remained ever so judgmentally on the ground. Who is to say their choice was wiser? As the opening line of Jack Gilbert’s poem says, “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.”
Just last year in Discover Magazine, Kyle Hill wrote and recorded this delightful little essay, which cites a “scholarly” paper that takes a very different, and decidedly optimistic look at the flight of Icarus through the lens of science. Well, of course, you have to get past the whole wings-made-of-wax business, and assume Daedalus and Icarus could actually get lift and make the flight in the first place. But once you suspend your disbelief in the commencement of the entire escapade, it seems that physics may have actually been in Icarus’ favor. Maybe, just maybe, you should “throw caution to the wind,” and as Hill says, “Fly as Close to the Sun as You Want.”
I’ve been listening to the gentle voice of poet Jack Gilbert tonight from a 1995 recording. Unfortunately I could not find a reading of “Failing and Flying” in his own voice, so I decided to record it myself. For a richer reading check out Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac from over five years ago. As is his habit, Keillor lists the poem first, but reads it last, so if you truly are not interested in the rest of that day-in-history, you can skip ahead to about the 2.5 minute mark.
To read along with me, I would encourage you to visit the archives of Paul Scot August’s wonderful blog, Poetry Saved My Life, where you can also learn a bit more about Gilbert who sadly passed away in 2012, leaving behind a legacy of awards and beautiful, soulful poems.
After the poem, just jump right into tonight’s Saturday Song as Mary Chapin-Carpenter, which follows in the same spirit with one of my favorite songs ever, “Why Walk When You Can Fly?”