Reflection, wish I had time for it

I’m not sure I have enough time right now both to live my life and think about it very much. 

But I did want to record here that this week one of my classes read William Carlos Williams’  “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” and W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.”

Both poems make reference, although I think most of my readers probably know this, to the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, attributed to Pieter Brueghel the Elder.  All you see of Icarus are his tiny legs–the rest of him has gone headfirst into the sea.  On the shore, a shepherd tends his sheep, someone else is ploughing furrows; at sea, ships are sailing, and no one seems to notice–or, as Auden says, they notice but don’t respond:

… 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.

The students wrote their own poems about the painting, and we started discussing them, workshop-style, on Friday.  They were wonderful–not in the sense of being absolutely unimpeachable as poems, but in the sense that in every case they showed an imaginative connection to the painting and to the two poems they’d read.  And they had some brilliant lines.  I wish I could show them to you.

And it also seemed to me that these poems about failure to engage with tragedy, how the world doesn’t pause when it happens (“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”), all reflected, with varying degrees of intent and clarity, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

They are all learning it now, how they can spend their free period watching the news on and at lunch add all their pocket money to the fund that will be contributed to the Japanese Red Cross–and then go into math class and have to give all their attention to quadratic equations, to consciously allow quadratic equations to matter more than anything else, even for fifty minutes; and recognize that if they didn’t, if they stared out the window and thought of people dying in Japan, no one would be saved, and their math grade would suffer; and feel that it’s screwed up that things are this way; and know that this is life, part of the strangeness and complexity of being alive.

They have different kinds of abilities for dealing with all this ambiguity.  Some of them are very solid, grounded kids, with clear values they’re trying to live by.  Some of them are religious, and some of them aren’t.  Some of them are already trying to make the world a safer, fairer, kinder place.  Some of them have already suffered tragedies, or have been to places that have suffered disasters, either sudden or ongoing.  And some of them have been to Japan.  Or have family there now.

And now, no matter what’s happening elsewhere, I have to go and grade their papers.


2 responses to this post.

  1. You hit it spot on. When I was in my mid-20s, a close friend died of cancer. I remember leaving the hospital after visiting her shortly before she died, walking with a friend, and realizing that the rest of the world didn’t even notice that my friend was dying.

    Tragedy is so mundane and common within human history.

    I love the assignment you give your students. So cool! (And I love ekphrasis 🙂


  2. Lovely post, MS — comforting to me, as well, for when I feel guilty that I’m letting other things get in the way of distress about world events.


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