Saturday, April 17, 2010

Secret Influences 3: Icarus

Although, following Joyce, most poets tend to identify with Daedalus, the ingenious artificer, I've always had a soft spot for Icarus. There's something attractive about the artistic figure who strives towards the extremes of invention, who pushes the linguistic system or metaphors just a bit too far, and ends up getting burnt by the sun. There's a bit of Rimbaud's voyant in Icarus, as I envision him, which makes him avant-garde in contrast to Daedalus' more Modernist inclinations.

While my earliest recollection of understanding Icarus as a poetic figure comes from Alden Nowlan's evocative "I, Icarus" (and okay, I'll be honest, Iron Maiden's "Flight of Icarus"), my favourite representation of Icarus comes from the above 1558 painting by Pieter Brueghel. As is probably common for contemporary poets, I first sought out this image after reading William Carlos Williams's Pictures from Brueghel, but the painting has had a more lasting effect on my poetry than the Williams poem. While I certainly admire Williams, and count him as an influence, his ekphrasic take on this painting has always seemed more descriptive than allegorical.

Beyond providing me with an analogy for the adventurous poet in contemporary society, this painting was influential in the composition of Torontology. While I was quite invested with the investigation of Greek and Roman myth in that book, I was attempting to do so from a contemporary perspective and Brueghel's painting spoke to me about the place of the mythological within the quotidian, about society's neglect of the marvellous (in Andre Breton's sense), and about the importance of the unexpected in art--that even when you believe that you've grasped the dominant meaning of a given poem, your reading can always be problematized by something small happening in the lower right corner.