Ronald A. Sharp
In addition to being one of America’s best poets, who published more than a dozen volumes of poetry, Nancy published two novels, one of which, Things Invible to See, many writers rightly regard as a neglected masterpiece, and three collections of essays and reviews. A new edition of A Nancy Willard Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose, originally published in 1991 as the inaugural volume in the “Breadloaf Series of Contemporary Writers,” edited by Robert Pack and Jay Parini, was reissued by Middlebury College Press in 2014. But Nancy was probably best known for her dozens of children’s books, especially the 1982 Newberry and Caldecott winning A Visit to William Blake’s Inn.
Although I had known and revered her poetry for years, I first met Nancy when I went to teach at Vassar in 2003. Although she was only teaching part-time by then, and would not officially retire until 2013, Nancy continued to teach courses in creative writing and children’s literature, including a legendary course on the fairy tale and a course on medieval tapestry and story-telling that she team-taught with Tina Kane, a conservator of medieval tapestry at the Met in New York and the wife of another colleague of ours at Vassar, the poet Paul Kane.
Nancy would often construct physical models of objects and characters in her work from a wide range of materials—from chewing gum to plaster of Paris, paper clips to ornamental buttons of a hundred varieties and colors. For my sixtieth birthday she gave me a baseball size piece richly decorated with elaborate illustrations and the text of Richard’s Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” a poem we both adored, and when her class’s field trip to the Met to view medieval tapestries was endangered by a bus that was late in picking them up from Poughkeepsie, I made a phone call on her behalf, as dean of the faculty, that hastened the arrival of the bus and brought me a magnificent rococo model of a bus a week later, a thank you gift which Nancy had fabricated from painted metal with rubber wheels and had signed by each of her students.
After William Blake’s Inn became not only the first book of poetry to win the Newberry Medal, America’s most prestigious prize for children’s literature, but also the first book to win both the Newberry and the Caldecott Prize in the same year, Nancy’s alma mater, the University of Michigan, asked her if they could add to their collection of her papers in their rare books room anything at all related to the book and its composition. As it happened, while she was writing the book, Nancy had constructed a full scale model of William Blake himself as an aid to her imagination of his developing character, and Michigan jumped at the idea of adding this figure to their collection of Willard papers.
Nancy never did learn how to drive and was notorious at Vassar for riding her old-fashioned bicycle around campus, the front wicker basket laden with books and notebooks, her long blond hair streaming in the wind as she pedaled slowly from her home to her office. So when it came time to take her life-size figure of William Blake from Poughkeepsie to Ann Arbor, Nancy’s husband Eric offered to be the driver. Nancy agreed but insisted that the full-size Blake figure ride shotgun while she sat in the back seat. Her accounts of stopping at traffic lights and watching the reactions of drivers in the next lane were as magnificent and memorable as her incomparably original and beautiful poetry.
Click here to read “A Hardware Store as Proof of the Existence of God” from the Spring 1989 issue of the Kenyon Review.