Nancy Willard Essay - Critical Essays

Willard, Nancy

Willard, Nancy 1936–

Nancy Willard is an American poet and short story writer.

Nancy Willard has an unerring ear (and memory) for authentic speech, a sensitive, almost delicate feeling for tender childhood relationships, and real skill in shaping and bringing off a story. Erica is the protagonist of all the stories [in Childhood of the Magician], she is clearly the author going through the special process of remembering much that is irrelevant to growing up, and almost everything that is important to it. What makes this more than just a random collection of unrelated stories is the continuity the charming child Erica provides, as well as the sense of time developed, used and in one way fulfilled, in the woman Erica in her marriage. Everything in these charming stories points to genuine talent. It would be patronizing to say that I look forward to their flowering in [a] novel …; they are in many ways a flowering in themselves. (p. 32)

Doris Grumbach, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), May 25, 1974.

Nancy Willard's Childhood of the Magician is an immensely satisfying book, and I would like to give it an extra nudge. As a first book and as a gathering of stories, it may not get the readers it deserves. But Childhood of the Magician is more than a gathering; the stories fit together to give a sense of the largess of the novel. The title of the first story is appropriately the title of the book; nevertheless, the book is not the usual Bildungsroman. And while most of the stories have appeared in various journals, it is obvious that Willard had a broad plan in mind for her magician.

Childhood of the Magician makes the case for magic…. It suggests that the artist especially is enthralled, trapped by superstitions and various magics…. While the artist may be especially attracted to magic, most people have sought it—and so are attracted to the magics of the creative artist.

There is an abundance of good humor in these stories. At the same time, Nancy Willard excellently evokes the pathos of life. Her children play and ponder and amuse us, but we also recognize the truth of life in the several old people in the stories. Life is sad and wonderful and ultimately incomprehensible. There is no self-pity in these stories, no fatigue over the weariness or absurdity of life. Nancy Willard gives us something closer to blessing and benediction. (p. 106)

Joseph M. Flora, in The Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1975), Winter, 1975.

Nancy Willard is a versatile young poet who has produced three other books of verse as well as a book of literary criticism and another of short stories, Childhood of the Magician (1973) which I very much admired. Carpenter of the Sun is her new collection of poetry. It displays a lovely wit that is rare among poets these days. I liked particularly her four poems based on sports headlines from newspapers—"Buffalo Climbs Out of Cellar," "Giant Streak Snarls Race"—and "Saints Lose Back":

      And there was complacency in heaven
      for the space of half an hour,
      and God said, Let every saint lose his back.

The poem goes on with its catalogue of considerations of the back, and ends with God still speaking:

      O, my angels, my exalted ones,
      consider the back,
      consider how the other half lives.

There are other equally good lyrics in the book, all, as the writer of the jacket copy quite rightly notices, "filled with wit, charm, elegance, and magic." (p. 33)

Doris Grumbach, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), January 4 & 11, 1975.

Nancy Willard's Carpenter of the Sun [is] a book full of poems about flowers and vegetables and animals and her son (there are other and darker things here too, but not many of them) and with not a single hard word to say about her husband and the difficulty of being a poet and a wife…. I'd been feeding for three days or so on the strong meat of [Adrienne Rich's poems] when I came upon this collection, and perhaps for that reason my first thoughts about it had to do with the many things it isn't—which may be summed up by saying that these are poems that do not put you to the test. And my second thought was that there's not necessarily anything wrong with that…. Since the skill is considerable, since it makes poems, it would be a piece of impertinence to tell her that it is her duty to go out and suffer more so that she might entertain us with the tally of her sorrows. Surely we are right to believe that nowadays no subject is foreign to poetry—not even good luck and decent contentment. (pp. 450-51)

John N. Morris, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, Autumn, 1975.

[Willard] lacks altogether Rich's ideology, reveals no overtly feminist positions. She seems very much at home with herself and her world which, in comparison to Rich's, is viable rather than not. Her poems don't draw blood or blow your head off. Rich goes into her kitchen at night and thinks of someone becoming "a black lace cliff fronting a deadpan sea:/nerves, friable as lightning/ending in burnt pine forest"; Willard speculates on the shyness of the green pepper: "No matter which side/you approach, it's always the backside" ("How to Stuff a Pepper"). Her subjects are cooking, food, sports headlines, marriages that're doing OK, pregnancy, kids, animals, unwashed feet, plants, flea circuses, but her domestic is not merely cozy, and she's not merely domestic. (p. 392)

I hope I'm not saying that I like Willard because she's not militant. What I think I'm saying is that I like her because her poems are poised, assured, calm, they bid us not to be too hard on ourselves. Which may be begging the question: many no doubt feel we're not hard enough. It's a difference in tactics, among other things. A radical feminist might well get up in arms where Willard says only "The chapters of hunger are filled but nothing is finished." She has another poem, "In Praise of Unwashed Feet," in which she celebrates those unlovely appendages because they "come home at night encrusted with stones,/callouses, grass, all that the head forgets/and the foot knows," and I guess that's how she keeps sane—that is, by not living too much in the head or nerves or on the cutting edge of moral questions. (pp. 392-93)

She also writes gently surrealist and grotesque poems, as in … 19 Masks for a Naked Poet. She's deft, laconic, not merely gemütlich, undaunted and undaunting, accessible, witty, fanciful—and happy. If one could still say that sort of thing, I'd even say she was gay. At least her youthful glittering eyes are gay, though her accomplished fingers obligingly produce some sad songs in deference both to the Spirit of the Age and to her own understanding that it's not just a piece of cake after all. (p. 393)

Stanley Poss, in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1975, University of Utah), Autumn, 1975.

Nancy Willard's best poems—and her best are as good as they come—illuminate local, humble subjects: flowers, moss, children, the patterns of domestic life. [The poems in Carpenter of the Sun] are filled with a shy wonderment, a tenderness toward Creation that is rare in contemporary poetry. They celebrate; but they're not effusive, they're not wrung from the spirit by any mechanical operation: they are inspired. Their quiet is the stillness of rapt attention. They are exquisite miniatures, each filled with the luminosity and reverence for detail of a Vermeer painting. (p. 58)

Jonathan Holden, in Open Places (copyright 1975 Open Places), Fall/Winter, 1975–76.

Nancy Willard is a teacher, a storyteller. Carpenter of the Sun is her fourth book of poems; here she is concerned (as she is in her excellent fiction) with setting down things in a proper order. Hers is the diction of fairytales and cookbooks: a language of fancy and of directions. She speaks to the child in us, the student, the wonderer, the purveyor of "the broken speech of wizards." Although Willard's autobiographical stories are collected in a book called The Childhood of the Magician, new poems in this book depend less on incantation than upon clear instruction: "You can learn something from everything." (p. 171)

Marvelous, indeed, are the things of nature. But more marvelous are the things of man; more marvelous, more magical are things rendered slightly askew, transformed. Willard can work magic…. Carpenter of the Sun includes some of the best poems from her earlier 19 Masks for the Naked Poet. They work a hard magic and are marvelous. In their company, the persona poem "The Freak Show" flowers; it is the best of the new poems. Nancy Willard is a convincing teacher. We wait impatiently for new lessons. (p. 172)

Hilda Gregory, in Prairie Schooner (© 1976 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Summer, 1976.