Writing poems both sacred, mundane

March 23, 1995|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Special to The Sun

"Every blade of grass has over it an angel saying 'grow,' " the Talmud tells us.

Nancy Willard has a penchant for angels and for God and for love. She's a highly acclaimed poet who writes about happy things -- her son, her marriage, her garden, the world around her. She chose the lines from the Talmud as an epigraph to her book "An Alphabet of Angels," and they suggest the scope of her work.

She will read some of her poems at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at Catonsville Community College to lead off the ninth annual Creative Writing Forum, sponsored by Baltimore County public schools and community colleges.

Ms. Willard, a professor of English at Vassar College and an instructor at the Breadloaf Writers' Conference, was born in Ann Arbor, Mich., and lives in New York state with her husband. She begins this telephone interview discussing Francis Fonge, Pablo Neruda, Rainer Maria Rilke, poets about whom she has written a critical study on the rhetoric of things.

She believes, along with William Carlos Williams, that poems are in things, not in ideas. Poets should perceive objects and record those perceptions. Their poems should renew man's vision, ultimately renewing his vision of himself. Ms. Willard attempts such renewal in her own poetry.

She recites lines memorized from one of her favorite poems, "One Art," by Elizabeth Bishop, and talks about Wallace Stevens, a poet who writes poems about poetry (as Ms. Willard does). She explains that Stevens' work is accessible even though it is difficult. "Accessible does not mean simple," she says.

Ms. Willard's poetry isn't simple either, as her reading will show. The two-day Creative Writing Forum provides Baltimore County students with a rare opportunity to learn writing from nationally recognized poets and authors through readings and workshops.

This year's featured writer, Ms. Willard, is the author of more than 20 books for adults and children. Among those books are eight volumes of poetry; one of them, "A Visit to William Blake's Inn," won the Caldecott and Newbery awards. Her other honors include the O'Henry Award, an American Library Association Award, an American Book Award, the Creative Artist Service Award and a National Book Critics' Circle nomination for her latest book of poetry, "Water Walker."

Ms. Willard's poetic career began when she was introduced to the great 18th-century poet William Blake. She was 7 years old and had been sick with measles. Not wanting to sleep, she asked her baby sitter to tell a story. "Tyger, tyger burning bright," the woman began, and recited the poem by Blake.

Ms. Willard was awe-struck. Two days later, Blake's "Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of Experience" arrived in the mail. Attached was a note: "Poetry is the best medicine. Best wishes for a speedy recovery. yrs, William Blake."

Soon, Ms. Willard began writing her own poetry, much of it influenced by Blake and later by William Carlos Williams. Like Blake, Ms. Willard is a visionary. Like Williams, Ms. Willard writes about everyday subjects: cooking, gardening, picture puzzles, crewel embroidery, herbs, flowers, moss, marriage, children and newspaper headlines.

"A Hardware Store as Proof of the Existence of God" is a good example of Ms. Willard's scope. The narrator stands in the hardware store and muses on hammers, hooks, hinges, then sees "a company of plungers waiting for God / to claim their thin legs in their big shoes / and put them on and walk away laughing."

Even the titles of Ms. Willard's poetry books -- "Water Walker," "Household Tales of Moon and Water," "Carpenter of the Sun," "19 Masks for the Naked Poet," to name a few -- suggest the magical blend of the sacred and the mundane that operates in her work and in her vision of the world as a place "not perfect but not bad either."

POETRY READING

Who: Nancy Willard

Where: Building K 100, Catonsville Community College

When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow

Admission: Free

Call: (410) 455-4363

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