Friday, April 19, 2019

I Wish I'd WrittenThis

Swimming Lessons

A mile across the lake, the horizon bare
or nearly so: a broken sentence of birches.
No sand. No voices calling me back.
Waves small and polite as your newly washed hair
push the slime-furred pebbles like pawns,
an inch here. Or there.

You threaded five balsa blocks on a strap
and buckled them to my waist, a crazy life
vest for your lazy little daughter.
Under me, green deepened to black.
You said, “Swim out to the deep water.”
I was seven years old. I paddled forth

and the water held me. Sunday you took away
one block, the front one. I stared down
at my legs, so small, so nervous and pale,
not fit for a place without roads.
Nothing in these depths had legs or need of them
except the toeless foot of the snail.

Tuesday you took away two more blocks.
Now I could somersault and stretch.
I could scratch myself against trees like a cat.
I even made peace with the weeds that fetch
swimmers in the noose of their stems
while the cold lake puckers and preens.

Friday the fourth block broke free. “Let it go,”
you said. When I asked you to take
out the block that kept jabbing my heart,
I felt strong. This was the sixth day.
For a week I wore the only part
of the vest that bothered to stay:

a canvas strap with nothing to carry.
The day I swam away from our safe shore,
you followed from far off, your stealthy oar
raised, ready to ferry me home
if the lake tried to keep me.
Now I watch the tides of your body

pull back from the hospital sheets.
“Let it go,” you said. “Let it go.”
My heart is not afraid of deep water.
It is wearing its life vest,
that invisible garment of love
and trust, and it tells you this story.

By Nancy Willard (1936-2017)

During the 'poetry month' of April, the publisher Knopf emails poems from its collections to anyone who signs up for this service – which I did some years ago.  I very much enjoy receiving the poems every April. They are all of high calibre, often beautiful, always interesting. This year, this one particularly caught my eye.

How seamlessly it slides from the father teaching his daughter, so lovingly and intelligently, not only to swim but to be at home and unafraid in the water, to the daughter at her father's deathbed, able to help him let go, and to let him go, buoyed by the love and trust he gave her. I love the calm, assured tone of that realisation.

The notes which accompanied the poem in my inbox tell me that Willard was a novelist as well as a poet, and 'a beloved author of books for children, whose 1982 picture book, A Visit to William Blake's Inn, received the Newbery Medal.' As a former children's librarian, I'm impressed. The Newbery is a very big deal. Her obituary in The New York Times adds that it was the first book of poetry to receive the Newbery. 

She also wrote novels for adults. The obituary goes on to call her, 'a prolific author whose 70 books of poems and fiction enchanted children and adults alike with a lyrical blend of fanciful illusion and stark reality.'

It includes some wonderful things she said about writing, e.g.

'Most of us grow up and put magic away with other childish things. But I think we can all remember a time when magic was as real to us as science, and the things we couldn’t see were as important as the things we could. I believe that all small children and some adults hold this view together with the scientific ones. I also believe that the great books for children come from those writers who hold both.'

I now want to read a lot more of Nancy Willard! And I can; there are pages and pages of her works on Amazon, many in Kindle and Audible versions as well as paperback. I've just done the 'Look inside' with a few of them, and am enchanted.


Material shared in 'I Wish I'd Written This' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings remain the property of the copyright owners, usually their authors. This photo of Nancy Willard is in the Public Domain.


  1. I hadn’t heard of Nancy Willard, Rosemary, and I’m so glad you introduced her to me. I will definitely be looking up more of her work. I love the serenity of this poem. There are so many gorgeous phrases and images, such as the ‘broken sentence of birches’, ‘Waves small and polite as your newly washed hair’ and the ‘cold lake puckers and preens’. I also enjoyed the details of the father’s actions. In some ways it reminded me of my father teaching me to swim, only it was at the local baths, although I would have been more than happy learning in a lake. The final stanza brought back the memory of my own father in a coma in hospital sheets.
    On the back of this, I have signed up for Knopf’s poem emails!

    1. Although it was not my father who taught me to swim, the poem put me in mind of other good interactions I had with him when young.

      I'm sure you'll enjoy the Knopf emails!

  2. I really liked this poem, and I liked the relationship that the poet had with her father. And then the wonderful ending.... Life had come full circle, as it always does.

    1. Yes, it definitely has that 'full circle' feeling – in the most positive way.

  3. I love (and believe) what she says about magic. The things we'd able to still do, if we always remembered...

  4. My inner child still believes in magic. I think it is sad when we don't entertain that inner child. This brought me back to my swimming lesson days. I have always had a deep love for the water.

    Thanks for introducing me to Nancy Willard.

    1. I have noticed that inner child helping to write your poems at times, or your comments (which makes my inner child smile).

  5. That is the best kind of death, when the one dying and the one companioning that passage accept and do not fear What Is. I have done that twice, now, and it was a privilege. I adored this poem, the likening of her lessons in learning to let the water carry her coming around again to help her father lift off, secure in their love. This is very moving, I journeyed with the poet down the page. Thank you for this, Rosemary and Nancy, a poet new to me, whose work I will now seek out.

    1. I'm sure we'll both love her work as we get to know more of it.

  6. I love this poem, Rosemary … so many layers of the human experience (loving, nurturing, engaged …) … experienced well. Thanks for a beautiful share.

    1. My pleasure! I take such delight in these things I find, it's lovely to have a platform to share them with others.

  7. This poem captures the experience of saying goodbye to a loved one in such a tender way. I so much enjoyed reading it. I also enjoyed your write-up which enticed me to look up the Nancy Willard page at Amazon. I think I'd like to read her. Than you so much Rosemary for introducing her.

    1. That makes me smile. Thank you for saying so. It's so nice to have found a new poetic pleasure, not only for myself but others.


This community is not meant to be used in a negative manner. We ask that you be respectful of all the people on this site as each individual writer is entitled to their own opinion, style, and path to creativity.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Blog Archive