William Heyen Heyen, William (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Heyen, William 1940–

Heyen is an American poet, essayist, and editor of German heritage. The experiences of his family during World War II form the subject of his most successful collection of poetry, The Swastika Poems. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)

John T. Irwin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William Heyen's Depth of Field is a brilliant first volume with a broad, coherent, and deeply moving design. The book is divided into two sections, The Spirit of Wrath and The Dead from Their Dark. Beginning in a confessional vein, Heyen confronts in separate poems the images of two uncles, one a German infantryman, the other a pilot of a Stuka, killed in the Second World War. The poet must face his personal heritage of the spirit of wrath, but he finds that it is the common heritage:

              Because the cause is never just,
              rest, my Nazi uncle, rest.
            All the oppressors are oppressed.
            The dog's heart is his only beast.
            … These are all your wars.
            Asia trembles. You are never dead….

It is the characteristic confessional theme, the confrontation of man's animality and its consequences, which occupies in one way or another the rest of the poems in the first section…. For Heyen, the difference between man and animal is self-consciousness; animals have two-dimensional simple consciousness, while man has three-dimensional self-consciousness or "depth of field". Viewing man as a self-conscious animal, Heyen confronts the implications of this for the symbolic process in Birds and Roses Are Birds and Roses and On the Thames. In the latter poem the speaker, looking at flowers, thinks of what the "old masters" would have done with these blossoms, "But our generation can't do it, can't sing the mystic flames." In I Move to Random Consolations the speaker, watching a dying crane, faces the question of animal death as annihilation and says that "needing something to affirm" he "held to the knowledge that a bird's beak,/born of cells of bone, discourages the worm." Near the close of the volume, the speaker finds that "to end like the visible world is enough, is enough." And in the final sequence he comforts himself with two kinds of partial survival—that of the animal species and that of the work of art. It is impossible in a short space to do justice to the richness and variety of Heyen's volume; suffice it to say that this book is a "must" and that its author seems destined to be an important poet. (pp. 352-53)

John T. Irwin, in Poetry (© by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), September, 1971.

Tom Marshall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William Heyen's Noise in the Trees makes a new myth out of the circumstances of his own past and that of Long Island. Earlier American literature enters into this … but is less important in the creation of this poetic world than the personal and local history. Heyen presents again those classic American themes—the loss or corruption of youth, the idealized girl, the island, the wild, the animals. I have a sense of the presence of the Robert Lowell of For the Union Dead, and perhaps of Life Studies as well, though there are no shock tactics and less in the way of raw nerves displayed here…. [But] these echoes are peripheral, though highly relevant; at the centre of this world is the poet's own very appealing voice and personality. One hears a gentle, nostalgic man quietly and forcefully speaking of his anxieties, his old loves and obsessions, without any kind of sensationalism.

Heyen's obsessions, dreams, fantasies and memories are interesting in themselves as psychic autobiography; but they go farther out into the realm of cultural history, and deeper down into that underground area of our consciousness that … [is] ambivalent and potentially terrifying. The twenty-five prose-poem sections mix dreams and memories with a haunting sense that there is something underlying all this experience that is ultimately mysterious and indescribable. The thirty-eight poems are all good but have a less immediate evocative power than the "memoir;" one could regard the memoir as a gloss on the poems, but it seems to me that, really, the poems are attendant, so to speak, upon the memoir. The prose is more fluid and suggestive, more "poetic," than the poetry. (p. 90)

Mr. Heyen's temperament is life-loving and life-affirming as well as elegiac, and this too is attractive in these apocalyptic times. Heyen does not deny the darkness, but he has retained an (American?) sense of wonder. Is he just a trifle innocent in this, or is that a Canadian prejudice? I suspect it may be true, as a reviewer of his first book apparently said [see excerpt above], that he is destined to be an important poet. (p. 91)

Tom Marshall, in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1975 by The Ontario Review), Spring-Summer, 1975.

Peter Stitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In trying to make poetry out of such a subject as the Nazi atrocities, William Heyen has taken a tremendous artistic and emotional risk. That he has, on the whole, pulled it off is a testament to his large talent. Though he does not always avoid the pitfalls inherent in the attempt, he does mostly avoid them [in The Swastika Poems]. One is overwriting, which conspicuously appears in "Darkness," an emotionally-charged, dream monologue which reinforces its imagery through reiteration of the word "darker": "… darker./Doctor, help me kill/the Goebbels children. Darker." The powerful nature of the subject demands an unusual restraint of the author; in this instance, Heyen has over-fueled his fire.

The book has, as we would expect, its learned dimension—Heyen has read many documents, both primary and secondary, in gathering his information. Occasionally he uses quotations in his poems, and this gives rise to a second artistic danger. Some of this material is so powerful that the poet's words turn pale and almost disappear beside it. How can Heyen compete with a passage such as this: "The bodies were tossed out, blue, wet with sweat and urine, the legs soiled with feces and menstrual blood. A couple of dozen workers checked the mouths of the dead, which they tore open with iron hooks." The reader may be sickened or he may be turned numb; in either case, the lines which follow can hardly be expected to register on his consciousness.

The other potential weakness here—again, one which Heyen mostly avoids—is a sentimental self-consciousness, something which critics have occasionally noticed in his earlier books. There are times when the poet's presence in his poems is felt as an intrusion, especially early in the book, before we are fully aware of why he is doing all...

(The entire section is 745 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The significant. The love for humanity. These are Heyen's priorities…. And another one: to fight "this unfathomable oceanic ignorance of ourselves," the "arrogance, dogma, ignorance that did this."…

Along with feelings of guilt, grief, and responsibility, then, in The Swastika Poems there is life-giving benevolence and art….

[The Swastika Poems] begins with a prosy description of Heyen's father on his 1928 immigration journey to America. It is not anti-poetry, may not perform the magic by which poetry identifies itself, but is clean-reading. Usually in Heyen this way of writing can suddenly take off into unexpected regions, as in "The Numinous," which nonetheless begins ordinarily:

We are walking a sidewalk
in a German city.
We are watching gray smoke
gutter along the roofs
just as it must have
from other terrible chimneys.
We are walking our way
almost into a trance.
We are walking our way
almost into a dream
only those with blue
numbers along their wrists
can truly imagine.

I mention this artless way of writing first so we will not long dwell on weaknesses, the few passages where his language seems slow before his subject matter….

When the details of Jewish martyrdom begin, they are "familiar":

When the gas dropped in,
scapegoat Jews scratched their appeals
by bloody fingernails
on their shower stalls.

They give up no new poetry. What do we want from them? Have they become "set" as part of a liturgy? Is it that they can't, musn't, be ignored?…

Poetry may seem to be helpless at times like these. Poetry appears weaker than grief. Grief is weaker than the historical atrocity. A bare prose account by any survivor of the death camps is so strong that a poet who wasn't there faces a very hard task indeed….

Here Heyen begins to talk about the problem:

Reader, all words are a dream.
You have wandered into mine.

Words are his chosen and beloved medium whose limitations he knows. They are a dream for seeming insubstantial; but they are also the product of Heyen's obsessed subconscious—they have a validity of origin. He has adopted the responsibility of speaking in poetry the best he can. With this goal, or Dream …: to make the catastrophe as real, rememberable, for us as possible. The virtues he's after are …: truth, an outcome of saved lives, inspiration of wonder in that a...

(The entire section is 1242 words.)

Pamela S. Rasso

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William Heyen's The Swastika Poems run the gamut of general to specific: they are mostly about war and the Nazi atrocities in World War II, but they are also about William Heyen and his family, who were divided and on different sides of the war…. It is apparent, throughout these poems, that William Heyen has spent a lifetime questioning the perplexities of Nazi Germany, and attempting to come to grips with his heritage.

This book is a study in psychology, a psychology that extends far beyond that of Nazi Germany. Heyen's poems are psychological in the same manner as the paintings and drawings of George Grosz: they do not constitute a formal psychological analysis of Nazi Germany, and from this standpoint they are indirect. However when considered in terms of emotional impact, vividness of imagery, and immediacy, they are very direct indeed. (pp. 158-59)

Many of Heyen's poems are exactly about group conformity and the loss of independence in judgment from social pressure….

Heyen's prose poem "Noise In The Trees: A Memoir" in his second book is about the natural world of lyrical beauty and the pioneer spirit of growing up on Long Island. Throughout this piece however, there is a darker side, a haunting undercurrent that flows with undertows impossible to escape. This darker side of the prose poem is entirely different from the humorous themes that exist in the prose poems of Michael Benedikt and Robert Bly, and resembles the earlier efforts of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and other French Symbolist poets. In The Swastika Poems, there are three new prose poems, "The Spire," "Erika," and "The Tree," all of which continue the sense of the darker side, that release almost a Pandora's box of the grotesque. (p. 159)

In Heyen's poetry the conflict between the past, the present and the future is a battlefield, but there is an artistic advantage and even a kind of moral victory in acknowledging the conflict as a permanent condition of life. William Heyen realizes that Germany's winter's tale is all of our tale: it happened, it is happening now, and it will continue to happen until blindness bred of conformity becomes thought's independence. (p. 160)

Pamela S. Rasso, "A Winter's Tale," in Modern Poetry Studies (copyright 1978, by Media Study, Inc.), Vol. IX, No. 2, 1978, pp. 158-60.