William Heyen Heyen, William (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Heyen, William 1940–

Heyen is an American poet, essayist, and editor. The experiences of his German-American family during World War II form the subject of his most successful collection of poetry, The Swastika Poems. (See also CLC, Vol. 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] resonances of Nature are very much at the center of [William Heyen's] consciousness—built, it seems, on the conflict between it and his sense of a moral identity in the human self: guilty, suffering, enjoying, believing. These are the complexities of the lyricist who is in any real sense contemporary, one supposes….

And yet the other world, not that of the poet's language but that of the impenetrable "numinosity" of things-in-themselves, material or animate with the poet's eye, his "making," is perpetually mysterious, too, no more ripe with hope than with disaster. (p. 70)

[One] might too easily conclude that his metier is a variety of American poetic naturalism, Transcendental in its inheritance, essentially at one with Emerson and Whitman, ("And nature sends us back, in our time, not only to God, but to ourselves."). But that is not sufficient to the complex in Heyen's work, the modern. (p. 71)

With these varied poetic moods as a kind of overview, I may be able to clarify, now, superficially at least, what my sense of the direction of his poems seems, through the three major books. My title generalizes the essential effect as one of an "animate mystique." I mean the effect of poetry that is an on-going (and "moving") search for definition of the never definable: the harmonization of the terror of living with the experience of beauty, the first and perhaps the final reason for poetry.

I might even propose a dialectic for this poet ("without contraries there is no progression"?) from the terms suggested thus far: the naturalized statement, mystical and ultimately whole, posed against the counter-statement of the modern human consciousness (or unconsciousness)—troubled, constantly diverse and broken. These are met in the attempted containment (I do not say "Synthesis") offered by the poem itself, the resolution of moral thought, emotion, material fact—the whole experience of the poet's (and the reader's) potential for understanding.

The title poem of Heyen's first book, Depth of Field, may serve as an illustration of the early terms of this dialectic; these may be seen to develop sharply through the other two volumes. He begins with the natural phenomenon, the fact of a spider's optics, and moves to the poet's consciousness of "depth," yet emphasis is on the photographic metaphor and the thesis of nature itself…. (pp. 71-2)

Still, as mystically discovering in its naturalism as this poem may be, in this first book, too, is the counterstatement of the troubled modern consciousness. It is expressed in the dark ritual, the mingling of perverse human and naturally mystical terms in "The Stadium."… (p. 73)


(The entire section is 1128 words.)

Hayden Carruth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

History is the problem always. It attaches itself to us, sucks our lives, yet it continually fades; we despise it, fear it, yet cannot do without it; and we continually worry it, like dogs with a dead rat. The artist's job, or one of them, is to keep history alive and in some way make it serve us. For William Heyen the history to be kept alive is what happened in the German death camps.

           From Belsen a crate of gold teeth,
           from Dachau a mountain of shoes,
           from Auschwitz a skin lampshade.
           Who killed the Jews?

So Heyen asks. And of course the answer is evident, what we have all understood for years. Yet have we? Perhaps it isn't as simple as it appears. Only through constant, intent remembering, Heyen says, do we "begin to know." (p. 97)

That, at least, is one way of looking at it. There are others. Heyen gives them all in his remarkable book. The Swastika Poems recounts what actually happened, sometimes objectively, almost journalistically, or sometimes in terms of the poet's own family, and it also recounts Heyen's recent journey to visit the terrible sites, Belson to Belzec. He spares nothing; his is a devastating book. Yet he does not write from idle desire to shock us by reviving images that might better (or worse) be left suppressed. He knows that history serves us, even its horror, especially if cast in esthetic forms. His poems are fine ones, clear, modest, yet powerful in their very unpretentiousness and at the same time poetically acute, their tones, texture, and rhythms all working subliminally, below the surface of shock, to reinforce our sympathetic perceptions. In the end, Heyen says, the death camps can keep us human. And his poems prove it. (p. 98)

Hayden Carruth, "'The Swastika Poems'," in Manassas Review, Vol. I, Nos. 3 & 4, Summer-Fall, 1978, pp. 97-8.

Vernon Young

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I read Long Island Light with growing disbelief, soon exchanged for acceptance, that in a single volume there could be so many poems celebrating, with perfect pitch, the natural world and what we have made of it. Actually, and to simplify, there are three kinds of poem in this collection; those that revive the frontier through the personalities of early American naturists (Parkman, Washington Irving, George Catlin, Audubon); those "remembered because of violence" that chronicle the necessary, and unnecessary, cruelties of survival, and those in which Heyen follows Jeffers' resolve, "I will touch things and things and no more thoughts," poems that crystallize, with an absence of exhortation, "The pure poise / of an object" (usually a creature—pike, cardinal, swan, the pigeons of Audubon's day—but consummately, the tree in "Oak Autumn").

We are enabled, with many of these poems, to follow their conversion from prose, not to say prosaic, notations—at least we are supplied the larva and the butterfly—because the center pages are a memoir in which personal reminiscence, the documented decline and defacement of Long Island, letters and dreams, jostle one another. Some of this is Village Smithy talk (a profuse amount of mooning over Walt Whitman and Gary Snyder); more of it, for the best, regional stuff dignified with a spate of research and affection.

Central to this memoir, and to many of the poems that...

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Robert Phillips

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William Heyen's The Swastika Poems … is one of those rarities, a book of poems which is a book, and not just a collection of picked-up pieces. Indeed, it could be argued that the book comprises a single long poem on an Aryan's contemplation of the Holocaust. Heyen's preceding book, Noise in the Trees …, seemed modeled upon Lowell's Life Studies, with its two slices of related poems sandwiching a middle spread of prose. The Swastika Poems is similarly structured, though the prose is briefer and more objective. With the exception of a single phrase, "His birthday, his fifty-sixth / year to heaven" (which reeks of Dylan Thomas), Heyen hammers out a tough, strong book which is totally his own.

It obviously is a book which he was hurt into writing. Some of the World War II poems appeared originally in his first book, Depth of Field, published nine years ago and written even earlier. They are reprinted here, taking their place in the complete cycle—a cycle on the subjects of international and personal guilt, unjust causes, power, hope, faith. (p. 317)

Heyen displays true poetic gifts. In "Riddle," for instance, he uses rhyme to stunning effect, invoking Mother Goosery to counterpoint the very real horror of the refrain, "Who killed the Jews?" The Swastika Poems are often unbearable, as in "Blue" (about a truckload of burning babies); sometimes lyrical, as in the several Rilke imitations; and nearly always highly personal, as in the title poem and "A Snapshot of My Father, 1928." The confessional poems are unsparing, yet never sentimental. This lack of sentimentality or sensationalism, given the poems' subjects, is remarkable, a tribute to Heyen's control and skill. I regret the seemingly "easy" conclusion, that we all killed the Jews (a conclusion not at all arrived at easily, of course, as the whole of the book evidences—only seeming to be easy because the thought has been expressed by so many before).

Nevertheless, in a time when many of our poets are writing about bric-a-brac, or each other, William Heyen has attempted large historical and emotional subjects, taken many risks, and emerged through a corridor of flame to be seen as one of our most serious and accomplished poets. (pp. 317-18)

Robert Phillips, "Writers' Choice: 'The Swastika Poems'," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1980 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLVII, No. 2, 1980, pp. 317-18.

Dave Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In some ways, Long Island Light … might be seen as a manual for how to do the variations of Modern American Poetry with enormous success…. [One] finds a flexible but always patterned structure to [Heyen's] work such that he seems both intensely private and confidently public.

I am tempted … to describe Heyen as an ecstatic poet and a nature poet. He stands in the line of the Emersonian visionary and his poems evoke contemporary models of the line: Roethke, Dickey, James Wright, Robert Bly, and more prominently now Galway Kinnell. As poet he is extremely close to the land, to the sea, to the beasts and fish and fowl, and he hurts because the "land smells of metal." He feels almightily the...

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Peter Stitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The impulse behind William Heyen's new book, Long Island Light: Poems and a Memoir, is both personal and sincere, and for the first several pages it seems that this is all there is to the volume. The early poems present almost entirely literal descriptions of Heyen's youth, spent on Long Island…. The poems are pleasant and well written, in the plain style, and the pages turn quickly. It is not until later that the reader begins to recognize the mythic undertones of this work, for Heyen injects his more resonant material subtly and quietly, largely through the images that he uses.

As Heyen writes about his early life on Long Island, he inevitably talks about how the Island has changed over...

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John R. Reed

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Every] now and then a poet sets out to fashion his own atmosphere. It is an enormous risk. William Heyen has taken that risk and succeeded. Long Island Light must be compared to Lowell's Life Studies, for it combines autobiographical lyrics with a prose memoir. Lowell brought his practical life into focus with Life Studies; Heyen is unwilling to clarify his early life, preferring to fluctuate between dream and fact, both in the poems that constitute sections I and III of his collection and in the prose memoir which is its central element. (p. 81)

The memoir is haunting—sometimes so much so that it drowns the lyric force of the poems that derive from it. There are powerful,...

(The entire section is 295 words.)