Heyen, William

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HEYEN, William

Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 1 November 1940. Education: State University of New York, Brockport, B.S. in education 1961; Ohio University, Athens, M.A. in English 1963, Ph.D. in English 1967. Family: Married Hannelore Greiner in 1962; one daughter and one son. Career: English professor, 1967-2000, and since 2000 professor emeritus, State University of New York, Brockport. English teacher, Springville Junior High School, New York, 1961-62; graduate assistant and teaching fellow, Ohio University, 1963-67; English teacher, State University of New York, Cortland, 1963-65; senior Fulbright lecturer, Hannover University, Germany, 1971-72; visiting professor, University of Hawaii, Manoa, Spring 1985. Has taught several short poetry workshops at Hofstra University, Southampton College, and the Chautauqua Institution, 1981-96. Awards: Borestone Mountain Poetry prize, 1965; Creative Writing fellowships, National Endowment for the Arts, 1973-74 and 1984-85; American Library Association "notable American book of 1974," for Noise in the Trees; Ontario Review poetry prize and State University of New York Brockport outstanding alumni award, both in 1977; John Simon Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, 1977-78; Poetry magazine's Eunice Tietjens memorial award, 1978; Witter Bynner prize, American Academy and Institute of Arts & Letters, and Ohio University Alumni Association medal of merit, both in 1982; Booklist "outstanding book of 1984," for The Generation of 2000; New York Foundation for the Arts, 1984-85; State University of New York alumni honor roll appointment, 1995; Lillian Fairchild memorial award, 1996, and National Small Press book award for poetry, 1997, both for Crazy Horse in Stillness.



Depth of Field: Poems. 1970.

Noise in the Trees: Poems and a Memoir. 1974.

The Swastika Poems. 1977.

Long Island Light: Poems and a Memoir. 1979.

The City Parables. 1980.

Lord Dragonfly: Five Sequences. 1981.

Erika: Poems of the Holocaust. 1984.

The Chestnut Rain: A Poem. 1986.

Brockport, New York: Beginning with "And." 1988.

Falling from Heaven: Holocaust Poems of a Jew and a Gentile, with Louis David Brodsky. 1991.

Pterodactyl Rose: Poems of Ecology. 1991.

Ribbons: The Gulf War—A Poem. 1991.

The Host: Selected Poems 1965-1990. 1994.

Crazy Horse in Stillness: Poems. 1996.

Diana, Charles, & the Queen. 1998.


Vic Holyfield and the Class of 1957: A Romance. 1986.


With Me Far Away: A Memoir. 1994.


Pig Notes & Dumb Music: Prose on Poetry. 1998.

Editor, A Profile of Theodore Roethke (anthology). 1971.

Editor, American Poets in 1976 (anthology). 1976.

Editor, The Generation of 2000; Contemporary American Poets (anthology). 1984.


Critical Studies:

"Chapter and Verse" by Stanley Plumly, in American Poetry Review, 7(1), January/February 1978; "Animate Mystique: The Dialectic of William Heyen's Poems" by Kenneth MacLean, "William Heyen: The Pure Serene of Memory in One Man" by Vince Clemente, "From Sight to Silence: The Process of William Heyen's Poetry" by Cis Stefanik, and "William Heyen's 'Boys of Piston, Girls of Gear': A Field Guide to the Human in XVII Machines " by Ernest Stefanik, all in Manassas Review, I(3-4), Summer 1978; "One Man's Music" by Dave Smith, in American Poetry Review, 9(2), March/April 1980, pp. 40-43; "The Harvest of the Quiet Eye" by Michael McFee, in Parnassus, 10(1), Spring/Summer 1982, pp. 153-71; "William Heyen" by John Drury, in Critical Survey of Poetry, edited by Frank N. Magill, 1983; "The Poem as a Reservoir for Grief" by Tess Gallagher, in American Poetry Review, 13(4), July/August 1984, pp. 7-11; "Poetry of Light/Century of Darkness" by Robert Morgan, in Parnassus, Spring/Summer 1986, pp. 230-36; "William Heyen's Obsessive Ghosts: Erika and the Holocaust" by Norbert Krapf, in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 2(1), 1987, pp. 165-69; "Through the Sharpness of Distance: American Poets and the Holocaust" by Charles Fishman, in Poetry Pilot of the Academy of American Poets, May 1990, pp.5-12; "William Heyen: Heartwood and Witness Power" by David Watson, and "Heyen's Cryptic Ark" by Max Westler, both in Black Dirt, I, Spring/Summer 1998; The Terror of Our Days: Four American Poets Respond to the Holocaust by Harriet L. Parmet, 2001.

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"We often get to where we are through blunder, naivete, intuition, luck, rather than through lucid planning," said William Heyen in a conversation on his writing talent sponsored by Brockport Writers Forum, SUNY College at Brockport, New York (March, 1978). Nonetheless, Heyen's impulsive muse inspires his hidden self waiting to come forth or be healed. So his early books of poetry reflect personal meditation, a poet's commune with nature. Many of his Holocaust poems are driven by an emotional flow and quest for an American identity of German parentage. His venture into "the aesthetics of the Holocaust" is bold, creative, and imaginative. His lines portray the agony from the abyss from the view of the victim and demonstrate the true intent of T.W. Adorno's oft-quoted proposition, "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." Notably, his critical poems on Vietnam and the Gulf War cum Holocaust art help us preserve memory, a first step to repentance and restoring the flaws of history.

Heyen's writing includes poetry, critical prose, and stories. He is the author of many books of poetry, and his individual poems have appeared in more than two hundred different periodicals and more than a hundred anthologies. His books of poetry include Depth of a Field (1970), in reverence of nature; Noise in the Trees (1974) and Long Island Night (1979), "lifestudies" steeped in remembrance of boyhood experiences; The Chestnut Rain (1986), an epic on the plight of the American farmer, America's involvement in Vietnam, and more, a blight on America's chestnut trees, symbol of America's idyllic past and innocence; Pterodactyl Rose: Poems of Ecology (1991), poems of sadness and anger that call for action against universal acts of ecocide that threaten the biosphere in which we live; Ribbons: The Gulf War (1991), a self-seeking and self-demanding war poem that deconstructs Operation Desert Storm; and Crazy Horse in Stillness (1996), which engages the legendary enmity between Sioux leader Crazy Horse and army General George Custer. In sum, his themes include nature and Earth, beginnings and death, the self and the other, history and war, memory and remembrance.

"The purpose of poetry," Heyen once said, "is to help us live our lives." This may explain Heyen's fondness for reading poems from his Long Island childhood in poetry readings. But the poet is haunted by the Third Reich and World War II and the awareness of two paternal uncles and a father-in-law, a Nazi captain, who died in defense of Germany. He grapples with how to reconcile idyllic childhood memories of "soulful" Long Island ponds with the hard reality that "people of my own blood flushed the ashes of millions of people into the pond at Auschwitz." This and other imponderables are flushed out in his volumes of Holocaust poetry: The Swastika Poems (1977), Erika: Poems of the Holocaust (1984; reissued in 1991), and Falling from Heaven (with Louis Daniel Brodsky, 1991). Collectively these writings provide a forum for the author's thoughts and feelings about the Shoah, which are presented in kaleidoscopic and surrealistic fashion. Heyen's Holocaust poems reveal an accomplished poet whose journey to hell and back encompass both unspeakable evil and courageous hope.

—Zev Garber

See the essay on Erika: Poems of the Holocaust.