Evolution and William Heyen's Relationship with Poetry

William Heyen is a writer of no small proportions. With upwards of 15 poetry collections, as well as several more prosaic offerings, William Heyen is undoubtedly prolific. His poems are tight arrangements that leave no stone unturned, the language circling around the subject while giving it a few good pokes. His collections range in subject matter, from works like The Swastika Poems, which is a collection that focuses on his family ties to the holocaust, to Pterodactyl Rose: Poems of Ecology, which is a series of meditations on environment and the human footprint on it.
The deeper you dig into the poetry of William Heyen, the more it latches on to you. His poems are the cool sand in your shoes in the morning, reminding you of the night you spent at the beach. But more than simply ethereal, Heyen’s poems address something. Just grazing through a copy of The Swastika Poems you come across lines like “The shaft of the film curls with smoke. / Within the camera’s depth of field: / battalions of bone-white crosses” in the poem “For Wilhelm Heyen,” which describes the death of Heyen’s uncle in World War II. Other poems, like “Passover: The Injections,” switch to a different perspective. This poem in particular speaks of a group of Jews being monitored by soldiers, saying “We lie down in the field, / thousands of us, / never mind the rain.” The subtle diction of this poem drives the despair home, ending with the couplet “’We are living in Biblical times,’ / a woman says.”
From the simple power of The Swastika Poems—Heyen’s third collection, published in 1977—to 2006’s The Confessions of Doc Williams & Other Poems, it’s needless to say that William Heyen’s writing has changed. The poems in Confessions are lighter and more approachable, flowing in such a way that you hardly notice them going by, until of course, some final gesture ties together that unraveling string. One such poem is “The Tower,” which ponders a tour of an old English tower, where the guide says bits of bone are still left over from where people were executed. Heyen turns this poem into a statement on the formation of poetry, writing “as I stared at the wet walls/white shards already seemed foretold / between my quatrains, here,” and knotting it together with two final lines: “Memory fills the future with poetry. /
Long live these watery walls of bone.” And yet, while his structure and approach may have changed, the poems of Confessions are still very much his own—it still comes through in his poetry that he writes because he must write, and there’s no way around it. These final lines of “The Tower” answer the question of Heyen’s longevity; poetry will remain a continual companion—though not necessarily an easy one—as long as the writer chooses to keep it.

Works by William Heyen

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