William Helmuth Heyen

William Helmuth Heyen is a famous American poet and editor. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1940 and grew up along with his three brothers in Nesconset, Suffolk County, New York.

About Heyen’s Family & Personal Life

His father “Henry Jürgen Heyen,” and mother “Wilhelmine Auguste Else Wormke” were from Germany. William’s father left his country in pursuit of a job when the war broke out in his native country, Germany. His immediate family, other than his mother, moved to the United States in 1929. Later his mother came to the United States in 1934. His father worked as a bartender and carpenter in his early days of migration to the United States.

His two uncles were killed during World War II. One of his uncles named Wilhelm worked as an infantryman for the Nazi Army and was killed in World War II. The other uncle was Hermann. A gunshot killed him in Russia during World-II. 

Heyen completed his graduation at the State University of New York College at Brockport. He started writing poems when he was in senior year. During his time at university, he met Hannelore Irene Greiner, a German woman, who was also a student of State University at that time. Later they married in 1962.   

After graduation, Heyen worked as a teacher at Springville Junior High School, New York, for a year and then moved to Ohio University for higher education and completed his M.A in 1963 and Ph.D. in 1967. He also took creative writing and fiction classes with Jack Matthews (American novelist and playwright) at Ohio University. 

Poet & Writer:

Heyen started his career as a poet in high school and till now, he has written more than 20 poetry books, two fiction books, “The Hummingbird Corporation: Stories”, “HOME: AUTOBIOGRAPHIES, ETC”, and a novel, “VIC Holyfield and the Class of 1957”.

Aside from his literary career, he was a soccer and basketball player at the State University of New York. He was co-captain of the soccer and basketball teams and student director of athletics during 1960 – 1961.  In his daily journal “The Cabin: Journal 1964 – 1985”, he writes that he was more interested in sports than education in his college days.

Heyen won Varsity Letters in Basketball and Soccer,  the Huntley Parker Award, and the ECAC scholar-athlete Award for his outstanding achievements in sports and academics in 1961. 

Heyen was selected for the Fulbright Program by United States Cultural Exchange Programs in 1971, and for two years, he moved back to Germany from the United States. During the tenure of these two years, he was associated with Tübingen, Freiburg, Hannover Universities in Germany, and Oslo University in Norway. 

Poetry of William Heyen

Heyen’s writing showcases sensitive and controversial topics. He is probably best known for his poems about the Holocaust.  His outrage, however, is not expressed in rant, or rage, or polemics, but in a controlled delineation of experience, character, and voice. He shows us who we are in the images he lays before us. But he is a poet not only of the Holocaust but also of the world we walk in. His latest volume (2021) “Call me Snake” is an elegy and a eulogy for the America most of us know and think we remember.  In a testament to Heyen’s own athletic past and prowess, there are poems on baseball, basketball, pro wrestling and even an elegy to Wilt the Stilt Chamberlain. William’s love and keen observation of nature can be seen in his poetry. 

Heyen’s poetry is often compared to that of the great American poet Walt Whitman, as both of them weave poems from the worlds in which they (and we) live.. Indeed, Heyen considers Walt Whitman his spiritual forefather, and referred to him in his Chapbook, “Eight Poems for Saint Walt in 1985. 

The other dominating theme of his poetry besides nature is war. He was a German-American, and although his two uncles were soldiers of Adolf Hitler’s Army, yet he never supported his family’s association with the Nazi Army, in World War II, which resulted in the death of millions of people. 

 In 1971, during his visit to Germany, he visited the place of the extermination camp at Bergen-Belsen, Germany, and penned his thoughts in his journal:

“The sign outside the memorial building concludes with an estimate that at least fifty thousand had been murdered at the camp. Anne Frank, who wrote that she needed only sunlight to hope, was one of them.” 

Many of his poetry collections depict the brutality of the Nazi Army during World War II. These are some of his famous collections of poetry books about the Holocaust and World War II. 

In addition, Heyen has written a volume of short plays: “The Don: Forty-One Plays on a Page.” 

Poetry Collections of William Heyen

Depth of Field 

Published in 1970, “Depth of Field” is Heyen’s first poetry book in which he has beautifully expressed the phenomenon of nature, like the optics of a spider. Thomas Irwin, a literary critic, called this a “must-read” book. 

Pterodactyl Rose:

Pterodactyl Rose: Poems of ecology was written by Heyen in 1991. In this book, he writes about the people who died in the 20th century. Further, he argues whether human beings will live longer on this planet or disappear like other species.

The Long Island

The book: “The Long Island” was published in 1979. In this book, he recalls memories of his childhood, where he used to live with his parents in  Long Island. Written in a plain style, this book narrates the story of his early life, his home, his farmer-neighbor, best friend Wenzel, the old and beautiful island that was used to surround by woods, and the transition process of that land into urbanization. 

Shoah Train

Published in October 2003, “Shoah Train” is one of the most famous books of William Heyen. This book consists of seventy poems about the Holocaust. The book was nominated for US Literary Awards and was the finalist in the National Award 2004. 

The Candle: Poems of Our 20th Century Holocausts

The Candle: Poems of Our 20th-Century Holocaust was published in 2016. In this book, William Heyen republished several previous poems from his other books regarding the holocaust and mentioned his uncles who served in the Nazi Army in two poems. The poetry collection of this book is about Germany during the Nazis’s time and the struggles of Jews against them. 

Erika: Poems of the Holocaust

As the name suggests, Erika: Poems of the Holocaust is about the holocaust and the murder of six million Jews. The book was published in 1984 with four sections. In this book, he writes about the struggle of Jews against the Nazi Army. 

The Swastika Poems

In 1977, he published a masterpiece of his poetry collection: The Swastika book. The poems in this book depict the cruelty of the Nazi army and the journey of barbarism that Jews faced in the 20th century. In his books, Heyen not only discussed the World War II and the holocaust, but also the  Gulf War and the horrific event of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 

Ribbons: The Gulf War: a Poem

Most of Heyen’s poetry books are about war and its consequences and impact on mankind.  Ribbons: The Gulf War – 1991 is also about the same topic. The poetry collection of this book is about the Gulf War 1991 and “Operation Desert Storm”; a military operation in Kuwait against Iraqi forces. 

Crazy Horse In Stillness

“Crazy Horse in Stillness” is a powerful book with more than 400 poems

about the collision of American natives and European settler civilization was published in 1996. George Wallace, in Academic Library Book Review, writes about the book: 

“Heyen is “respectful of the complexity of his subject … Instead of handing us a straightforward plot, with its inevitable distillations and oversimplifications, the poet offers us hundreds of rapid-fire, multi-angled, randomly organized moments. Each is complete, telling, and epigrammatically crystallized detail.”

Hiroshima Suite By William Heyen

The Hiroshima Suite book is about the barbaric act that the world and the people of Japan faced in the 20th century. 

Published in 2012; this book is about the black day, August 6, 1945, when two nuclear weapons engulfed the lives of 129,000 and 226,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  

Diana, Charles, & the Queen

This book is about the royal family of England. In one of his interviews, Heyen shares his views about Princess Diana that, “I grew up hearing stories of Prince Charles in newspapers, but when Princess Diana started appearing in the media, I was fascinated by this golden girl. Later on, when I knew her story after reading the book “Diana by Andrew Morton”, I couldn’t stop myself and wrote the book “Diana, Charles, & the Queen”. 

Though he had completed the book “Diana, Charles, & the Queen” before the death of Princess Diana, yet,  it was published in 1998. 

Other than the above books, he has written the books, : Noise in the Trees, Fires, The City Parable, The Host, Pig Notes and Dumb Music: Prose on poetry, Confessions of Doc Williams, and other poems, The Angel Voices, Lord Dragonfly, The Children, Straight’s Suite for Craig Cotter & Frank O’Hara, The Football Corporations: Poems, A Poetics of Hiroshima.

One thing that William is known for is his habit of writing “poemlets”–short poems that fit on a cards or small pictures which he hands out sporadically–after a meeting for lunch, at the end of a performance, or just walking down the street. They are handwritten, published by “Poemlet Press”, dated, numbered, and laminated. 

Following are several examples of poemlets that he has gifted friends with over the years.

Want to kiss me? 

when I was a baby,

Babe Ruth bounced me

on his knee.

What exudes, what wafts. That which, & when.

Synesthetic aura of lavender. Spring.

How not to, how not to think or never sing

That this, that this is all a yes, an enduring

To be breathed in again, please, again.

Maybe earthlings had no choice

but to gun down

that eerie alien

who could or would not converse

but bent sidling closer,

maybe to taste flesh and bone . . .

but now try to imagine

that creature’s terror!

Downstairs in my study,

JCO once said to me –

we’d been talking about writing poetry –

“Just do it!”

A yellowjacket interposed it-

self between us,

However, it got in. Joyce,

without forethought,

swatted at it,

but got stung for just doing it, . . .

but a couple of seconds after she missed it,

I slapped it

Collections of Books Edited By William Heyen 

He edited three books “The Generation of 2000: Contemporary American Poets”, an anthology of poems by thirty-one poets, “American Poets in 1976”, September 11, 2001: “American Poets Respond (2002)”, the response of 125 American writers, poets, essayists for the terrorist attack September 11, 2001. 

Journal Writing

Other than poetry writing, books, and novels, Heyen has also been a journal writer. He has been writing Journal since he was 24 years old.

He wanted to publish the journal with all of the diary entries, therefore, later he published it with the name of The Cabin: Journal 1964-1985 in 2006.   

On the date of August 1, 1984, William expressed his love for the work in the journal. He writes that he never give up writing poetry and journal: 

If I gave up publishing & writing completely, Han & the kids & my few real friends wouldn’t care – Fact: I know, deeply and strongly, I’ll never give up writing—poems and this journal.

Awards & Recognition 

Heyen has received fellowships and many awards for his poetry. He won the Borestone Mountain poetry award in 1966, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Witter Bynner Poetry Prize by the American Academy the Institute of Arts and Letters in 1982. 

He also received a Guggenheim Award for the poem “Boy of Gull, Boy of Brine” in 1997, and the Small Press Book Award and the Fairchild Award for the book “Crazy Horse in Stillness” 

His book “Noise in the Trees” was recognized as a “Notable Book” by the American Library Association in 2004, and in the same year, “Shoah Train” was the Finalist of the National Book Awards for Poetry.

Heyen’s work about the holocaust is appreciated and recognized by famous Journals and Newspapers. The Swastika poems and Erika are two of his most famous collections of poetry that have been featured in the New York Times. The Swastika poems in 1977, and Erika the Poem of the Holocaust in 1985.  His other poem named “The Traffic” was also featured in the New York Times in 1979. 

The poem “This Night” was published in Harper magazine in 1980. The poems “The New American Poetry”, “Over this Winter”, and  “Memorial Day Brockport 1981” were published in the 59th volume of TriQuarterly in 1984. 

Many other poems such as Stable Hands, This Father of Mine, Last Night, The Ruby, Birdhouse, Plague Sermon, Brockport New York Beginning with End, and Yellowthroats have been reviewed by Athens, Georgia based famous Journal. Georgia Review, known for publishing poetry, books review, fiction, essay, and art. 

Distant Survivors Stage Play based on William’s Poetry 

Around 2010. June Prager, The Artistic Director of the Mirage Theatre Company and a Holocaust survivor, became interested in Heyen’s poems. With his permission, she created a play, Distant Survivors,  based on his poems about the Holocaust, She first presented it as a 2-character play at The Venue on 35th, a cabaret theatre in Norfolk, Virginia to an invited audience. Since then, it has been revised as a 5-character play. Distant Survivors traces the journey of an American man in search of meaning in his German ancestry which included an uncle who had served under Hitler. It has been produced by a number of theatres. 

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