Dec 19
Friday

Issue II, Volume VI : November 2014

Emeritus Artist - Lucien Stryk

StrykLucien Lucien Stryk has written numerous volumes of poetry, including And Still Birds Sing: New & Collected Poems and Where We Are: Selected Poems.  In all his writings he evokes the universal by focusing on the particular in a style at once carefully crafted and imagistically surprising.  His highly respected translations of Chinese and Japanese Zen poetry have been published in many volumes, including The Penguin Book of Zen Poetry and On Love and Barley: Haiku of Basho. He is editor of World of the Buddha: An Introduction to Buddhist Literature.  In addition, he has been a strong supporter of regional arts, compiling two anthologies of Midwestern poetry: Heartland (1969) and Heartland II (1975). 
 
Stryk has been a presence in American letters for over sixty years.  His international reputation is based not only on a number of memorable collections of original poetry, but also on his ground-breaking translations of Chinese and Japanese Zen poetry, both traditional and contemporary.  Influenced, over his long career, by poets as varied as Walt Whiman, Paul Eluard, and the great haiku master, Basho, Stryk’s multiculturally inspired vision has provided a continuous example of how poetry can evoke the universal by focusing on the particular.  In addition, two edited (regional) anthologies, Heartland (1967) and Heartland II (1975), have become important in the history of U.S. Midwest poetry.  In all, Stryk has written or edited over thirty volumes of original poetry, collections of representative American Midwest poetry, and translations of Chinese and Japanese Zen thought and poetry. Follow this link to see Lucien Stryk's Amazon page.
 
An influential professor of Asian Literature and Poetry Writing at Northern Illinois University, from 1958 until his retirement in 1991, he also served lengthy periods as a Fullbright lecturer in both Japanese and Iranian universities.
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“What Becomes of Things We Make or Do?”
---Dan Stryk
 
Stryk-a Strolling through our neighborhood this languid afternoon — after reading essays by a man who’d left his Brooklyn youth, citybred young wife in tow, to settle like a foreigner into slow hours of an Appalachian farmlife on a hilly rise in southernmost Ohio / rough land he’d scrounged for years to buy, hoping past all odds to learn to plant and herd . . . then, finally, to write there — I think once more of my poet-father’s probing line I’ve dwelt upon for years.  But, as time flows, in a changed way, encompassing my chosen life of teaching college in the Blue-Ridge South and settling into late years here —no longer just amused Stryk-b by that droll question posed in his poem set by a distant London “Duckpond” well over forty years ago (which then observes): . . . “ that Japanese lantern by the bridge, / or from across the pond . . .  / a drift of voices cultured and remote . . . . / The lantern maker, the couple chatting there, / would be amazed to find themselves [the subject of] a poem.”
 
I gaze now at the mountaintops surrounding me (familiar distance of another type), and feel so oddly transient, at this moment, and yet happy to have tried to write a little, and to teach some bold ideas in a slow but thoughtful life beside my artist wife Suzanne...after severing Midwestern roots and heading South so many years ago. BUT never severing the legacy of Lucien’s probing cast of mind (undaunted even now by Stryk-c a blind right eye, hands too frail to type, and a tricky ailing heart at 85).  Yet, unswervingly, still questioning the “World” at 85 — in poems strongly felt, but now more “gently strong” and sometimes hauntingly restrained, as in the brief piece that follows, called “Thought.”
 
And it will soon become readily apparent in nearly all of Lucien’s recent probings below, ranging from environmentally and politically imbued meditation (as in the openly didactic “Shivering”) to moments of sociologically impelled self-amusement (as in the concluding humoresque titled “Gargoyles”) — that true to the humane moral evolution, that time-deepened worldly sympathy in the latter years, of those bodhisattvas he so revered throughout his own half-century span of translating Far Eastern thought for Western readers, Lucien’s ripened worldview has become more concerned than ever (i.e., beyond what an individual artist might strive to “make or do,” or refine, alone) — with his fear for our common world’s survival, in this bellicose time of Iraq and Afghani slaughter, homeland “terror,” nuclear proliferations, continuous Stryk-d African genocide, our own opportunistic failure to protect New Orlean’s “vulnerable” from “climatic devastation,” and most ultimately troubling to his innate Ecological Reverernce, our widespread (“drill, baby, drill”) insensitivity to all those endangered “ten thousand [living] things” which must share what we have sullied in our techno-proud and careless age: the oil-smothered waterbird- and fishlife, the displaced benign-insect species, the earmarked regional forests — all that vulnerable array beyond sheer humankind.

Stryk-e And from such notions spring the central values in the late-life poems which I type for him, after he and Mom ( his lifelong “partner,” Helen — a skilled wordsmith herself, and matchless “verbal critic” for us both) unfailingly sit down to “workshop” them, a final time … until she okays what they’ve done, scrawls it down, courageously, with her curled arthritic hand, then sends it on for me to type for both of them, across the sea, in Bristol!  A final time, that is, after my ritual call, to their London flat where I was partly raised (and where they now live all year round since leaving their long life in Illinois).  And it’s across those distant airwaves, every weekend, that he’ll now recite his latest effort “to make sense of things around him for us all” —his self-proclaimed life mission to me, Stryk-f ardently, with her, engaged as ever, listening in, on the other line (and with only a faint tremor recently beginning to invade his still-rich reading voice, at 86).
 
*
 
Such, then, are the values, in these five new works I’ve once more had the privilege to type into “the world of higher thought” for Lucien, in his sunset, and which Suzanne and I will store forever, with so much else he’s shared with us, in the satchels of our spirits . . . as, each year, we sink more deeply into our own place and ripening age, within this Appalachian hinterland from where we also hope to probe the Greater World (like him, but from our own more low-key ambience, with his blessing) from the brushy top of our backyard hill, that “dual awareness” of so many of my poems and her paintings — so much a part of what we’ve tried to “make and do” for over twenty years since leaving home . . . and, caretakers of his probing and his wisdom, have become.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Stryk-g

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(Some representative concepts & memories drawn from continual discussions with Lucien over the years, and from key information recently provided by his wife Helen, written in the form of a “hypothetical dialog” by their poet son, Dan Stryk)
 
Well, Dad, in all these years we’ve shared so many thoughts about the making of specific poems themselves, I’ve never directly asked you when it was you first consciously realized that poetry was to become so important to your Stryk-h own life … as it later did, through your influence, to mine?
 
Frankly, I find it hard to remember a day, after sailing to the States, without the need for seeking fresh word-concepts: that is, my own word-discoveries in an adopted language.  After all, born in rural Poland (in rough times after the first World War), I heard and spoke no English before I was four, after my folks had migrated to Chicago to settle in beside others of my father’s deracinated family, a few already launching small businesses there.
 
And so, hastily, out of the blue, I had to snap up new words and their basic meanings before I could attend American school.
 
And Poetry, itself?  Well, the seeds of that were planted soon after the Depression, when we’d followed my father out of Chicago, state to state…seeking lumbering jobs and such, here and there, while carrying with us the few possessions of any worth we’d been able to acquire in that brief hopeful period before the Crash, when we’d momentarily dreamt — with so many fellow newcomers — that “our lives in a fresh country were starting to pick up.”
 
Stryk-i But we’d finally made it back to Chicago, where a more solid period of job-holding led to Dad’s risky plunge into starting up a small paint & wallpaper shop of his own on the South Side, inspiring my mother Celia (herself of limited English) — but proud as punch of our family’s “sudden rise” — to buy a new red rug for our pleasant small apartment’s living room.
 
And being somewhat older, then, with my own newfound pride in my family’s “growing luck” (while also intrigued by samples of that “art of rich words” read before us, each morning, in a lively young teacher’s English class) — I was inspired to write my first poem, called “To a Red Rug,” which to my astonishment she not only praised, but read, with much gusto, before the entire class! (who, ever after, nicknamed me “Lucky”…“Lucky Stryk”).
 
Although I have no true memory of a word beyond its title, it likely led to all those “other words” destined to fill my life for the next seven decades and beyond.  Because what I do remember, without doubt, is the deep thrill I’d experienced when discovering — even in that young and dreamy time — how a richly colored object of pride, encased in those words “I’d originally struggled to learn,” might display my childhood glee in a palpable way.
 

Why, as others have also wondered, did you choose to write primarily “tranquil poetry” for so long a period before you began to write of your harsher experiences in World War II? Stryk-j
 
Leaving for war, I’d intuitively chosen one book to stuff inside my duffle bag.  And during those lulls in combat, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass became my solace and pillow in the gritty foxholes, giving me hope that if I survived, it might still be possible to live humanely in the years to come.
 
So after that long spate of madness and suffering observed at close range, I strove to cleanse painful thought from my post-war mind, to quiet the guilt that I’d survived while friends perished — or snapped emotionally in those following “peacetime” years … had to block out that darkness to restart my life.  And it took many years before I’d felt the strength to absolve such nightmares in memorial words:
 
Letter to Jean-Paul Baudot, at Christmas
 
 
Friend, on this sunny day, snow sparkling
everywhere, I think of you once more,
how many years ago, a child Resistance
 
fighter trapped by Nazis in a cave
with fifteen others, left to die, you became
a cannibal.  Saved by Americans,
 
the taste of a dead comrade’s flesh foul
in your mouth, you fell onto the snow
of the Haute Savoie and gorged to purge yourself,
 
somehow to start again.  Each winter since
you were reminded, vomiting for days.
Each winter since you told me at the Mabillon,
 
I see you on the first snow of the year
spreadeagled, face buried in that stench.
I write once more, Jean-Paul, though you don’t
 
answer, because I must: today men do far worse.
Yours in hope of peace, for all of us,
before the coming of another snow.
 
(Final poem in Awakening (Swallow Press, 1973).)
 
 

So as a last thought, Dad, in such a materially-driven & machine-centered present world, do you still think poetry and the written arts likely to remain as vital to our “human lives,” as you once assured me they indefinitely would?
 
I can no longer speak for the world, Son.  I only know how much those true volumes of imaginative commitment have meant to me, untangling my thoughts in chaotic times, teaching me how to accept my lot.  Sweeping, like wind, in and out of my brain.  Clearing my eyes, to see.
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Shivering
 
Fireworks of trees, autumnal
umber gone.  The quirky
motion of a final leaf
 
settles near a feather
at the pondedge, where
a lad aims stones at swan
 
wings slapping water in
a feisty chase.  A squirrel
cadging tidbits, buries
 
morsels in his plot, before
the broody windstrum
of a bitter night creeps in.
 
Passing the crimson anguish
of a dying rose, I stare
into the cold eye of a wintry
 
sun.  Back home, dimwit
with sleep, make drama of
a leaf, a wizened flower.
 
Trample past dandelions,
teasels, and the last
face on earth.  Wake
 
shivering as war’s deathtoll
bleeds through static
of the early morning news.
 


Thought
 
Three quarters of
a century it’s taken
me to see a poet’s
 
eyes need not blink
back from walls
of glass and steel,
 
may find more kinship
with a sparrow
than a gaudy bird,
 
feel one with sky
and stone, hear rings
of thunder from a ripe
 
bells’ tongue, and peace
most vivid on a sunless
day.  Know it will take an
 
old king’s fool to show
this world for what it
really is, whim of that
 
lone alchemist, the sun.
 
 


Where Now?
 
I have seen starlings spill
from clouds in moon-driven
landscapes.  Reaching through
 
time, have seen branches jeweled
with finch-winkled cones.
Hummed to the clapping of leaves.
 
I have seen war-smoldered wrecks
in trenches of cinnamon blood.
Felt with them earth’s pulsing —
 
the tingling forest of worms.
I have touched pain and love
in light/dark shadows on walls.
 
Seen Mars so close, it dimmed
a rash of stars.  I have
been going somewhere all these
 
years, and can’t stop now.
 
 


This Poem
 
After long months of silence,
a poem from my son.  My sickbed
vibrates into mountains we must
 
pass to reach him, by hues of
earth and stone, where wind binds
grasses, sending secret dwellers
 
scurrying through sagebrush, white
pines Christmasing the distance,
deciduous branches fingering the mauve-
 
white cloudlets as we drive in
spitting distance of earth bloodied
with iron clay.  In these words I feel
 
the wrenching of the gut as his
grown son moves off into a rite
of passage of his own, sending his
 
father eavesdropping by an empty room.
 



Gargoyles
 
Hungry eyed fogies,
gargoyles in full cry
above the ruck and tumble
 
of the street.  They stare
through shadows at
a first-class loser, failed
 
at selling shoes, flunked
waiting tables, freaked
out at knocking holes
 
through cellar walls for
slumlord hovels, scratched
through flea-bitten nights
 
in far-off places, fumbled
over phrases for a shrinking
ear.  Open mouthed, they shrug
 
me off, but I don’t care.  An
empty bag, I litter-dance in air.




Issa’s Hamlet
 
Crows are calling,
“Kill, kill,”
to Hamlet.
 
Cuckoo’s crying,
“Nothing special to do,
nor has Hamlet.”
 
Cries of wild geese,
rumors
spread about Hamlet.
 
Reflected
in the dragonfly’s eye —
Hamlet.
 
Where there are humans
you’ll find flies,
and Hamlets.
 
I’m leaving —
now you can shut up,
Hamlet.




Stryk-SelectedPoems
Return to Hiroshima / The Mine: Yamaguchi / The Woman Who Lived in a Crate / The Balloon / Notes for a Guidebook
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Torero / Escale / Chekhov in nice / Oeuvre / To a Japanese Poet
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Zen: The Rocks of Sesshu / The Quake / Etude / Object d'Art / Cormorant
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Christ of Pershing Square / The Cannery / The Pit / Awakening / Elegy for a Long-Haired Student
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South / The Goose / Fishing with my Daughter... / Rites of Passage / Here and Now
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Morning / Rain / The Unknown Neighbor / Sirens / The Duckpond
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Love Poem / Letter to Jean-Paul Baudot, at Christmas / You Must Change Your Life / Juggler / Old Folks Home / Siberia / Cherries
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Stryk-ZenPoems
Enlightenment Poems of the Chinese Zen Masters


Death Poems of the Chinese Zen Masters


Poems of the Japanese Zen Masters


Poems of the Japanese Zen Masters: Continued


Shinkichi Takahashi - Contemporary Japanese Master


Zen Poems of Lucien Stryk