Lucien Stryk Essay - Stryk, Lucien

Stryk, Lucien


Lucien Stryk 1924–

Polish-born American poet, translator, and editor.

Stryk is best known for his quiet, insightful poetry that incorporates his strong interest in Zen Buddhism. He is also responsible for introducing many important Zen artists to the American public. A writer, translator, and educator, Stryk's professional interests and his aesthetic convictions compel critics to classify him as a Zen poet, although his work covers a wide range of themes and interests. Deemed elemental and demanding, his work strives for unity, gravity, and clarity.

Biographical Information

Stryk was born on April 7, 1924, in Kolo, Poland. A few years later his family emigrated from Poland to Chicago, Illinois. In 1943, Stryk was sent overseas to the Pacific as a soldier in World War II, and it was his experiences in Okinawa and Saipan that inspired a lifelong interest in Japan. After his return to the United States, he received his undergraduate degree from Indiana University in 1948. Disgusted with the atmosphere of materialistic post-war America, Stryk studied in Paris at the Sorbonne and at the University of London in England before receiving his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa in 1956. He taught in Japan for several years before settling on a permanent teaching position at Northern Illinois University. His lengthy stays in Japan allowed him to explore his interest in Zen Buddhism, which is a significant influence on his work. Stryk continues to travel and teach, introducing the work of Japanese poets to readers in the United States.

Major Works

Stryk's early verse is characterized by formal structure and traditional subject matter. With his growing interest in Zen Buddhism, his poetry changed, becoming more insightful, tighter, and evocative. The publication of his poetry collection, Notes from a Guidebook, signaled this metamorphosis in his life and career. "Return to Hiroshima," a poem about the effect of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, employs understated language to let the full atrocity of the event reveal itself to the reader. In "Letter to Jean-Paul Baudot, at Christmas," Stryk attempts to console a friend who has confided his horrible memories of World War II. The poem illustrates a few of his recurring themes: mortality, war, and aging. His most highly regarded poem, "Zen: The Rocks of Sesshu," is considered the culmination of his Zen philosophy and poetic technique. Called a "meditation sequence," Stryk uses central images from a rock garden to reveal the importance of an inner life and a life beyond the

self. As in accordance with Zen principals, the piece also evinces selflessness, and an immersion in the poetic subject to the exclusion of ego and personal concerns. The integration of theme, concentration of form, and vision is considered the masterpiece of Stryk's poetic career.

Critical Reception

Perceived as ornamental, derivative, and uninspired, Stryk's early poetry is derided for its reliance on technical elements and traditional structure. With the advent of his interest in Zen Buddhism in the mid-1960s, his poetic voice loosened and matured as he struggled to reconcile his art with his new philosophy. Critics note his subsequent vitality and openness as well as the transquillity of his tone and the conciseness of his language. Although most scholars assess the impact of Zen Buddhism on his life and work, some critics note that Stryk's poetry is as likely to be about the American Midwest as Zen Buddhism. In fact, his body of work is often praised for its impressive range of subjects and themes including love, elegies to friends or neighbors, war, the forces of nature, childhood, the strengthening of the inner self, and the everyday events of the mundane world.

Principal Works


Taproot 1953

The Trespasser 1956

Notes for a Guidebook 1965

The Pit and Other Poems 1969

Awakening 1973

Selected Poems 1976

The Duckpond 1978

Zen Poems 1980

Cherries 1983

Willows 1983

Collected Poems, 1953-1983 1984

Bells of Lombardy 1986

Of Pen and Ink and Paper Scraps 1989

And Still Birds Sing 1998

Other Major Works

Zen: Poems, Prays, Sermons, Anecdotes, Interviews (editor and translator with Takashi Ikemoto) 1965

Heartland: Poets of the Midwest, Vol. 1 (editor) 1967

Afterimages: Zen Poems of Shinkichi Takahashi (editor and translator with Takashi Ikemoto) 1970

Heartland: Poets of the Midwest, Vol. 2 (editor) 1975

The Penguin Book of Zen Poetry (editor and translator with Takashi Ikemoto) 1977

Prairie Voices: A Collection of Illinois Poets (editor) 1980

Encounter with Zen: Writings on Poetry and Zen (history and criticism) 1981

Zen Poetry: Let the Spring Breeze Enter (editor and translator with Takashi Ikemoto) 1995


Lucien Stryk (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Making Poems," in American Poets in 1976, edited by William Heyen, 1976, pp. 392-406.

[In the following essay, Stryk traces his poetic development.]


"The thoughts expressed by music," wrote Mendelssohn in 1842, "are not too vague for words, but too precise." Replace "music" with "poetry" and, perhaps paradoxically, considering of what poems are made, you have a way of seeing into the difficulty of drawing conclusions about the nature of art. There are days when I feel that the main thing, all else equal, is what the poet has to say; other days, that it is his craftsmanship, not what he's trying to express, that distinguishes him. What colors my view on any given day, tipping one way or the other, may be far more interesting than the whole issue of aesthetics, which is after all the sphere of aestheticians, not artists. All theories on art strike me as collections of truisms, though some ("The poet's theme dictates structure and is at the same time modified by it," might be one) seem pretty sound. Perhaps under the circumstances, and in spite of the great difficulty, the practicing artist should be willing, when called upon, to try to explain what it is he's after and how he goes about attempting to achieve it. That accepted, in what follows I shall try to give as clear an account as possible of the steps which led to where I am now as a maker of poems.

Some, aware of my work as a translator of Zen poetry, seem to feel that my poems are much affected by that interest, in content as well as structure. I believe they are right. Anyone serious about a discipline like Zen learns soon enough that much of his life, certainly any art he may practice, is being changed by it. When as a visiting lecturer there I began translating Zen texts in Japan, I asked the Zen master Taigan Takayama whether the philosophy might be useful to an artist. As an enlightened man (he is one of the most distinguished young masters in Japan) he did not show indignation, but he was most forceful in letting me know that Zen was not something to be "used" by anyone, including the artist, and that its arts were nothing more than expressions of the Zen spirit. That was the first "reprimand" I received. There was another, at the hands of the Zen master Tenzan Yasuda, of a more serious nature. I often went to his temple, the Joeiji, for the superb rock garden laid down by Sesshu, one of Japan's greatest painters who had been a priest at the Joeiji in the fifteenth century. In interviewing the master for the volume Zen: Poems, Prayers, Sermons, Anecdotes, Interviews, I said some very stupid things about the rock garden. Tenzan Yasuda was patient, but finally said (I quote from the interview), "In order to appreciate his garden fully you must have almost as much insight as Sesshu himself. This, needless to say, very few possess. Ideally one should sit in Zen for a long period before looking at the garden; then one might be able to look at it, as the old saying goes, 'with the navel.'"

Even as those words were being spoken I felt acute self-disgust, and resolved to try to overcome the vanity which had led me to utter empty phrases about something which I had not even "seen," let alone understood (the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, the Chinese master Hui-neng, insisted on "pure seeing"—one must not look at things, but as things). A few nights later, while working on a conventionally structured poem set in Sesshu's rock garden, the sort of piece with which I'd already filled two "well received" but unsatisfactory books, I remembered not only Taigan Takayama's reprimand but Tenzan Yasuda's specific comments on my "view" of the garden. Suddenly I became aware, saw with the greatest clarity: my failing in poetry was the result in great part of a grave misunderstanding concerning the very purpose of art. The Zen masters who had written the poems I was translating did not think of themselves as "poets" at all; rather they were attempting to express in verse nothing less than the Zen spirit—and the results were astonishing. The poems, without any pretension to "art," were among the finest I had ever read, intense, compact, rich in spirit. Takayama and Yasuda were right.

Working for hours without a break, I transformed the poem I had been writing on the garden, ridding it of "filling," breaking down rigidly regular stanzas, a welter of words, to a few "image units" of around two and one-half lines, while keeping to a constant measure, the short line throughout being of the same syllabic length. In fact, though unintended, the stanzaic unit I came up with was in length and feeling very close to the haiku, and at its best as compact as the short Zen poems I was translating. Perhaps the fact that the "unit" was made up consistently of just so many lines, so controlled, was a matter of chance, the result simply of the way eye and ear, projecting my needs, meshed. I suppose anything leading to, or the result of, deep concentration might have worked as well, but fortuitous or not I was convinced that I had made, for myself, a profound discovery, and that henceforth I might work as an artist.

In the weeks following I wrote seven more pieces about Sesshu's garden, yet given the challenge and because I wanted the sequence to be the very best I could make it, it took a few years to achieve what seemed to me altogether satisfactory versions of what eventually became:

There were other poems to work on, and getting rid of much, overhauling what remained of a bulky manuscript, I finished what I have always considered to be my first real book Notes for a Guidebook (though it was the third published and limited to a special type of poem: it does not include, for example, "Zen: The Rocks of Sesshu" which I saved for my next volume The Pit and Other Poems). That was in 1965, the same year the first volume of Zen translations, done along with my Japanese friend Takashi Ikemoto, was brought out. No coincidence, for the translation of those profound and moving poems and the making of my own new pieces went on together for a long time. And it's been that way since: The Pit and Other Poems (1969) was written for the most part while I was at work on the books World of the Buddha (1968) and After Images: Zen Poems of Shinkichi Takahashi (1970); the most recent collection Awakening was composed while I was at work on Zen Poems of China and Japan: The Crane's Bill, and the books were published only months apart in 1973.

That my poems owe much to the Zen aesthetic is undeniable, yet they owe as much surely to the many and various things which make up the life of a Midwestern American—husband, father, teacher—in our time, something perhaps most evident in Awakening (and when I deal with the poems of others in the anthology Heartland: Poets of the Midwest, the second edition of which, Heartland II, has just been completed) and which I have tried to explain in the interviews done with me, as in Chicago Review, #88, 1973. It would be very disappointing to learn that because of my interest in Asian philosophy, and the themes and settings of some of my poems, my work was read as that of someone who had gone "bamboo." I believe not only in the need to "hide traces," an invisible art, but as much in the wisdom of hiding sources. "South" is a typical poem:


T. S. Eliot in an unpublished lecture on English letter writers, quoted by F. O. Matthiessen in The Achievement of T. S. Eliot, says something which for me virtually sums up the poet's ideal, one very close to the "less is more" aesthetic of Zen. Eliot refers to a passage in one of D. H. Lawrence's letters which runs: "The essence of poetry with us in this age of stark and unlovely actualities is a stark directness, without a shadow of a lie, or a shadow of deflection anywhere. Everything can go, but this stark, bare, rocky directness of statement, this alone makes poetry, today." Eliot's comment:

This speaks to me of that at which 1 have long aimed, in writing poetry; to write poetry which should be essentially poetry, with nothing poetic about it, poetry standing naked in its bare bones, or poetry so transparent that we should not see the poetry, but that which we are meant to see through the poetry, poetry so transperant that in reading it we are intent on what the poem points at, and not on the poetry, this seems to me the thing to try for. To get beyond poetry, as Beethoven, in his later works, strove to get beyond music.

To get "beyond poetry," then, to avoid the hateful evidence of our will to impress (thereby perhaps losing that ambition), those handsprings...

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Ralph J. Mills, Jr. (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Lucien Stryk's Poetry," in Zen, Poetry, the Art of Lucien Stryk, edited by Susan Porterfield, Swallow Press, 1993, pp. 279-92.

[In the following essay, which originally appeared in 1977, Mills surveys the thematic range of Stryk's poetry, maintaining that the reader will find "the profound satisfaction of true poetry, and the tug and shift in his own feelings and perspectives which only art of proven quality can bring about."]

Among the poets around or nearing the age of fifty now active in this country—a group in which I'd include such influential figures as Wright, Bly, Levertov, Simpson, Creeley, Rich, Ashbery, Justice, and so forth—Lucien Stryk is a...

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Gary Eddy (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Earning the Language: The Writing of Lucien Stryk," in Zen, Poetry, the Art of Lucien Stryk, edited by Susan Porterfield, Swallow Press, 1993, pp. 293-313.

[In the following essay, which initially appeared in 1978, Eddy offers an overview of Stryk's poetic career, contending that "in the whole of his writing, we can sense a series of great, daring changes which have formed a poet of rare stature and integrity."]

"Just as at fifty a man has the face he has earned, the lineaments of his poems reveal the range and depth of his spiritual life. Simply by surviving I have become a middle-aged poet."

—Lucien Stryk...

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Dennis Lynch (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: 'The Poetry of Lucien Stryk," in American Poetry Review, Vol. 9, No. 5, September-October, 1980, pp. 44-46.

[In the following essay, Lynch compares Stryk's early verse to his more recent poetry.]

A conscious life without a definite philosophy is no life, rather a burden and a nightmare," wrote Chekhov. The definite philosophy of contemporary American poet Lucien Stryk is Zen. Stryk has edited World of the Buddha, Zen: Poems, Prayers, Sermons, Anecdotes, Interviews, and The Penguin Book of Zen Poetry, has translated Shinkiehi Takahashi's Afterimages, and has published six volumes of his own poetry. Perhaps no one has done more than...

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Jay S. Paul (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Renewal of Intimacy: Lucien Stryk's Metaphor of Comprehension," Chicago Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, Autumn, 1980, pp. 30-40.

[In the following essay, Paul provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Stryk's poetry.]

In one of his most moving poems Lucien Stryk addresses a letter to a friend he has not seen in years. The man, Jean-Paul Baudot, fought the Nazis and, when trapped in a cave, was forced to feed on dead comrades. Upon his rescue, Baudot devoured snow to cleanse himself. As a student in Paris following World War II, Stryk was sitting in a cafe with Baudot, discussing a lecture, when his friend hastily departed. Some time later, Stryk discovered that...

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Gary Steven Corseri (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Journeying Eastward, Journeying Home," in The Georgia Review, Vol. XXXIX, No. 4, Winter, 1985, pp. 864-70.

[In the following essay, Corseri explores influence of Zen Buddhism on Stryk's verse and poetic philosophy.]


I know very well that Zen is above explanation, and that a Westerner may find expository remarks in a Zen interview inadequate. Nonetheless, an exchange between a Westerner and a Japanese master might very well serve as a stimulant toward the reader's further efforts for a better appreciation of Zen.

Forewarned is forearmed, and Lucien Stryk serves us well in quoting...

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Daniel L. Guillory (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "The Oriental Connection: Zen and Representations of the Midwest in the Collected Poems of Lucien Stryk," in Midamerica XIII, edited by David D. Anderson, Midwestern Press, 1986, pp. 107-15.

[In the following essay, Guillory asserts that Stryk's poetry illustrates the "aesthetic and poetic possibilities inherent in the midwestern experience. "]

In 1967 Lucien Stryk edited Heartland: Poets of the Midwest, and in his Introduction to that anthology he underscores the aesthetic and poetic possibilities inherent in the Midwestern experience. Although many critics have denigrated the region for being flat and "colorless," Stryk insists that the Midwest can be...

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Susan Porter field (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Portrait of a Poet as a Young Man: Lucien Stryk," in Midwestern Miscellany XXII, edited by David D. Anderson, Midwestern Press, 1994, pp. 36-45.

[In the following essay, Porterfield discusses autobiographical aspects of Stryk's work, in particular his alienation from American culture and his subsequent embrace of Zen Buddhism.]

In 1947, two years after returning from the Pacific where he had served during WWII, a twenty-two year old Lucien Stryk published his first essay, "The American Scene versus the International Scene," in a student journal at Indiana University. The article criticizes the climate of post-war America, what historians would later call the...

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Susan Porterfield with Lucien Stryk (interview date 1995)

SOURCE: An interview with Lucien Stryk, in Poets and Writers, Vol. 23, No. 4, July-August 1995, pp. 34-35.

[In the following interview, Stryk discusses his background, his interest in Zen Buddhism, and his creative process.]

I'm eating lunch with Lucien Stryk at his home in De-Kalb, Illinois. He has returned from London for a few weeks to keep reading tour engagements in the east and while here to be interviewed by me. His wife of more than 40 years, Helen, has remained abroad.

Instead of one of her renowned meals, I'm eating canned lentil soup into which Stryk has tossed mushrooms, also canned, and sliced, red onions. On the side we have tinned...

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Further Reading


Porterfield, Susan, editor. Zen, Poetry, the Art of Lucien Stryk. Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 1993, 388 p.

Collection of critical essays and interviews with Stryk, as well as a selection of his poems.

Stitt, Peter. A review of Selected Poems, by Lucien Stryk. The Georgia Review XXXII, No. 4 (Winter 1978): 940-48.

Mixed review of Selected Poems.


Johnson, Kent. "Lucien Stryk: An interview with Kent Johnson." APR 19, No. 2 (March-April 1990): 47-55.


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