Lucien Stryk was born in Kolo, Poland, to Emil Stryk and Celia (Meinstein) Stryk in early April of 1924. His family moved to the United States in 1928, settling in Chicago and narrowly escaping the horrors that would ravage Poland during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Although Stryk and his family were spared what undoubtedly would have been an appalling and inevitable march toward death, they still felt the aftermath of the events as members of their extended family remained in Poland, only to meet their untimely deaths at the hands of Nazis.
During the turbulence of the Depression and World War II, Stryk came of age on the South Side of Chicago. Many poems, including “A Sheaf for Chicago” (from Notes for a Guidebook) and “White City” (from Awakening), chronicle Stryk’s everyday life as a boy growing up in an urban landscape that was teeming with immigrants and the sons and daughters of immigrants. Although many reviewers of Stryk’s poetry note the influence of his study of Zen thought—a clear and strong force throughout his poems and translations—too few mention the impact of Stryk’s early years as the son of outsiders. As is common with young children and teenagers, the idea that one might be different from a given peer group presents a dilemma that at the time seems staggering, yet that may later offer a better vantage for the creation of art. In “White City,” Stryk describes the act of climbing on an abandoned roller-coaster track as other children hurl stones at him. “This was no/ King-of-the-Mountain game,” he tells us. Indeed, such a gauntlet presented the very pressures of life and death, of acceptance or rejection based on the foolish dares of those who are members of groups we wish to join. Having to stand at the margins of his community, however, established a perspective for Stryk that leads to many of the quiet, modest, yet profoundly truthful insights that he reaches in the writing of poems later in his career. This sense of difference—a sense of belonging to more than just an American community—manifests itself in Stryk’s work in a variety of ways: in his connection to Zen teachings and his translations of Zen texts and poems, in his Polish heritage and the many cities in Europe and Asia that he has lived in or visited, in his understanding of place—moving from the particular to the universal, and in his celebration of the many years he lived in a small, rural midwestern town.
Soon after graduation from high school, Stryk served with the U.S. Army artillery in the South Pacific from 1943 to 1945. At the end of...
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