Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1062
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...
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- Critical Essays
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 World War II, Stryk returned to the United States and enrolled in the English program at Indiana University, where he received his B.A. in 1948. While studying at Indiana University, Stryk wrote an essay, “The American Scene Versus the International Scene,” that establishes a part of the philosophical framework that would continue to support the more universal vision of his poetry throughout his career. In this essay—first published in Folio, the Indiana University undergraduate review, in 1947—Stryk explains that the isolationist thought he sees in so much American literature, with the exception of that of Ernest Hemingway, “who identifies himself with the universal man,” is harmful and ill advised. Stryk asserts, “The nationalism and regionalism—devotion to regional interests—that so obviously manifest themselves in our literature, art, and science can, with the social implications which follow, prove to be a detriment to international progress.” What Stryk calls for is an embrace of the variegated and multifaceted collage that comprises the landscape of the United States. “Men of all creeds, national origins, and races—white, black, brown, yellow, and many intermediate hues—speaking in thousands of languages, strange dialects, esoteric idioms, and fantastic variations of American English,” he contends, “are the mighty laboring forces that create the tremendous wealth, power, and grandeur that is the United States of America.”
Following his own call for a more cosmopolitan embrace of the world and its riches, in 1948, Stryk studied literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, under the auspices of the University of Maryland program. During his stay in Paris, Stryk engaged with philosophy under Gaston Bachelard and was particularly attracted to phenomenology. In Paris, he also encountered other artists and intellectuals such as James Baldwin, Roger Blin, and the French Resistance fighter Jean-Paul Baudot, who appears in Stryk’s poem “Letter to Jean-Paul Baudot, at Christmas” (from Awakening). In 1950, he received a Master of Foreign Study degree from the University of Maryland and then traveled to England to study comparative literature at Queen Mary College, University of London. In 1951, he met and married Helen Esterman, a native Londoner, and in that year, the couple bore their first child, a son named Dan. The young family continued to reside in London from 1952 to 1954. In 1953, Stryk’s first book of poems, Taproot, was published by Fantasy Press. In January of 1955, he returned to the United States with his family to study writing at the University of Iowa. In 1956, Stryk graduated with the Master of Fine Arts from Iowa and had his second collection of poetry, The Trespasser, published by Fantasy Press.
Stryk again left the United States from 1956 to 1958 to journey to Niigata University in Japan, where he held a lectureship. It was during this time that he became involved with the study of Zen Buddhism after a meeting with a Zen priest who happened to be a potter. In Encounter with Zen, Stryk explains that his visit with the priest “left an extraordinary impression. Home again, sipping tea from the superb bowl he made for me . . . I began making plans. Soon I was inquiring seriously into Zen. . . . I visited temples and monasteries, meeting masters and priests throughout the country and, most important of all, began to meditate.”
This initial encounter with Zen thought and practice has continued to color and inform not only Stryk’s poems but also his way of life. Following this revelatory two-year period, in 1958, Stryk accepted an appointment at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb as an assistant professor of English, teaching poetry, poetry writing, and Asian literature. His daughter Lydia was born the same year. He retired in 1991, and he and his wife moved to a suburb of Chicago in 2000.