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.
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.
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.
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.