Death of a Zen Poet from the Heartland

stryk-lucienThis is somewhat belated, but I just learned over the weekend that Lucien Stryk, an acclaimed Zen poet and long-time English professor at Northern Illinois University, passed away in London on Jan. 24th at the age of 88.

NIU English instructor and fellow poet, John Bradley told the university’s news service, “He was a world class-translator of Japanese poetry, especially Zen poetry, both Haiku and other forms. There’s an art to being able to pull off a translation. To really make it feel like an English poem takes great skill, and Lucien was very good at it.”

Bradley noted that Zen influenced Stryk’s own poetry: “He’d write about ordinary objects and places and make the ordinary extraordinary.”

According to NIU Today,

Stryk was born in Kolo, Poland, in 1924, and moved at a young age to Chicago with his family. After serving in the U.S. Army in the South Pacific during World War II, he studied at Indiana University, and later at the Sorbonne in Paris, London University and the University of Iowa.

At NIU, he served on the faculty from 1958 until his retirement in 1991, teaching courses in creative writing and Asian literature.

Lucien Stryk was more than a “Zen” poet. He was also a prairie or Midwest poet. Many of his poems reflected Midwestern American themes, which resonated with me since I am from the Midwest, and his work as an editor of poetry, especially with his two anthologies, Heartland I (1967) and Heartland II (1975), “put the Midwest on the literary map.” Another anthology of his has a cherished place on my bookshelf, World of the Buddha: An Introduction to Buddhist Literature (1994). Actually, I should say that it has two or three places on my bookshelf, as mine is an old paperback edition that has come apart and is now in several pieces.

Unfortunately, I don’t know a great deal about Stryk’s life, like how he encountered Zen, but I know enough to say that his translations of Buddhist poetry and his writings on Zen made him a prominent figure in our Western Dharma.

Here is one of Stryk’s best known poems, inspired by Chekhov’s short story “Gooseberries.”

(after Chekhov)

Because I sit eating cherries
which I did not pick
a girl goes bad under

the elevator tracks, will
never be whole again.
Because I want the full bag,

grasping, twenty-five children
cry for food. Gorging,
I’ve none to offer. I want

to care, I mean to, but not
yet, a dozen cherries
rattling at the bottom of my bag.

One by one I lift them to
my mouth, slowly break
their skin—twelve nations

bleed. Because I love, because
I need cherries, I
cannot help them. My happiness,

bought cheap, must last forever.

And this is a translation of a poem by one of Japan’s greatest poets, Shinkichi Takahashi (d. 1987), from Triumph of the Sparrow, 1986.

Shinkichi Takahashi

Time oozed from my pores,
Drinking tea
I tasted the seven seas.

I saw in the mist formed
Around me
The fatal chrysanthemum, myself.

Its scent choked, and as I
Rose, squaring
My shoulders, the earth collapsed.



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