Lucien Stryk at Harold Washington Library
Presented by Poets and Patrons
Reviewed by C. J. Laity
On the afternoon of Saturday, May 22, Poets and Patrons celebrated its 50th year of support for poetry development, by presenting a reading and discussion in the Harold Washington Library's Author's Room, with 80 year old poet Lucien Stryk. Having published his first book over 50 years ago, and having published over 25 books since then (including editing Heartland and Heartland II), Stryk was the perfect American poet to represent this Chicagoland not-for-profit organization.
Poets and Patrons co-workshop leader, Charlie Rossiter once printed some of Lucien Stryk's haikus in a publication called Third Coast Archives. Years later, Rossiter finally met Stryk in person at a poetry reading in Barrington. Since then, he's featured Stryk on his website, PoetryPoetry.com, and he also persuaded Stryk to appear for this "group of like minded souls" at the library. In an introduction to the event, poet Jared Smith confessed his work is heavily influenced by the work of Stryk, and he suggested contemporary poetry in general has also been changed for the better by the work of this master of language.
Demonstrating an amazing amount of stamina for a poet of any age, Stryk read and spoke for two and a half hours, with nary a dull moment. The time went by in a flash. Cautious in the selection of every word spoken during his introductions to his poems, Stryk came off as very articulate, personable, and comfortable with his audience. As a matter of fact, the original plan was to have a discussion followed by a reading, but an audience member suggested that the program should be done in the opposite order, and Stryk simply said "fine" and proceeded to follow a play-list scribed in dark, black ink. He also felt comfortable sharing truths about himself. For example, few probably know that Stryk tried his hand at fiction, but found what was most important to him was crafting a beautiful paragraph with sentences that rang with imagination, not plot or creating living characters. For this reason, Stryk felt it was best to stick with poetry.
Stryk was totally in control of his reading, giving every word he's written equal importance through his perfect enunciation. At one point he started a poem over because he misread one single word. He centered his energy as he read, and released it like the hiss of a pressure cooker, with poise that most poets envy, in a near hum of a tone that was mesmerizing. His voice worked into a contained frenzy, building up into a crescendo, as unapologetic as an accelerating freight train, creating a rift in reality, which summoned memories as if they were spirits. While listening to Stryk's poetry, I experienced an out of body sensation.
Although Stryk used a lot of rhyme in his early work, there was none of that going on in his presentation at the library. The poetry he read was grounded in the immediate and the universal. Similes and metaphors such as "thick as bees" or "stone tears" filled the seventh floor of the library and stopped time for the audience, eager to listen.
In the remarkably imagerial poem "The Balloon", Stryk touched upon his childhood relationship with his father, with a story about a lost toy disappearing like "a pin against the thunder clouds." Like the balloon itself, Stryk took advantage of objects (such as his father "toying with his pipe") to bring the listener into his world. In another poem about his father, the words in a crossword puzzle ("black bean soup") become the catalyst objects, exhuming repressed memories. The vivid descriptions and the confidence of Stryk's visions were startling. In the poem "Elm", which is set in a backyard in DeKalb, beetles were "smaller than rice grains" and "frost spiked the twigless air". In the poem "Cherries", "twelve nations bleed" as Stryk's lips "break the skin" of the fruit: an amazing metaphor comparing Americans to the less fortunate ones who are starving.
Stryk, who is highly critical of the "state of the world today," explained that at some point, in the magic act he calls his writing career, "reality had to be taken into account," due to "warfare" and his "part in it." His years fighting as a combat soldier in the South Pacific during WWII in many ways led to the making of his poetry. His war experience more than scarred him, it elevated him, and made him feel like there was something in his life he needed to prepare for. So he chose "this moment in our sad history" to read some war poems which manipulated the listener's senses. Stryk brought me into his vision so powerfully that I could actually smell the "sun blown stench . . . leaking back" like "garbage cans filled with chop suey."
As a translator, Stryk's first exposure to Japanese culture came after serving in the military with the mission to kill the Japanese. After the war, he discovered the unique culture of the Japanese people and he was deeply impressed by it. He learned that the "enemy" was just as human as he was, and that they were forced to do things they had no willingness to do, just as he was. He also discovered the Japanese to be much more advanced in the fields of literature and philosophy. During the library show, Stryk explained his interest in Asian thought and Zen Buddhism, not with philosophical speeches but with wonderful scenes from nature, such as ducks "brushing tails like silly thoughts shared" or pigeons stitching "the clouds with circling." He pondered the differences between "the man who thinks or the man who thinks he thinks" and took authority over his subject matters, such as with the "climber" who "pulls himself along as if by the very guts."
Stryk also shared some poems so new the ink was barely dry. In comparison to his collected body of works, his new poems were lacking in strength, when it came to the clarity of the imagery, as can be seen in the words "Summer sings, bird hums" from "Drifting". But even in Stryk's most lacking poem, his brilliant poetics far out surpass most contemporary writers, and as can be seen in the poem "One", a humorous tale of the single yellow tulip which pops up out of fifty bulbs planted, the voyage of Stryk's verse has not yet ended.
During the program, Stryk also offered the participants invaluable writing advice. He suggested, sometimes merely by his own example, that poets ought to be aware of their own "deep ignorance" if they expect to have "anything to say about the world." Stryk believes poets should write about everything concerning them and everything that happens to them, and he describes poetry as the chance to say what needs to be said to as many people as possible. He believes the time after events such as 9/11 is exactly the time when poets need to write the most. And he believes the "sad" world has taken a wrong turn and he is out to help set the world right.
The beauty of Stryk's poetry is that it is essential, returnable and intense. He chooses the right words in the right order with the right sound. And his highly cultivated but original rhythm and tone are rarely matched in the poetry scene today.
C. J. Laity is a Chicago Poet. His book, License To Quill, will be available at the Puddin'head Press table at this year's Printers Row Book Fair.
**We hope you found the information on this page useful. ChicagoPoetry.com needs your help. We are holding a fundraising drive in order to stay online. There are two ways that you can help:
Click here to offer a financial gift or click here to order the new book by ChicagoPoetry.com Press.
Note: On Saturday, May 22, Lucien Stryk read and spoke for over two hours at the Harold Washington Library. ChicagoPoetry.com was there to cover the entire thing.