NIU mourns death of famed poet Lucien Stryk

English professor emeritus also was renowned translator

Lucien Stryk

Lucien Stryk

The NIU community is mourning the loss of Lucien Stryk, an internationally acclaimed Zen poet and former star English professor who died Jan. 24, in London. He was 88.

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. He was well known for his kind, gentle spirit and as being a favorite professor among students.

Stryk was a recipient of NIU’s Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award as well as the Presidential Research Professorship, the university’s highest award for research. He also taught at universities in Japan and was a Fulbright lecturer there and in Iran.

Over the course of his career, Stryk received numerous awards and honors for his poetry and translations, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, a national Institute of Arts and Letters award and the Illinois Governor’s Award for the Arts.

In 2009, the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) initiated the Lucien Stryk Prize, which recognizes the importance of Asian translation for international literature and promotes the translation of Asian works into English.

Stryk wrote and edited more than two-dozen volumes of poetry, translations and collections. His works included editing two volumes of Midwestern poetry, “Heartland I” and “Heartland II,” which put the poetry of the Midwest on the map, according to one former colleague. His own poetry was translated into Japanese, Chinese, French, Spanish, Swedish and Italian. He conducted readings at hundreds of universities worldwide.

Cover of "Heartland," edited by Lucien Stryk“I think Lucien will be remembered as one of the great Zen scholars and translators and as an important Midwest poet,’ said NIU English instructor and award-winning poet John Bradley.

Bradley served on a poetry-reading panel with Stryk in 2008 at NIU.

“He was a world class-translator of Japanese poetry, especially Zen poetry, both Haiku and other forms,” Bradley said. “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 said Stryk’s own poetry reflected a Zen influence. “He’d write about ordinary objects and places and make the ordinary extraordinary. He often wrote about DeKalb and, in fact, had a great poem about the old cannery.”

Stryk’s war experiences as a Forward Observer in the Pacific also influenced his poetry and led to his interest in Japanese culture and Zen Buddhism, said Susan Porterfield, an English professor at Rockford College who earned her Ph.D. at NIU. She came to know Stryk, whose office was near hers. She later edited a book on his poetry and interviewed him for several articles.

“He actually became quite interested in the Japanese culture because of his experiences in the war,” Porterfield said. “He swore that he would try to go back and understand (the Japanese) in a different way other than through war.”

Stryk is survived by his wife, Helen; sister, Leonora Krimen; son, Dan Stryk and his wife Suzanne; daughter, Lydia Stryk and her spouse, Halina Bendkowski; grandson Ted Stryk and his wife, Mary Katherine Stryk; and great grandsons Eli Stryk and Chase Stryk. There will be a Jan. 30 graveside service at Highgate Cemetery in London, where he will be interred.

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