Discovering Lucien Stryk's Heartland

Ever since I left Notre Dame in 1970 after finishing the Ph.D. in English, Lucien Stryk has been an important model to me as both poet and translator. His poems, quiet, muscular, and understated, seem to have weathered and deepened through time until they stand like out-of-the-way monuments. As I said in a review of his Selected Poems (1976), "Stryk does not sacrifice range or depth to achieve his purity of vision." It is hard for me to imagine a fully human life without the individually small but collectively cosmic wonders of the translations collected in his The Penguin Book of Zen Poetry.

Lucien Stryk's work as editor of Midwestern poetry has also touched me deeply. Heartland II: Poets of the Midwest, which included my early Indiana poems "Skinning a Rabbit" and "Darkness Comes to the Woods," was the first of my anthology appearances, and remains perhaps the most important. The best way to justify this claim is to describe the delayed effect the first Heartland: Poets of the Midwest had on me.

As editor of The Notre Dame English Journal, a graduate-student publication, I received a review copy of one Lucien Stryk's Heartland: Poets of the Midwest in 1967. At the time, I was unaware of Stryk's poems and translations. I was a graduate assistant teaching freshman English, taking required courses toward a Ph.D., and serving as editor of The Notre Dame English Journall. I hadn't yet taken the plunge and committed myself to American literature, with a concentration in poetry. When I arrived at Notre Dame in 1965, I thought I might specialize in Modern British, but then drifted toward English Renaissance. I remember being quite serious and wanting to become "sophisticated." Shaggy Walt Whitman, whom I had read and enjoyed at St. Joseph's College in Rensselaer, had receded into the shadows and would not re-appear as a radiant and energizing force until I took poet-professor Ernest Sandeen's stimulating Whitman seminar that summer.

I remember opening the package from University of Northern Illinois Press, staring at the cover, glancing at the table of contents, and saying to myself in my library carrel: "Midwestern Poetry! Humph. Even if there were such a thing, I doubt I would be interested in it!" I didn't read the book at the time, didn't bother to see if any of my peers, some of whom were writing poems that I published in NDEJ, might be interested in reviewing such a collection; but I also did not discard or give away the plain-looking anthology. Something told me to keep Heartland on my shelf and bring it with me in 1970 to the East Coast in a U-Haul van after finishing my doctorate, marrying a Louisiana Cajun, and making the big move to Long Island, where I have since lived and taught on the cusp of New York City.

Within months after beginning my job at Long Island University, I was drafting a cycle of autobiographical sketches and hungrily reading poems in a paperback edition of Richard Kostelanetz's Possibilities of Poetry. While writing my Ph.D. thesis on "Robert Lowell and the American Past," I'd read some Theodore Roethke and a little James Wright, but not much else on the contemporary scene. I remember saying to myself after reading around in the Possibilities anthology of contemporary poetry, "I bet I can do this, too!"

And then I looked at the books on the shelves of our Port Washington apartment and saw Heartland: Poets of the Midwest. I pulled the book down and just about devoured it whole. I read poem after poem in this Midwestern poetry anthology until the dust jacket, with its symmetrical black-and-white photographs of urban and rural landscapes, deteriorated into tatters. Robert Bly, whose Silence in the Snowy Fields is a contemporary classic; James Wright, to whom I pay tribute in the title poem of A Dream of Plum Blossoms; and William Stafford, whose poems are a cherished part of myheritage as an American, were the most monumental discoveries I made because of the wise and generous selection of their work Lucien Stryk included in the first Heartland.

It is fashionable in academic and literary circles to badmouth anthologies, in which all carping poets nevertheless desperately want to be included. I have done my share of criticizing the narrow tastes of editors of certain textbook anthologies, but I must admit that I began my exploration of contemporary poetry in anthologies and then moved beyond into volumes by poets whose anthology selections gave me an itch and an ache to explore and experience more. The North Shore Long Island town of Port Washington has an excellent library housing a fine collection of contemporary poetry. We lived only minutes from the library, where I spent many evenings and chunks of weekends culling and reading recent volumes by Midwestern poets. Collections I could not find there I bought in New York City, often at the Gotham Book Mart, or sent off for by mail.

In addition to the trinity of Bly, Wright, and Stafford, the first Heartland also introduced me to the work of Dave Etter, John Knoepfle, Joseph Langland, John Logan (who had left Notre Dame before I arrived there), Thomas McGrath, Lisel Mueller, Dennis Schmitz, James Tate, and a fellow Hoosier from the hills, John Woods. I eagerly read all the poets in the anthology and have since come to appreciate the work of some not listed here, but the poets I've mentioned dramatically opened up possibilities for me as a fledgling poet. Their work gave me a start, in more ways than one. They helped me to discover my subject matter, my style, my "voice." It was a shock to find that there was indeed within my personal and familial past material worthy of being transformed into poetry. As a student of English literature on the undergraduate level and then of Modernist poetry on the graduate level, I came away feeling that the poetry I was reading was well beyond me and the world from which I had come. I enjoyed reading poetry, I loved many of the poems I read, but how could a young man whose family had come to the hills of southern Indiana from Germany in the 1840s and 1850s and had never graduated anyone from college until I received the B.A. in 1965, how could a young man who grew up in a house where books, let alone poetry, were not read or discussed, how could such a young man feel worthy of writing poetry? I certainly didn't. I may have loved Whitman's poetry by the time that I moved to his "Paumanok," but I had not yet absorbed his lesson that the world right where we live our daily lives is the world from which the poem must come. It didn't seem possible that a high school football and baseball player from the hills, an Eagle Scout, a boy who had spent hundreds if not thousands of hours in the woods and fields hunting and trapping, could become a poet.

As an undergraduate at St. Joseph's College, I made a few imitative attempts at poetry which I kept mostly to myself. I remember trying to "scan" a line of a poem I was trying to write even before I had finished writing the line, so engrained was the analytical and rational approach of my English classes. I can recall saying to myself that even though I wanted to write poetry, it was never going to happen, and I may as well devote myself to becoming the best English teacher possible. I told an undergraduate friend who had aspirations of becoming a writer, "I bet I'd write if I moved East!" My assumption was that if I moved away from the barren and "unpoetic" Midwest I might find something sophisticated enough to write about in the East.

I was right, in a way. I moved East and did began to write poetry--about my Midwestern background. For the first three years that I wrote poems, it was almost exclusively the rural world of my southern Indiana past that I drew on for the subject of my poems. It was the poems in Heartland, or ones I discovered as a result of reading the anthology, that opened doors into my personal and family past. So many of the poems in the anthology had a "familiar" feel to me, even though I'd never read them before. The titles of some of my early poems collected in Somewhere in Southern Indiana: Poems of Midwestern Origins (1993), as well as their subject matter and what has been described as their "quiet" and "flat" voice, are in my mind clearly indebted to my reading of the Stryk anthology: "Cutting Wood," "Butchering," "Skinning a Rabbit," "Shooting a Squirrel," "Darkness Comes to the Woods," "Driving Back Roads Late at Night," "Boy Scouts Camping Out," "Remembering Heavy Snows," "Basketball Season Begins," "The Patoka River and the Blessinger Brothers," "To Obscure Men," and "Flight."

Stryk's Heartland: Poets of the Midwest has served me well in yet another way. I have used the anthology as one of the texts for seminars on Midwestern Writers at Long Island University and as the text, supplemented by readings in Sandburg, Masters, and Roethke, for a seminar that I taught at the University of Erlangen/Nuremberg. The anthology first helped me to discover myself as a poet and then also equipped me to lead Long Island and German students to a discovery and exploration of the richness of the poetry of the American Midwest. Ironically, the Midwest of these poems has seemed more exotic, more in need of explanation, to Long Island students, afflicted with a peculiar New York strain of provincialism, than to German youths who grew up in the backwaters of my ancestral Franconia (northern Bavaria). To a young Long Islander unaware that until after World War II acres and acres of potato fields were cultivated where there are now expanding circles of subdivisions and malls and intersecting loops of expressways and parkways, Robert Bly's "Hunting Pheasants in a Cornfield" seems more surreal than it does to a Bavarian who may drive past fields of grain and sugar beets on the way to classes at the university.

Although the work of many of Stryk's poets has deepened substantially since Heartland appeared a quarter of a century ago and would therefore benefit from even larger representation, the book has worn very well. The only noteworthy defect of the anthology is the exclusion of the poetry of one Lucien Stryk. I admit that the ample selection of poems by each poet has made it more readable and teachable for me than the succeeding volume, in which two of my poems appear. But perhaps my special fondness for the first Heartland cannot be separated from the thrill of discovery I re-experience every time I open the book, by myself or with a circle of students. I have taped the tattered dust jacket of my review copy back together, covered it with mylar, and expect this Lucien Stryk anthology to give me and my students many more years of discovery and inspiration.