Thomas James and Lucien Stryk: “and you / My first live poet”
Susan Azar Porterfield | September 2013
Lucie Brock-Broido reintroduced the poetry of Thomas James to the world some thirty years after he committed suicide in 1974, shortly after publishing his first book Letters to a Stranger (1973). According to Brock-Broido in her “Introduction” to Graywolf’s reissue of his book, since his death, James’s reputation and work went underground, kept vital by a devoted few, herself among them. Through her determination and research, Brock-Broido revived interest in this young writer, and that interest has resulted, as might be expected, in more critical attention being paid to his poetry than ever before, especially to the issue of influence.
The question of influence is especially justified, given that James seems to have appeared out of the blue. Where did he come from? How did this relatively unknown writer manage to delight the imagination and garner the respect of so many highly regarded poets? He didn’t go to Harvard or Columbia or Iowa, for example. He went to Joliet Junior College and Northern Illinois University, a mid-sized Midwestern school. He wasn’t part of the established poetic scene. He’d been a school teacher in Joliet.2 Apparently, he never attended workshop. He didn’t have an MFA. What he knew about writing poetry he seemed to have learned from his own reading and experience and from discussions with the one professional poet with whom he had a close relationship. Lucien Stryk.
While Stryk’s connection with James is widely acknowledged, it hasn’t been given the attention that it warrants. Brock-Broido mentions Stryk in her “Introduction” to the Graywolf edition, for example, but only as one of several other possible literary parents. She, as do most others, links James most directly with Sylvia Plath instead.3 That link was initially forged in the first commentary on James’s book, a review that labeled him as being something of a “pale Plath.” Other possible poetic fathers have also been noted: James Wright, Roethke, Georg Trakl. Certainly, a case can be made for all of them and especially for Plath. But while James may have and probably did read these authors, their influence could only have been indirect, nothing like the sway of a mentor. Lucien Stryk, on the other hand, discussed James’s work directly with him and was something of a confidant. Stryk also focused the young man by encouraging him to read two poets who may have been important to his work, Trakl and the Zen Buddhist poet Shinkichi Takahashi.
Stryk first met James when he contacted the older poet after the publication of Stryk’s The Pit and Other Poems (1969).4 Stryk recalls that James particularly liked the “harshness” of the book. He appreciated that many of the pieces within it were unsentimental and “tough,” two characteristics that no doubt had drawn him to Plath as well. Although Stryk didn’t recall any particular poem of his from that volume that James mentioned, the book’s central piece “The Pit” may be a good example. It’s set in Okinawa during WWII where Stryk, as a young soldier, was told to bury a pile of Japanese corpses, not out of respect but because of the smell. Dodging snipers, he and two others reach the pit of rotting dead:
Of sand and crawling. We clamped
Nose, mouth, wrenched netted helmets
To the chin, yet poles probed forward
Surgically, touching for spots
The maggots had not jelled.5
Many of those who came of age in the 1960s, like James, must have found this kind of realistic treatment of war appealing for especially political reasons. But James may also have been receptive to another poem from this collection for more personal reasons. In “Steve Crawley,” the tough tone and imagery also exist as in “The Pit,” but here Stryk writes about a fellow soldier and friend who committed suicide after receiving a Dear John letter.
Why whenever they mention Hawaii
Do I think of you and not the hula
Girls or orchids shrill against the blue?
Why when they send postcards of tourists tense
Around a burning pig, leis like collars
On a brace of hounds, do I see you flung
Across the earthfloor of that tent again,
Brains like macaroni puddled at the ear?6
Eventually, Stryk became a mentor to James. The young man was a frequent guest to dinner and brought friends, both male and female, with him to dine. Helen Stryk, Lucien’s wife, recalls one particular occasion when she felt that James was uncomfortable eating in her presence, so she and her daughter quietly took their plates to another room. Later, she found out why. James had revealed to Stryk “the truth about his life, his reality,” that is, that he was gay.7
James may have felt that he had to let Stryk know in order for him to understand more completely where James was coming from in his work. Although the young writer never took a workshop with Stryk—the only formal class he had with him was a course in poetry as literature—by this time, Stryk was looking at James’s writing on a regular basis. Indeed, quite early on, James had asked Stryk for “his full advice,” regarding his work, and Stryk also sensed that James wanted to learn from him “how to live in the art.”
That Stryk was willing to try to help the young man to understand “how to live in the art” is important. It signals that Stryk found Thomas to be both serious and talented. The question of how to live in the art only arises at a certain, indeterminate, point. Perhaps when one’s poetry and one’s world become indistinguishable: “a need,” Stryk says, “when you see a need in a writer. Thomas had the need.” It also signals that his and James’s association would be closer than the typical teacher-student. Stryk was taking this young man under his wing. Stryk found himself, then, not only talking to James about individual poems and about poetry in general but also about how to live and work. According to Stryk, he tried to get James to “face up to the sadness and trials of his life,” and by “face up,” Stryk means to meet them head on.8 Confronting them in life meant that he could confront them in art.
“What is it you’ve been hiding from?” That’s the question that Stryk says he asked of Thomas as well as of some other “good students.” “The talent is there, now what is it you really feel that has been left out?” For Stryk, writing poetry, using Seamus Heaney’s metaphor, means digging. Where is the true self, the true sensibility, the honest, unselfconscious being? Is it even possible to find that being and still also be a writer? Maybe not, but Stryk felt that his young student’s poetry was perhaps too smooth, that James was so gifted that it all came too easily to him. Stryk encouraged him to take a beat, to realize that along with his talent, he also had a responsibility to the art. Stryk wanted James to do the hard work of digging and to come out clean on the other side, not so that he could write confessional poetry but so that he could write honest poetry.
As a result, Stryk would quite naturally have discussed the work of poets whom he appreciated with James, hoping that the younger poet might find something valuable for himself. Two, in particular, stand out, Georg Trakl and Shinkichi Takahashi. Stryk has said that he did indeed refer James to these writers but not in any formal way. Both writers were important to Stryk and so became part of his and James’s dialogue.9 Lucie Brock-Broido and others have already noted that James seems to have been in some ways indebted to Trakl, whose work became more accessible to English-speaking readers in 1961 thanks to the James Wright and Robert Bly translation of twenty of Trakl’s poems. Thomas James may have read Trakl through Wright’s and Bly’s translations. Also worth noting, however, is that in 1971, Stryk published five translations of his own of Trakl in a small literary magazine, The Blackbird Circle, that was based in DeKalb, Illinois, where Stryk lived as well as where Northern Illinois University is located.10 In other words, Stryk must have been actively engaged in translating Trakl at approximately the same time that he was mentoring James.
But perhaps a greater influence upon James was the work of the Zen Buddhist poet Shinkichi Takahashi. Since the mid-1960s, Stryk had been engaged in studying, writing, and translating Zen Buddhist poetry. Takahashi was important to Stryk. He has said that he “profoundly” influenced his own work.11 And though it goes without saying that Stryk admired Takahashi’s poetry, he also found instructive the Japanese writer’s approach to poetry, that the point of it all was not to be a poet but to have something to say that could best, could only, be expressed through the art of poetry. In other words, Takahashi had taught Stryk how to live in the art. In 1970, shortly after he met James, Stryk’s first translation of Takahashi Afterimages, Zen Poems of Shinkichi Takahashi appeared.
Stryk says that James was “fully aware and inspired by Takahashi,” that they “talked about his work a great deal.” I asked Stryk why he thought to introduce James to the Japanese poet, and Stryk replied that he found that James tended to over write and that his work fell “into conventional patterns.” Stryk wanted, he said, “to inspire him to try the economies of Zen poetry,” so he encouraged James to read not only Takahashi but also Zen poetry in general.12
Takahashi, who was an enlightened Zennist poet, wrote verse that exhibits Zen spirit manifested in images that can seem incongruous and that have great speed. Stryk says that Takahashi’s poems show “spontaneous activity free of forms, flowing from the formless self.” This, he continues, is apparent in the “bold thrust of the images… freedom from rationality and his recourse to uncommon symbols.”13 At the same time, Stryk notes, Takahashi’s poetry is also concrete. Takahashi writes this way, because as a Buddhist, he sees that all things are related and that divisions result from faulty perceptions rather than because those schisms actually exist. In his poetry, he’s not trying to shock or manipulate by using startling imagery. He’s trying to express what he feels is true. Here’s part of one of Stryk’s translations:
While I slept it was all over,
Everything. My eyes, squashed white,
Flowed off toward dawn.14
And here’s Thomas James:
On my right is a field of darkness.
The ants are busy in the tall grass.
I float on a lake of dark petals.
A horse stands by a worm-eaten log.
It paws the dark with its right foreleg,
Cutting dark flowers in the air.15
Lucie Brock-Broido and others have wondered how James could have come up with some of his wilder images, and she cites these examples from his work:
“snow ‘dismantling the weeds/Like the breakable furniture of a boudoir.’”
“a sky involved with a stillborn moon.”16
She speculates that perhaps James was influenced by Robert Bly’s notion of “Leaping Poetry” or what some call “Deep Image,” a Lorcian and surrealist attempt to override the rational. Perhaps so, though as she concedes, we can’t know.
But just as a case can be made for Bly, so can one be proposed for Stryk’s translations of Takahashi and other Zen Buddhist writers. The imprint of these Zennists may surface in James’s wilder imagery and in his occasional terseness, especially when he writes in strict tercets that are sometimes reminiscent in tone, stringency, and their snapshot-like quality of haiku.
Consider, for example, the leaps that some of Takahashi’s and James’s imagery take. Here’s Takahashi, a stanza from “Rain,”
The rain keeps falling,
Even in dreams.
The skull leaks badly.
or this one from “Collapse.”
Time oozed from my pores,
I tasted the seven seas.17
Now here’s a tercet of James’s from “Love Song,”
Love, the gold mouth has broken open.
Stars are hard as quartz.
The moon hangs like a half-eaten melon.
and here’s another, from “The Chestnut Branch,”
Will nothing cure the brightness in these streets?
A million strange petals touch
The panes. Is it a gift of snow?18
What’s most compelling about these examples is that they show James’s almost haiku-like ability to be both concise via the tercet as well as concrete, while at the same time flying off into space. Like haiku, the tercet form contains the wildness. The reader senses the tension between the untamed imagery and the taming form, and the energy this chafing creates is part of the poem’s attraction.
Takahashi’s wild imagery may have appealed to James. Perhaps he found that it affirmed his own instincts or gave them license. He also may have found that combining that imagery with the tercet, a form often used by Zen Buddhist poets, allowed him to both fly and be still. Although Takahashi didn’t always use the tercet, Stryk has nevertheless said about the Japanese poet, “often in his work there is an amazing interdependence” of “stillness” and “energy.”19
Or, James may have sensed all of this—the wildness, the virtue of the tercet, the juxtaposition of energy and stillness—from Stryk’s own poetry. Stryk uses the tercet quite frequently, for example, and because his work was affected by Zen Buddhist thought and by Takahashi, James could have assimilated some Zennist aesthetic notions simply from reading Stryk. A poem that first appeared in The Pit and Other Poems, “Zen: the Rocks of Sesshu,” is one that James would have known. Here’s section two:
In the Three Whites of
Fuji, the snow, the crane—
What startles is the black: in
Of the mountain, the branch-tips
Piercing the snow, the quills of
The crane’s wing:
Here, in stainless air, the
Blazes like a crow.20
In addition to the startling imagery here, the stop-and-go movement aided by form contributes to the work’s static/kinetic energy. The piece is comprised of a series of 32 tercets that are divided into eight sections, all centering around views of Sesshu’s famous rock garden at the Joei Temple. Many stanzas, despite belonging to the whole, can also stand alone, as if they are thought or image units on their own. The same can be said for each of the eight numbered sections: they can function either as independent poems or as part of the larger piece. Readers are thus encouraged to consider the numbered pieces twice, once as discrete poems in their own right and then as part of the whole. Worth mentioning is that James, as do others, also uses this technique of numbering individual stanzas as well as individual sections of a longer poem and to the same effect.
Later, after James died, in 1975 Heartland II: Poets of the Midwest appeared, and Stryk dedicated the book to James’s memory and included the young man’s work. In the introductions to both the first Heartland (1967) and this second one, Stryk tried to define what makes a poet Midwestern. They have, he says, “a sense of isolation” due to geography, “largeness of vision.” They “see their territory as often luminous and wild.” And finally, they show “bitter humor” though rarely “does it reach the point of cynicism… but it is a tough vein.”21 All of these qualities, these tonal moods, these perspectives, can be found in James. They can also be found in Stryk. Even if these two Midwestern poets didn’t actively discuss voice, James was familiar with the first Heartland anthology and so would have had some fluency with the idea of a Midwestern voice and aesthetic.22 Perhaps that awareness allowed him to identify himself, his voice, with a group of poets--to know how and why he fit in, and for any writer, that’s no small thing.
Stryk tells this story about an incident shortly before James killed himself. The young poet phoned and asked if he could come to see him right away. James seemed anxious and tense, and Stryk said “Come.” He waited hours for Thomas to arrive, but he never showed. A little while later, Stryk heard that James was dead. Afterwards, James’s family visited Stryk and his wife to express their grief and thanks.23
We can’t know for certain why James committed suicide. Brock-Broido reports that if there had been a note, no one remembers what it said, and it’s been lost.24 Some have speculated that, Chatterton-like, James took his own life after receiving a harsh review of his book. But it was, no doubt, more complicated than that. Having felt like an outsider for most of his life, due to his sexual orientation and maybe also to his unique manner of looking at the world, perhaps he’d thought that he’d found, through poetry, a way to belong to something larger and thus a way to live. Regardless, I can’t help but think, if he’d met with Stryk that one night, James might still be here.
Susan Azar Porterfield is the editor of Zen, Poetry, the Art of Lucien Stryk (Ohio UP), and she has written on Stryk for Poets & Writers as well as for the Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association. She has three books of poetry.
Brock-Broido, Lucie. “Introduction,” Letters to a Stranger. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2008.
Interview. Lucien Stryk. London, March 6, 2011.
James, Thomas. Letters to a Stranger. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2008.
Johnson, Kent. “Lucien Stryk: An Interview.” Zen, Poetry, the Art of Lucien Stryk. Ed. Susan Azar Porterfield. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 1993.
Phone interview. Lucien Stryk. August 23, 2011.
Stryk, Lucien. Collected Poems, 1953-1983. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 1984.
----------------. “Five Poems after Georg Trakl.” The Blackbird Circle. Spring 1971. pp. 3-7.
----------------. “Shinkichi Takahashi: Contemporary Zen Poet.” Zen, Poetry the Art of Lucien Stryk. Ed. Susan Azar Porterfield. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 1993.
----------------, ed. Heartland II: Poets of the Midwest. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois UP, 1975.
----------------, ed. Heartland: Poets of the Midwest. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois UP, 1967.
Takahashi, Shinkichi. Collected Poems, 1953-1983. Lucien Stryk, trans. Athens, OH: Ohio, UP, 1984.
- Stryk, “Lament for Weldon Kees,” Collected Poems, 73.
- Stryk, Heartland II, p. 114.
- Lucie Brock-Broido, “Introduction,” Letters to a Stranger, pp. x-xi.
- Interview, London, March 6, 2011.
- Collected Poems, p. 78.
- Collected Poems, p. 77.
- The Blackbird Circle (spring 1971) pp. 3-7.
- Kent Johnson, Zen, Poetry, the Art of Lucien Stryk, p. 79.
- Phone interview, August 23, 2011.
- “Shinkichi Takahashi: Contemporary Zen Poet,” Zen, Poetry, the Art of Lucien Stryk, pp. 146-7.
- Collected Poems, p. 88.
- Letters to a Stranger, p. 5.
- “Introduction,” p. xv.
- Collected Works, p. 97,p. 96.
- Letters to a Stranger, p. 77, p. 59.
- Kent Johnson, Zen, Poetry, the Art of Lucien Stryk, p 79.
- Collected Works, p. 44.
- Heartland, pp. ix-xix and Heartland II, p. xxxiii.
- Phone interview.
- “Introduction,” p. xi.