Joseph Bauers/Voices: Homage to a friend

Joseph Bauers/Voices: Homage to a friend

By JOSEPH BAUERS

On the gravestone of my mentor Lucien Stryk, his life is summarized in two words: POET and TEACHER. I first encountered him my junior year in college. He was like no teacher I had experienced. There are professors who can teach; there are many others who could never teach. Lucien was a born teacher. Where others might profess, he would engage.

Looking back, I suspect that his colleagues didn't know what to make of him. He had no Ph.D., yet he had been educated in some of the finest schools around the world; his students consistently ranked him among the best; and he published prolifically. His translations of Zen Buddhist poetry, for example, are still renowned the world over. His own poetry, too, was well regarded.

These estimable credentials were never mentioned in his classes. What did come across was his humanity. In Modern British Poetry, he guided us through the usual pantheon of great verse, but also introduced us to topics that we might never have imagined as suitable for poetry. Until I met Lucien, for example, I had known nothing of Wilfred Owen, the WWI British soldier who wrote scathingly of war, literally from the trenches. I will never forget Owen's remarkable "Dulce et Decorum Est," a harsh critique of war in which he exposed "The old Lie — Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori" — sweet and proper it is to die for one's country. Ironically, Owen was killed on the front lines just a week before the armistice that ended that particular madness. Lucien taught us that poetry could go anywhere, could reveal the underbelly of life, however raw.

Upon graduation, I had no idea what to do. The great cloud that hung over my generation — the war in Vietnam — hung over me as well. Someone suggested that I might apply to graduate school, so, on a lark, I did. To my complete amazement, I was accepted.

Then there was the matter of funding my further education. I had squeezed through my undergraduate years by working summers in construction and, during the school year, a part-time job at a plastics factory. But would the presumed greater demands of grad school give me time for such labors? There were assistantships to be had, but I doubted I had the political skills to navigate the route to one of them. But I applied anyway and waited that summer for an answer.

As fall approached, I had pretty much given up. My two roommates had left our hovel of an apartment over the 1009 Tap, a seedy bar in a seedy neighborhood. Sleeping late one morning after a night on the graveyard shift at the plastics factory, I was awakened by a persistent knocking at my door. I wanted it to just go away, but the knocker was not stopping. Finally, rubbing sleep from my eyes, I opened the door.

There stood Lucien Stryk. It was so surreal that it might have been a dream. In his stylish windbreaker and black turtle neck, he seemed out of place against the backdrop of our miserable apartment. "Lucien!" I said idiotically "It's you!" He assured me that it was, indeed, him, and that he had good news: I had gotten the assistantship. My incoherence continued. To this genteel poet, all I could muster was, "Wow! Lucien!" And then, almost as an after-thought — "Do you think I'll do OK?" He smiled and said that I'd do just fine.

And I did do just fine. That year with guaranteed income was wonderful. I did my job and plowed headlong into the study of literature. My youthful self-absorption had prevented me from seeing, then, what is now obvious: that Lucien had gone to bat for me for that assistantship. He had seen something in me that I was incapable of seeing in myself.

One day, I came across a slim volume of Lucien's poetry. In one poem he, too, had tackled the topic of war, based on his service during WWII. He stretched the bounds of metaphor to unearth the terrible darkness of war's inhumanity. He ended with the lines: "Ask anyone who was there/Nobody won that war."

After he died in 2013, I read an extended obituary in the Chicago Tribune. I learned many things about him I did not know: how he had been born in Poland; how his family had emigrated to Chicago when he was four; how he had starred as a prep football player.

If my physical afflictions would allow, I should like to hop a flight across the ocean to Highgate Cemetery where he rests, there to offer my belated gratitude. But that is not possible. And so I can only give him this, my humble thanks in the currency of words, as he taught me.

Joseph Bauers lives in Champaign. His email is j.bauers@comcast.net