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Even When No One is Looking

Baranczak balanced his role as a public intellectual and his own desire to write for writing’s sake.

By Tara W. Merrigan, Crimson Staff Writer

It was the fall of 1980. Harvard professor Stanislaw Baranczak, a Polish poet then living in Poznan, Poland, was about to read his work. The bearded and bespectacled writer and his wife Anna stepped on stage and surveyed the room.

The city’s literati had come, but many others, like Anna’s aunt, had turned out, too. These audience members weren’t interested in the artistry of Baranczak’s rhyming poems, Anna recalls. They were hoping to hear a lyrical anti-communist rallying cry, and they were hungry for a political martyr, an intellectual who would lead the opposition against the communists. Then there was the shock of the room, itself. Members of the religious order, the  Dominican brothers, had organized the event. Baranczak assumed they would use a casual meeting room in their church’s basement. But he found himself in the church’s modern, minimalist chapel.

The crowd-ordained political martyr was to read his poetry standing at the altar, a crucifix hanging behind him. Baranczak looked out at the crowd and then back at Anna. He had no desire to shoulder his country’s burden. What he wanted was to write free from the confines of communist censorship.

“Uciekac, uciekac,” Baranczak growled to his wife. Run away, run away.

Though Baranczak didn’t escape the reading in the church, he did escape Poland the following year. In 1981, the year the crumbling communist government declared martial law in Poland, Baranczak left his native country, where he was born in 1946, and came to Harvard, where he taught, wrote, and translated for the next two decades. But Baranczak took leave from Harvard in 1999. The progression of his Parkinson’s disease, diagnosed several years after he arrived in the U.S., left him unable to continue teaching. In the years since, Parkinson’s has crippled his motor skills. Today, the poet’s voice, the foundation of his life and career, is so soft that his wife Anna, who teaches Polish at Harvard, can barely understand him. He was unable, therefore, to give an interview for this piece.

Throughout his career, Baranczak grappled with the political and personal implications of his poetry. Facing a longstanding tradition of the Polish political poet, Baranczak balanced his role as a public intellectual and his own desire to write for writing’s sake.


Two summers ago, when I was studying at the Jagiellonski University in Krakow, my Polish literature instructor, an older, professorial-looking lady with long, dark hair and thin-framed glasses, held up an illegal issue of Czeslaw Milosz’s “The Captive Mind.” This book was passed from Pole to Pole during the bleak post-war period, she told the class. Then, she handed the grey pamphlet to us for closer inspection. When the book came to me, I flipped through it, noting the smears on pages, probably left by greasy fingers. I didn’t try to read much—Milosz’s philosophies are beyond me in Polish—but I did catch two words on the final page: “Stanislaw Baranczak” sat at the very top of a long list of anti-communist conspirators.

Three years prior to the reading in the Dominican church, Baranczak had been fired from his teaching position at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan—the government’s response, Anna says, to Baranczak founding the city’s chapter of the Workers’ Defense Committee, an anti-communist resistance group. But Baranczak wasn’t too concerned. He told friends that his work at the university was taking too much time away from his writing, anyway. “You know what? I think he enjoyed that,” says Baranczak’s friend Wojciech Wolynski, now a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, who left Poland a few years after Baranczak. “He was fired, and he was laughing.”

This pink slip came with a spot on the communist’s black list, however. The poet wasn’t allowed to publish his work, and Baranczak was no longer able to give poetry readings at universities or other public forums. Government censors even blocked Baranczak’s attempt to publish translated poetry under a pseudonym, according to his wife Anna. Baranczak went underground. Though not cut from activist cloth, Baranczak felt the government’s totalizing control of literature, the media, and everyday life had gone too far. He therefore co-founded, edited, and wrote for “Zapis,” the first uncensored literary magazine to be published in communist Poland. He helped circulate uncensored literature smuggled in from abroad or printed illicitly by clandestine publishing houses, known collectively as the “samizdat,” therefore not constrained by the red pens of government watchdogs at the official, state-run houses. He often returned from Workers’ Defense Committee meetings in Warsaw with banned books. “If anything came from the capital, it came from him or by him,” says Wolynski, who worked as an illustrator for the underground press newspaper “Robotnik.”


Uncensored expression came with certain challenges. Samizdat printing quality was poor; essays, novels, and poems were printed on cheap paper and in a tiny type with ink that smudged easily. Dissidents set up underground publishing houses in their houses or garden sheds, and others’ houses and apartments would serve as covert bookshops. Illegal publishers employed several methods of production: silk screen printing, offset printing machines, and, for those who were more daring, sneaking into university offices by night to use the copy machine.

“There is a whole generation of people in Poland who have eye problems,” quips Anna Baranczak, with whom I took three classes with during my freshman and sophomore years. She is sitting in her airy third floor office in the Barker Center. Her floor-to-ceiling bookshelves are crammed with Polish novels and poetry anthologies. A few were printed by the “samizdat,” and among them is a collection of her husband’s earlier poetry. The title, “Wiersze Prawie Zebrane”(“The Almost Collected Poems”), runs down the yellowed card stock cover, parallel to the spine. A grainy image of Baranczak—holding a cane and wearing a tweed blazer and the oversized glasses typical of the 1980s—looks as if it was cut out by hand and pasted onto the original cover.

Producing literature was dangerous work in those days. Control of media and art was a cornerstone of government policy in the Polish People’s Republic. Officials censored arts and letters in order to make Polish citizens more intellectually and emotionally amenable to the new totalitarian regime. “Of course we were harassed by the police. We were stalked, we were arrested, but somehow the works were made,” Wolynski says. Baranczak’s poem “Three Magi” puns its eponymous Christmastime lore to describe a nighttime visit from government officials: “They will probably come just after the new year.As usual, early in the morning.

The forceps of the doorbell will pull you out by the headfrom under the bedclothes; dazed as a newborn baby,you’ll open the door. The star of an IDwill flash before your eyes.Three men. In one of them you’ll recognizewith sheepish amazement (isn’t this a smallworld) your schoolmate of years ago.”

The black mark left by Baranczak’s dismissal from Adam Mickiewicz faded away on August 31, 1980, when striking Polish dock workers from the northern port city Gdansk won major concessions from the country’s iron-fisted political regime: the right to organize independent unions able to strike, greater religious freedom, and, most significant to Baranczak, greater freedom of expression.

Poles were ecstatic, Anna recalls. “We were so incredibly aware that history was being made,” she says. Baranczak was so euphoric himself that he tried out his son’s skateboard, which turned out to be an impetuous decision, since Baranczak, instead of gliding around Poznan, ended up breaking his leg. The event that spurred  his accident also prompted a flood of requests for Baranczak to give readings. Hobbling into a reading with a broken leg gave Baranczak—falsely—the look of a hardened political dissident. “The Communists broke his leg,” audience members often whispered, Anna remembers.

Baranczak, like other Polish poets writing during the 20th century, was a reluctant political figurehead. Poland had lost much of its intelligentsia during World War II, Wolynski says, so few intellectuals of the post-war era were willing to continue the tradition epitomized by Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz, who fought for Polish freedom during the 19th century. “Nobody wanted to be a martyr. Only idiots wanted to be a martyr,” Wolynski says. “It was like we were pushed, pressed to be active politically.”

For Baranczak, poetry was at its most basic the expression of an individual. According to Wolynski, Anna Baranczak, and Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures Joanna Nizynska, humanistic personal philosophies and a deep commitment to the truth drove him to resistance organizing. In “Temporary Shortages,” a poem written during the 1970s, Baranczak explores how communist censorship and cultural policies affected the mind:

“…our apartments

have been replaced by departments; what’s happened

to our brains:

we’ve gone

too far, we’ve bred

silence into our brains, we’ve

brought up our brains

in silence, we’ve buried

our brains in silence; now

our brains are wise because they don’t talk that much,

they don’t talk that much, because they’re not that much alive.”

Despite the political undertones of this poem and its appropriation of the collective “we,” Baranczak was unwilling to become the “political martyr,” as his wife put it, that the crowd in the chapel wanted him to become. His steadfast individualism overrode any of the collectivist impulses his early poetry may have suggested. “He couldn’t stand having this political popularity,” Anna says. “Politics means to use we, and he was committed to I.”

A thirst for truth, rather than politics or activism, provided an impetus for Baranczak’s more political poetry. In a 1986 interview with the American Poetry Review, Baranczak explained how representing what a poet felt to be real or accurate could be seen as a political act. “Even writing on, say, flowers, or love can be—doesn’t necessarily have to be, but it can be—a political gesture, if it’s written in the spirit of defending your right to be independent,” Baranczak said. “Just pure description, if it describes the world faithfully, is a kind of political act.”

Baranczak’s poetry from this period attempted to demystify the government’s control over the Polish people by showing how  propaganda embedded politics in day-to-day life. “What he was doing in his poetry was that he was using colloquial speech to reveal various mechanisms of mystique of the communist regime and show how the communist regime manipulates language,” Nizynska says. “And he revealed those mechanisms by going back to everyday reality.” In his poetry, Baranczak attempts to expose the dual consciousness imposed by communist censorship. Because individuals’ minds were divided in two, between what they could and could not say, Baranczak’s alternating use of propagandist language and vernacular language can be read as a political statement.

Baranczak’s poem “A Special Time” exemplifies his reappropriation of oblique communist-speak to reveal underlying truths:

“We live at a special time (clears throat) and that

we must, isn’t that the truth, be clearly.

Aware of. We live at (splashes water

into his glass) a special, isn’t that the truth,

time, at a time of

continuous efforts on behalf of, at a

time of increasing and sharpening

and so on (slurps water), isn’t that the truth  Conflicts.”


In March 1978, Professor Emeritus Donald Fanger, a former Chair of the Slavic Languages and Literatures Department, carried Harvard stationary in his luggage when he flew across the Atlantic Ocean, passed through the veil of the invisible Iron Curtain, and landed in Poland. He had come to meet, and potentially hire, Baranczak to teach Polish literature at Harvard. Fanger was impressed with the out-of-work poet, and after their discussion, he asked Baranczak if he wanted a one-year, three-year, or five-year contract. The two immediately signed the three-year contract,  drawn up on Fanger’s stationary, in the American Embassy in Warsaw.

It took time for the Baranczaks, like many immigrants, to adjust to the American landscape. In his essay “E.E.: The Extraterritorial,” Baranczak makes light of the differences between Eastern Europe’s dull grays and America’s “orgy of colors.” American gulls are bigger too, as if “they had been fed all their lives with some especially nutritious gull food, sold in easy-to-open cans,” he quips, demonstrating the wry sense of humor that friends recall.

Exile was a prevalent theme among the poets of post-war Poland. Many fled to Paris or America in order to practice their art without political ramifications. Baranczak’s own immigration to the United States was delayed three years as the Polish government wouldn’t allow the professor to leave the country because officials feared the dissident would stir up anti-government sentiment abroad. It was only after University affiliates, including then-president Derek C. Bok, plied the Polish government with numerous letters that Baranczak was allowed to travel.

Though acclimating to a different cultural climate took Baranczak some time, he was not a reluctant exile. He welcomed his move to the land he and his wife were so curious about, the “land of Ella Fitzgerald and Emily Dickinson,” Anna says. Baranczak’s poem “Don’t Use the Word ‘Exile’” argues against using the term “exile” because “it’s improper and senseless.” For Baranczak, “you yourself left them behind, selfishly forsaken / even as you set foot on the curb or entered the station, / because with every moment one chooses another life.” Furthermore, Wolynski says, Baranczak “lived to work,” and in America, Baranczak could escape the political upheaval for which he had no desire to act as poet-spokesman.

The poems of Baranczak that have been translated into English, Nizynska says, would give readers a narrow impression that does not reflect the corpus of his work. His earlier poetry features an overt anti-communist sentiment, but Baranczak’s later, more metaphysical work shows the poet at his full height and demonstrates his reluctance to engage with the political. As he matured as a poet, Baranczak played with his native language more, she says.

Beyond poetry and politics, translations were important to Baranczak. His most significant contribution to Polish literature is perhaps his translation of the complete works of Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s plays have been translated into Polish before, but Baranczak translated the work with unique sensitivity to the plays’ theatrical elements. However, Fanger, who worked with Baranczak for about two decades, says Baranczak is a poet and writer first.

“I’ve never met anybody who lived so completely and so insistently and so intensely by the written word,” Fanger says. “He was always good to talk to, but his manner was quiet in speech, almost shy. But he could do anything on the page.”

And yet, while Parkinson’s has stolen Baranczak’s ability to write and severely limited his ability to speak, Wolynski believes that Baranczak is still working with words, as he has for his entire life: “If [Baranczak] can’t work, he’s very unhappy,” Wolynski says. “The disease of course stopped him. But in reality, he’s still working in his head. It doesn’t matter that he cannot now even operate the computer. He is still working.”

—Staff writer Tara W. Merrigan can be reached at

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