Stanislaw Baranczak: A Widening Horizon
Barańczak is no longer with us. In a while no one will give credence any more to the existence of this Atlantis, this man who transcended boundaries imposed by human force and a system of power. Just like the sunken platonic continent on which there existed or did not exist a civilization more excellent than ours, his work enters the depths of our cultural memory and calls for us to practice u-topia — which is how Paul Celan wrote the word, to emphasize the striving toward a place perhaps unattainable but still real. Stanislaw Barańczak ’s titanic work as a translator into the Polish language had transformed the British metaphysical poets and the canon of American poetry into living points of reference for the intelligentsia of Central Europe. His own poetry was a voice of the pro-democratic opposition in Poland. Some worried that because of its political message his poetry would fade away along with the Communist regime. But no: it speaks with equal power in a world of liberal democracy, not just because it contains a living metaphysical seed, but also because, in spite of various illusions, we do not live in an era of the end of history, and because freedom is still impossible without solidarity. We also come back to Barańczak for his penetrating essays that reveal how language is pre-empted by those in power, essays that most convincingly link ethics and poetics.
At the risk of sounding pompous, especially in English, I would like to say that Stanislaw, starting from his broad shoulders, embraced the horizon — gazing through his large eyeglasses, and looking Truth right in the eye through the lenses of mistrust and protest, and yet also with his heart. The horizon was a scroll of human life, a paper made of crushed plants, which he unrolled from the full breadth of his shoulders. This is how he lived — from the full breadth of his shoulders and beyond. And his shoulders were capacious, like those of a generous spirit that also has considerable stature.
This is how I remember him from our first meetings in Poznan in the mid-70s. His body was built rather for shaping a heavy stone with a chisel than for pecking at the keys of a typewriter. The first volumes of his poetry could fit on the palm of his hand. Facial Corrections, so minute it’s almost invisible, keeps disappearing on my shelf. Even smaller is the volume “I Know It’s Not Right,” an edition printed by the underground publishing house KOS. Yet these little volumes of his poetry, whether read in quiet or aloud at a poetry reading, were like the small fists of an unruly poet who nevertheless had the mighty strength of an uncompromising voice. Not a thug’s fists that strike blindly but a fist that can touch someone else’s in a sign of shared struggle in a common cause.
A meeting with him began with his trusting gaze that welcomed the world and people, and maybe with the warm squeeze of his hand. But as soon as he opened the poems in his palm, or as soon as he began to speak — as at a meeting with the editorial board of the underground journal Zapis (which published works that had been rejected by the state censorship), or as in a lecture on the ways in which the state pre-empted our language — we found ourselves joining him in the space of Agon, a space in which language gains the power of protest and the power to struggle for credible testimony. And it was exactly this transformation from the small and heartfelt into razor-sharp irony and heresy that revealed the first sign of his charisma, and so strongly influenced the soul of a young poetry performer from Poznan like myself. Barańczak had „protruding ribs that cut through the velvet”….aptly put words from the poem „Emotion” that opens his debut volume, Facial Corrections.
In the Poland of the mid-70s not everything had been pre-empted. There were spaces cultivating an ecology of culture — parallel worlds in which real treasures of free thought and creative expression could blossom. In Poznan, the city in western Poland where we both lived, there was a so-called Palace of Culture in the Communist era, which today is a cultural center known as „The Castle”, in which there is a watchtower. In the cellar beneath it there was a student club called Od Nowa (Re Newal). At its very top there was a ceiling with gaping holes where the enormous bells from the time of imperial Prussia had been torn out during the Second World War. In between there was the so-called Fireplace Room, in which a variety of events were held, like tournaments of poetry recitation in which one could express one’s own youthful rebellion. I was among those who recited poetry, having done so for a long time. I knew many of Barańczak ’s poems by heart, as well as those of other poets of the so-called New Wave like Ryszard Krynicki and Adam Zagajewski. They were the poets of the 1968 generation, which in our part of the world meant that their rebellion was prompted by a brutal crackdown on student demonstrators in March 1968 that ended up in Poland with the arrest of their leaders, including Jacek Kuron and Adam Michnik, and in Czechoslovakia with the bloody extinguishing of the Prague Spring by the invading armies of the Warsaw Pact. I read Barańczak ’s work in Nurt, an independent cultural journal in Poznan that was amazingly liberal and well-edited, but of course at that point I didn’t know him personally, even though we were neighbors. The courtyard of the house in which he lived was the same courtyard in which I had played with my friends from elementary school. A few steps away was Libelt Street, and there to the left was my house. The topography of his early poems, which extended from Young Guard Square to Stalingrad Street, is also the topography of the world of my youth.
Barańczak was a regular at the Od Nowa Club. It was there that the Eighth Day Theater was based, and Barańczak was initially their literary director. I was still a youngster when the famous performance of Without Stopping for Breath (Jednym Tchem) was created, the legend of which only bit by bit reached us kids up there in the Fireplace Room. From 1976, when the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR) was established, the performances of avant-garde theater, jazz concerts, and independent cinema down there in the basement were augmented by meetings with members of the pro-democratic opposition of which Barańczak was one of the leaders. We didn’t yet have access to this world. The Club could only be entered with a university student ID. Fortunately I didn’t have to wait until entering the university. Students of Polish literature who were doing internships at our high school arranged a ticket for me as students with ID could bring guests, and that’s how I got into that mythical interior. It was in the middle of the night, and the Theater of the Eighth Day performed “We Have to Confine Ourselves to What Has Been Called Paradise on Earth.” It was one of the most gripping theatrical experiences of my life. We heard words by Dostoyevsky, but also by Czeslaw Milosz, though I only figured that out later. Then, sitting at the wall with his guitar, a legendary bard of the opposition began to sing Barańczak’s “Song from Above the Ceiling.” They even served vodka, but I declined the offer.
Barańczak is released. Such news apread quickly through the university in 1977. I had just been admitted to study in the Polish Literature Department, which at that time was quite an honor. Those who didn’t pass the entrance exam could study law, which under Communism had incomparably lower prestige. Barańczak ’s works were banned and he was first suspended and then fired from teaching at the university. At that time he was already one of the signatories of the “Letter of 59” protesting changes in the Constitution that permanently granted to the Communist Party the leading role in Poland and wrote friendship with the Soviet Union into the Constitution. He was also a member of KOR. My friend from the university collected signatures protesting the firing of Barańczak . But it was not until the beginning of the Solidarity period in 1980 that we could hear his lectures about Newspeak and censorship. One of them, in the Collegium Novum, a huge auditorium, was so crowded that many had to listen through open doors from the lobby. The first underground publications that I got — a secret treasure during the first year of our studies — were published by the NOWA Independent Publishing House: “Late Poems of Mandelstam” and “Verses and Poems by Brodski,” both translated by Barańczak and with his illuminating introductions.
When he was not allowed to teach, my classmates and I found ourselves in a seminar on contemporary literature conducted by Anna Barańczak. We were not the most diligent students: my friends were establishing the Solidarity Student Committee (SKS), and I traveled more and more frequently to Gardzienice, a small village in eastern Poland, to take part in building a theater far away from officialdom. My brother Piotr got deeply engaged in more directly oppositional activity, becoming a leader of the Independent Student Association at the Medical Academy in Poznan, and so at his request I prepared for publication in their underground facilities two volumes of poetry: Selected Poems by Milosz and Artificial Respiration by Barańczak. In establishing this kind of so-called alternative literary market, people from many different groups got involved, not just from literary circles, and they did it at considerable risk of reprisal affecting both their families and their professional careers.
Barańczak ’s lesson in language. We learned from him how to take care of the language and become masters of it, not usurpers or slaves. He made us aware to what an enormous degree language constitutes our lives. That was in the era of heavy censorship and the blatant Newspeak in People’s Poland. Today it is the media, the market, and the ideologies — both new and old, whose death had been prematurely proclaimed — that want to exclude one from the language or gain power over one through language. That is why language became a basic laboratory for us at the “Borderlands Center,” which we created in the wave of the 1989 revolution to rebuild relationships with neighbors and minorities after the ravages of nationalism and totalitarianism. In a world after the Holocaust, post-totalitarian and post-modern, today we are trying to break the monopoly on language wielded by nationalism and religious fundamentalism, and to revive a language of dialogue that can create a community of different people living together. Along borderlands, language that becomes just a product (ergon) can easily be appropriated and consequently becomes enslaved. Energeia is life-giving, it is language understood as open activity, a process of becoming while interacting with the other. This distinction, proposed by Humboldt, was recalled by Barańczak in his doctoral dissertation examining the experimental, so-called linguistic poetry of the outstanding post-war poet Miron Bialoszewski. As an essential guidepost in his further search for authentic language Barańczak cited a line from Milosz’s poem “Six Lectures in Verse”: “The true enemy of Man is generalization.” Building “Borderlands,” we were searching for something concrete and lasting, a small Motherland, close to one’s body and one’s real historical experience, a culture returning from the stage of grand events to something that’s organic. We are still doing it, convinced there is a strength in it that resists Generalization and Big Numbers.
Barańczak takes a trip. It was March 1981. Just before Stanislaw and Anna left for Harvard, a journalist from Radio Poznan managed to record a conversation in their apartment in the new Copernicus Housing Complex, in which Barańczak re-asserted his conviction that poetry by its very nature implies mistrust. The Slavic Department at Harvard had invited him for 3 years as a Visiting Professor, but in December the Polish Government imposed martial law and the authorities did not extend his passport. I was very disturbed by that as it was very difficult for me to imagine him as an emigre, since I was so convinced that he was „one of us” in whatever is „ours” and so very much „from here.” If there existed at that time any authentically „patriotic” poetry, it was above all Barańczak’s poems, and especially one poem, “The Local,” which concludes the cycle Osaczyć w locie (To Capture in Flight), from the volume Facial Corrections (Korekta Twarzy), which began like this:
I want to settle in it like a screw
tightening into the wood, fed with the
force of its grain —
what is this country, whose name
I keep on calling: I don’t know where its roads fade
into, I know but their beginnings, cut off
with a small shade above me; I know how, from without,
the blood of their branches pulses through me. (…)
What followed was like an oracle indelibly marking our destinies, not just his own. When I read it today, just as I did then, I feel shivers down my spine.
I nestled into its leaves with my feet,
absorbed its rain with my skin and spoke
with words which to it belong. The leaves
shut themselves tight around my feet, the rain
crucified my arms wide open, the tongue, unwilling,
takes the course of the locals. (…)
One day I’ll close myself around the body of this land
and may it take hold of me as of a helve .
At the end of 1983 I left the Gardzienice Theater and returned to Poznan. Rafal Grupinski, today — in 2015 — one of the leaders of the ruling party, Civic Platform, and Anka Grupinska, who later wrote excellent books on Polish Jews, mobilized us to launch an underground bi-monthly journal under the auspices of the underground organization, “Fighting Solidarity.” We had difficult conversations with its leaders about the substance of the journal. They had already been publishing the heavily predominantly political journal Czas (Time), whereas we wanted to liberate culture from day-to-day politics and embrace a larger horizon — not merely whatever was prohibited by the regime — even though their question of those in Fight Soli still weighed on us: “Why should we endanger people in the underground for the sake of mystical texts by Buber or the skeptical wisdom of Seneca?” In the end we all agreed that the time had come for a “Czas kultury” (A Time for Culture). An editorial written by me for the first issue, which appeared in 1985, could actually be regarded as the first programmatic text of Borderlands, so strongly does it accentuate the multi-cultural heritage of the Jagiellonian Republic. Shortly thereafter Rafal and Anka departed for a one-year fellowship in America, leaving me in charge of our affairs in Poznan. While there Rafal conducted an interviewwith Barańczak which we published in an issue of Czas Kultury in 1987. “Every time I hear that I’m an emigre, I have the impression they’re talking about someone else,” he repeated, adding that he didn’t leave his country in order to emigrate, and that he couldn’t give up the hope of returning to Poland.
Barańczak builds a Res Publika. By “res publika” I mean in this case a public sphere of Polish literature in America, or that widening circle of students, translators, scholars, writers and readers that radiated from his teaching and his creative work. The first such domain was built by Czeslaw Milosz at the University of California, Berkeley. And it was Milosz himself who declared in a conversation with Clare Cavanagh, one of those first splendid students of the Slavics professor from Harvard, that there was already a Barańczak School in America. Although many of us expected “our” Barańczak to return to Poland, we nevertheless had no doubt that over there across the ocean he was unrolling his horizons even further, that he had found a place for himself, which was important both for us, his readers, and for Polish literature, and that, although over there, he was still „ours.” After all, “What does it mean to ‘be somewhere else’?” he asked himself during a conversation with Czas Kultury, “in the case of someone like me who sees his life’s goal as writing for the Polish reader and working for Polish literature. More important than geographic location is the fact that this ‘being somewhere’ means being in language on the pages of books.” I needed time and these words of Barańczak ’s before it dawned on me that presence doesn’t have to be geographic, and that those in exile, especially writers, find their homeland in language.
The beneficiaries of these domains of Polish literature and Polish culture in general were not only those residing in America but also to an enormous degree those of us who were the „stay-at-homes.” I became convinced of this along with my colleagues. In October 1991 Milosz wrote a letter to Barańczak in which he suggested he consider taking part in the work of the Borderlands Center in Sejny. One fruit of their joint efforts was a grant from the Polcul Foundation (Polish Cultural Foundation), awarded for building civil society, which was enormously helpful as we began our activities. That letter, recently discovered in Nobel Laureate Milosz’s archives at the Beinecke Library of Yale University, is certainly just one small reminder of the tremendous dedication and work of both these poets in the cause of people and ideas to which they devoted their lives.
Barańczak ’s lecture on Settembrini. There are certain traces the poet left behind that have only been made more prominent by his passing. One of these is without doubt the composite of poetry and ethics he created that, although critical, is free of moralizing and trendy politicizing, and embraces service to others without compromising creative freedom.
I learned from him how to connect my own individuality with the ethos of community. Excuse me — I just used the wrong tense: I am constantly learning how to untie the Gordian knot of the western world, which takes such pride in its culture of individual freedom. This had already fascinated me when I read, as required by the Polish Literature Department at Poznan University, Barańczak ’s “The Poetic Language of Miron Bialoszewski.” The secret behind individual “M’irony” was that in the art of life the poet „actually stands to one s-i-d-e of — but still not a-b-o-v-e — that which is social and universal.”
One sign of the times of the new era on whose threshold we stand — conscious that the old models of life are exhausted and terrifyingly uncertain about the future — is the growing currency of books written during totalitarian rule that mercilessly expose that regime. These include The Captive Mind by Milosz, which, when read today, brings to mind the existence of Ketman and Murti-Bing pills in our world of the free market, political popularism, and cultural consumerism. These books also include Ethics and Poetics by Barańczak, in particular the essay “The Changed Voice of Settembrini.” Today it may be even more difficult than in the mid-seventies of the last century to undertake a defense of Settembrini, who in Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain represents the western heritage of the Enlightenment. Vis-a-vis the voice of Naphta — now magnified a million times, cynically mocking the weak, with crowds of believers behind him — the voice of his interlocutor defending his faith in mankind and the strength of human reason, looks all the more ridiculous. But the contemporary importance of Barańczak ’s text is not that he undertakes to defend Settembrini, or that in his hardly audible voice he hears the voice of contemporary arts and poetry; or even that he consistently protests against Naphta’s attitude. It is rather that Barańczak orders Settembrini to change! The foundation of his ethics is neither to have individual freedom nor to be a dominant authority, but to accept any other human being as his equal. Without this solidarity with one’s neighbor one never become truly free. The neighbor we are talking about is not “a Human Being” in capital letters whom the Settembrini from the novel so eagerly refers to in abstract terms, but a “concrete human being, one that in this very moment is dying in the trenches, slides down from the execution wall, or hides his face in his palms when slapped on the cheek, who cries with a sense of humiliation and abandonment.” Barańczak ’s Settembrini gets wiser after an era of enormous physical genocide and complete spiritual captivity. He does not believe so blindly in some gleaming future of humanity or in the inborn goodness of the individual. But above all he is able to combine fidelity to the daimonium of poetry — which usually excludes poetry from the community — with a devotion to the ethos of solidarity.
Barańczak fights. I don’t quite remember when I heard for the first time that Barańczak had Parkinson’s. But what made this news from across the ocean ominous was not that he had an illness but that he was fighting It. And the fight lasted a long time, more than thirty years. He would joke that he was the longest-living victim of Parkinson’s in the world. Not to mention that he was still a person dedicated to writing, translating, teaching.
When I went to Harvard for the first time in 2007, Staszek was no longer there. I gave a lecture at his Slavic Studies department, followed by conversations — and one could still sense his presence everywhere. Above all there was Ania Barańczak , the places where he worked, exchanges with his colleagues, and there were his students. Afterwards I went with Irena Grudzinska-Gross to Barańczak ’s home in Newtonville near Boston. I had visited them a few years earlier and had had a similar impression, which at this point became acute: in this house one didn’t sense an illness, or else the hosts were doing absolutely everything not to burden the guests with it. We were able to be with Staszek for one hour. With a note of joy in his voice he said that he could work each day for one hour. This hour took a lot of effort, preparatory measures to snatch from the illness some time for concentration and creative work and for being with others. With great eagerness he would joke with a twinkle in his eye but the twinkle faded fairly quickly. He read to us from his ingenious translations of nonsense poetry from the anthology, Pegasus Fell Dumb. In the room there was the lingering spirit of a limerick by Ogden Nash, “Too clever is dumb.” as heard in Staszek’s phenomenal rendition (“Reguła prosta, że aż osłupia: / Kto się wymądrza, ten się wygłupia,” or, “a rule so simple it’s stunning: who tries too hard to be smart, looks dumb”).
Barańczak expands his horizon and ours. When I first met him he was at the height of his powers in both writing and living. His was a deadly-serious challenge to the world and to himself, and his irony only magnified it. Without hesitation and with iron-clad consistency he widened our own local horizon from the full expanse of his liberated shoulders. In the footsteps of Aleksander Wat, author of My Century, a remarkable memoir that had emerged in the course of conversations with Czeslaw Milosz, Barańczak taught those of us who were with him in a shared struggle that it is not enough to rebel against the world, but that one has to “authenticate one’s non-belonging.” During our last meeting I was interacting with a man devoured by a deadly disease, on the threshold of losing his physical and mental powers, but surrounded by an aura of playful poetry and frivolous toying with the nonsense of the world, as though it were a dance over a dark abyss by a bee with a stinger of irony. His body was shrinking….he almost disappeared into the armchair in which he sat. It seemed as though the illness would not allow him any further unfolding of the horizon, that the expanse of his shoulders had lessened, that it was happening much too early, as he could have done so much more… I had thought this while heading for their home, yet while there with him and Ania I had a startlingly different feeling: his shoulders, contradicting their own physicality, embraced more and even more. It was not about one more translation of a work by Shakespeare to complete the entire opus, nor even about one more poem. Staszek was already beyond poetry and beyond the measurable achievements included in the works of a poet and scholar. He didn’t create anything that could have been added to a Barańczak entry in an encyclopedia. Nevertheless, he continuously expanded the horizon, along with his wife Anna — which really has to be underscored. Indeed, from a certain moment in our path — even the most individual path — we could not take one more step without the participation of a second person.
Because from Newtonville one could see further. The “Nobody” from the psalm of Paul Celan had just been meeting with some “You” from Barańczak’s “A Postcard from this World,” who is asked an uncomfortable question, like, “Say how you feel / with my pain how it hurts / You, Your human being.” And this critical conversation goes on, persistently expanding the horizon, reaching deeply into the guts of a human being, and then, off somewhere on the margin, the poet jots down, “In the meantime I am dying.”
Translated by Elzbieta Matynia.