Stanislaw Baranczak


A Conversation With Stanislaw Baranczak

Stanislaw Baranczak, currently professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Harvard University, is one of the major poetic and critical voices of contemporary Polish literature. The author of six books of poetry and five books of criticism, he has also translated into Polish several volumes of English, American and Russian verse, including a highly acclaimed anthology of the English metaphysical poets. In English, he has published poems and essays in The New Republic, Partisan Review, TriQuarterly, Encounter, and Manhattan Review. A chapbook of his poetry, Where Did I wake Up?, translated by Frank Kujawinski, has been published by Mr. Cogito Press.

Born in Poznan in 1946, Baranczak was one of the young Polish writers who emerged from the turbulent period of the late ’60s, which, as in the West, saw the rise of student unrest in Poland. The poets from this generation–Baranczak, Adam Zagajewski, Julian Kornhauser, Ryszard Krynicki, and others–soon came to be known as the “New Wave.” Their poetry was one of protest, but rather than writing “for the drawer,” they turned to underground publishing in order to circumvent the various thematic restrictions enforced by the government in the official press. As a result, the poets of the New Wave were responsible for the establishment of an alternative press that continues to thrive to this day. Linguistically, through their poetic art, these poets also started to push back against the totalitarian state’s monopoly on public expression. In an introduction to Humps and Wings, a collection of New Wave poetry published by Invisible City, Baranczak refers to the poetic usage of “contaminated language” — how the language of speeches, communiques, and other forms of bureaucratese in the media and in one’s own billfold can be held up for inspection in the poem as a way of considering the social order as a whole. Aesthetically, there is a situation of denunciation and then redemption. The hollowness, banality, and distortion of truth in the “official” language is presented, but at the same time, this jaded language is somehow altered and cleansed and made to speak the truth about what is actually happening. What emerges is a poetry that exists as much in what is read between the lines as in the actual words themselves. Every official phrase has its own cynical but more truthful shadow-phrase.

Of course, publishing illegal books, especially illegal books criticizing the social order, was not something to be taken lightly in Poland during the late ’60s and early ’70s, and several writers, Baranczak included, soon ran into problems. Baranczak was removed from his teaching position at the University of Poznan, and since 1980 has been living in the United States. Nevertheless, the poetry of the New Wave still manages to exert considerable influence on both younger and older Polish writers though its practitioners have continued to develop and perhaps now would chafe under the harness of such a classification. The 1970s and 1980s have also seen the appearance of the New Wave poets in English as well, especially Baranczak and Zagajewski.

Despite Baranczak’s absence from his country, he continues to have–as he mentions in the Artful Dodge interview — “an enormous ear bent towards Poland.” This situation is one that has a long tradition in Polish literature; however, with the help of the underground press in Poland, writers at home have not become isolated from those abroad. As Baranczak talks about the state of current writing in Poland, its problems, successes, and crises, we can see some of the ways in which today’s Polish writing is touching our writing, too, by challenging the blacklisting of certain themes and methods in the West. Baranczak may be a political poet but his poetry is infused with a focused energy instead of mere rhetorical technique. Perhaps the title of a new anthology he edited says it best about the poetry he is concerned with: Poezja pamieta — “a poetry of remembrance,” or, another translation might be “a poetry of witness.” To a poet who sees more tanks than swimming pools, more queues than shopping malls, a concern with the public world is perhaps to be expected. How this public concern is translated into poetry is another matter. In the case of Stanislaw Baranczak, the result is a verse full of wit and energy, a knowledge of the large and small ironies of the world. —Daniel Bourne

Daniel Bourne: When I was last in Poland (in 1982-83), no matter how pessimistic writers were about the dissolving of the Writers’ Union and about literature in general, they still assured me that the post-Solidarity era was not as bad for writers as the Socialist Realism period of the 1950s. Do you share this assessment?

Stanislaw Baranczak: Well, I agree with them completely; the post-Solidarity era is very different from the Stalinist period. In the ’50s, there were quite a few writers, some of them very talented, who came to share the authorities’ beliefs and collaborated with them. Today this is not the case: even though some writers do collaborate with the system, they do it only for cynical reasons, not because they believe in the ideology. It is hard to believe in something that doesn’t exist. So when I express some hope about the situation of writers in Poland, I’m talking not about the dishonest people who sold their names to the government but rather about the majority of writers who simply refused to collaborate with the military regime and who remain just as independent today as they were during the Solidarity era and the 1970s. In fact, it was in the mid-’70s, to be precise, when many writers; minds began to be emancipated, freed from any ideological illusions. This process has culminated in what’s happening right now.

DB: Have there been any surprises, an specific writers who’ve been found to be collaborators, whom you wouldn’t have suspected?

Baranczak: Well, actually some of the names that emerged were surprising, but after awhile when you thought about them, you could recall some incidents from the past that identified these people as potential collaborators. Let’s take an example, a very interesting one: Artur Sandauer, a very prominent critic who made his name supporting the avant-garde in Polish literature during the Stalinist era, which was very brave of him. Later, he propagated the myth about himself that he was courageous, an unyielding defender of avant-garde principles in art. But, at some point, he underwent a psychological evolution which, in my opinion, was evident as early as the late ’50s when suddenly, or maybe gradually, he discovered that he was not appreciated as much as he would have liked; he expected some ultimate appreciation as a great critic and writer. He became increasingly isolated because his defense of the avant-garde was no longer so up-to-date. he stopped keeping pace with modern developments in literature, and developed the tendency to seek appreciation at any cost. Finally, he agreed within himself to collaborate with the regime and support Martial Law in order to be appreciated by the authorities, if not by the literary world. This may be an oversimplification, but I think if one looks closely at his previous development, one can see indications of what the outcome would be. And I think this is the case case with many others. Sandauer is a kind of exception because he was a prominent critic. But there are tens, maybe hundreds of minor writers, third and fourth-rate writers, for whom Martial Law was a chance to finally be appreciated by someone. This is why the new Polish Writers’ Union is currently composed of primarily minor writers; there are virtually no significant names among them if we omit Sandauer and two or three others. What distinguishes the present situation is that there’s not only a division in ideology but also a division in quality. That all the writers who support the present regime are minor writers is not my personal bias but the objective state of affairs. Many professional critics, when they first saw the list of founders of the new Writers’ Union in 1983, could not recognize any of the names.

DB: How far do you think “internal emigration” has gone in Poland?

Baranczak: It all depends on what you mean, because that expression has a long tradition and many possible shades of meaning. If you mean withdrawal from public life and concentration on one’s own affairs, well, this is going on to a certain extent but not on a massive scale. If a writer is interested in the contemporary reality then he simply can’t afford to withdraw. I believe that this reality is so pressing that it’s virtually impossible to withdraw 100 percent. There is also a more complex form of emigration which entails participating clandestinely in the underground instead of openly. This is becoming more and more frequent for obvious reasons: people don’t want to be arrested, so they pretend to have withdrawn, but if you look closely you will discover that they are underground printers or editors. There is an enormous network of underground publications in operation, which would not be possible without the silent participation of thousands of people. If there was something like internal emigration in the ’60s and ’70s I would have to say it no longer exists today.

DB: Because there’s an outlet?

Baranczak: Yes, and because the reality is so pressing.

DB: I’m going to bring up what some people have called a type of internal emigration. I know a few writers who have turned to children’s literature. Is this a variation on the old practice of editing the safer classics while writing for the drawer?

Baranczak: In a way it is, and in a way it isn’t. During Stalinist times, for example, some turned to the classics because that occupation was harmless in the eyes of the authorities and at the same time earned them some income. But others got something very important from the classics. If you were translating Thucydides, for instance, you could consider it a lesson of history for your compatriots. I think also that, for today’s writers, creating children’s literature is an enormous task. It is not a game; it is the writing of a literature which will educate our own children, which will teach them how to live, how to participate in life. I don’t mean didactic literature; I mean literature which is free of ideological pressure while, at the same time, giving food for the imagination. There’s such a demand for children’s poetry or fiction, and this literature has a very important social role to play. So I don’t think it’s a way of escaping responsibilities.

DB: Do you know if the censorship bureau takes any interest in children’s literature? Do they monitor it?

Baranczak: They monitor it even more closely than adult literature. I think they are very concerned with its influence. In fact, I know of some concrete examples in which they actually tried to pressure the authors to introduce new characters — policemen or party members. This reminds me of another branch of writing, the police novel. In its typical form in today’s Poland, it’s a total failure because it’s supposed to be at once didactic (showing the police as a “positive” institution) and entertaining — a bizarre combination. Children’s literature would meet with the same fate if its authors yielded to the pressure. Fortunately, the best of them don’t.

DB: In the literature that’s being published in Poland today (I’m talking mainly about underground literature), do you think there is a problem of too much rhetoric, too much easy imagery in which Jaruzelski is the bad guy? Or do you think this is a problem only for outsiders?

Baranczak: I don’t think this is only a problem for outsiders. As a critic of such literature, I have often tried to point out the very serious dangers which it faces. A danger not only of black and white moral divisions — which is understandable because in today’s Poland there are bad guys and there are good guys — but also the danger of very easy historical analogies. Some kind of cheap romanticism that view today’s situation as an extension of what has happened so many times before, just another link in a very long chain of uprisings and insurrections. I believe that, on the contrary, the task of literature is to probe and explore what is new and different about the current situation; there are some poems and short stories that do this, but this approach is more prevalent in the political essay than in literature. It’s the political writer who seems to best grasp the essence of the contemporary situation.

DB: So the political essayists are the ones in the vanguard?

Baranczak: Yes, the literati are still a bit behind, though there are some exceptions.

DB: One thing that I noticed and feared is that there is a sort of parallel censorship going on in the underground. That is, any poem that did not deal with sociopolitical elements of questioned basic attitudes of Solidarity would not be published. Also, it seemed that any poem which, while not necessarily political contained two or three politically sensitive lines, would not be published in the official press because of those lines and also would not be published in the underground because there were only those two or three lines. I think this is a shame because such poems often excellently combined the personal and the political. What do you think?

Baranczak: Of course I don’t know the internal workings of those underground periodicals, but I would expect that what you described is very likely now, although I expect that this situation will change very soon. What I mean is, as early as the mid-’70s, when we created the present forms of underground publishing in Poland, there was already some criticism against political onesidedness. Readers of periodicals such as Zapis*, for example, noticed a very dangerous tendency in the work we published at that time–namely to focus on literature dealing directly with the political reality. So even in the beginning of this other type of “censorship,” there were voices of warning and protest against it. During Martial Law, a very dramatic and polarized situation, those criticisms were forgotten for the moment. However, they are resurfacing again; I’ve heard many opinions similar to your expressed publicly in print and also in private conversations with friends. What political writing needs now is some sort of metaphysical dimension —not only the interest in horizontal or sociopolitical structures but also in some vertical dimension, which connects humanity with God, the universe, or whatever is eternal. A poem or novel which could combine these elements would be very successful because there’s a feeling that we’ve simply had enough of the merely political in literature, that people now address writers with another demand: Give us more, give us something that will deal with the meaning of our lives, something more than the everyday obstacles that we face.

DB: Could that be one of the reasons you worked on a translation of the English metaphysical poets?

Baranczak: That was precisely it, yes. Apart from my purely personal reasons (I simply liked the poems very much), there was a deliberate attempt on my part to fill some gaps in the Polish tradition. Polish poetry needs some influx of metaphysical poetry from other literatures and traditions because, as it happened, its own metaphysical current was never very strong. The whole history of Poland prompted writers to write mostly about historical or political realities. There was, of course, a lot of religious poetry, but it was rather shallow, devotional verse in most cases, if we don’t count such poetic geniuses as the sixteenth-century writer Sep-Szarzynski or, later, Norwid or Lesmian. The general tendency in Polish literature was to avoid such themes. In my anthology of translations of English metaphysical poetry, I attempted to give the texts a more complete presentation than previous translators had. I also tried to render them more convincingly Polish.

DB: How did you make them “more convincingly Polish”?

Baranczak: That’s a technical question. I tried to avoid exaggerated or far-fetched modernization and, at the same time, archaization. What I tried to do, in part, was to give those English seventeenth-century poets a contemporary twentieth-century voice, while retaining all possible structural elements which make their poetry what it is. For instance, I didn’t want to translate their poetry in free verse. I faithfully retained the versification (giving, of course, the Polish equivalent). I wanted the poems to sound technically complex but, at the same time, very clear in meaning.

DB: In general, what role has translation played in your creative life?

Baranczak: An enormous role, I would say, because I was raised not only with Polish poetry but with that of foreign authors as well. For example, I started my reading of English poetry in the original with perhaps the most difficult of all poets, Dylan Thomas. He had a huge impact on me; I was under his spell for a long time. Eventually, I made a collection of his poems and published it some years ago. What is singular about the influence of English poetry on me is its continuity. With Polish poetry you have, due to historical circumstance, the phenomenon of breaks in the literary tradition, of some empty periods in which nothing happened due to so-called disasters or, on the other hand, an excessive flourishing of poetry, again due to some historical catastrophe. The development of Polish poetry is very interesting but, at the same time, very erratic, very abnormal. The English tradition has been healthy, continuous, mainstream. As I said when talking about metaphysical poetry, in Polish literature there are certain distinct strains — political poetry, the poetry of martyrdom and opposition — while other thematic branches remain underdeveloped.

DB: You have been translated by several writers into English. Which aspect of your poetry do you think is most difficult to translate?

Baranczak: I write poems which sometimes differ considerably from one another. I write poems which contain puns or variations on puns. I also write simple poems in which the emphasis is not upon some puzzling meaning but rather on the description of a situation or the analysis of some concrete object. So, in short, my poetry is not homogeneous; in fact, it’s quite heterogeneous. I think the simpler poems usually fare very well in the translation process, but the so-called “linguistic” works of mine are a different story. I appreciate when a translator tries to cope with one, but I’m satisfied with perhaps 10 or 20 percent of such translations. I am tempted to say that it is virtually impossible to translate such a poem; although, to say that would be contradicting myself because, as a translator, I cannot accept that certain types of poems are untranslatable. Even the most “untranslatable” poetry can be rendered into another language if the translator is imaginative enough.

DB: I know that ideally a poem should be translated so that the imagery is left intact as well as the idea or intention of the poet. but do you mind when a translator has altered your meaning or intention a bit in order to preserve the linguistic quality of your poem?

Baranczak: That depends on what the dominant point in the poem is. Sometimes the pun is so important that to lose it means to lose the poem. But there are other poems in which an occasional metaphor or image can be omitted or replaced by something else — if that’s occasioned by an artistic purpose which is more important.

DB: A chapbook of yours, translated by Frank Kujawinski and published by Mr. Cogito Press, had the title Where Did I Wake Up? At what point did you “wake up” and find yourself having to answer that question?

Baranczak: I think that I woke up as a writer when I was 18 or 19. At that time, I still had some ideological illusions; I was very much to the left side of the political spectrum. Still, I was able to notice that ideology was one matter, reality quite another. The breakthrough occurred when I participated in the student protests of March 1968. That was a very dramatic experience for me because, for the first time in my life, I had to admit that it wasn’t an accident or mistake that these two things, ideology and reality, didn’t fit each other, but rather that the ideological system in Poland is built on lies, deliberate lies about reality. Then I had to consider my own writing as an antidote to this state of affairs. My writing was an attempt to speak the truth about reality.

DB: When did you realize that you were outside the borders of your country, that the Rubicon had been passed, that you knew you were going into “external emigration”?

Baranczak: That is another complex matter because I still cannot consider myself an emigrant. I won’t go back to Poland in the near future, at least until something really changes, but I can’t, on the other hand, consider myself a total immigrant, that is, one who lives 100 percent in this other world. I visualize my situation as someone who physically lives in Cambridge, Massachussetts, but who has one enormous ear bent towards Poland. This is a schizophrenic situation because you are totally divided between your present-day existence and your sense of constant attachment to your old country. I’m trying to confront the sources for this experience in my latest writing: how Poland can be seen from the outside. I think that this external point of view is something that Poland needs right now and that the role of the emigrant writer is to give the other side of the story.

DB: Is there any way in which you feel that the transfer of ideas in literature is easier being here?

Baranczak: I think you know that the most recent years are exceptional in Poland’s cultural history in that there is virtually no borderline between emigre and domestic literature. Although previously there was some circulation of books and periodicals, it was always too weak, too inefficient to be really effective. The ’80s are new and refreshing because the mutual influence of ideas, writing, and publications has increased tremendously. I ask myself how all this came about, given the many restrictions, and the only possible answer is that people simply need this exchange. People in Poland has so much interest in what’s being written in emigration and the emigre community is so interested in what’s going on in Poland that both sides use every possible means to bring about this exchange.

DB: Do you feel that recent events and the recent opening up of the curtain you were talking about are perhaps changing the status of Milosz from that of an emigre writer to that of simply a Polish writer?

Baranczak: Many things enter into that question, among them the Nobel Prize, but in fact Milosz was never a traditional emigre writer. He was in some sense a solitary writer all his life and it happens now, at this stage of his career (he is a strong man who will live one hundred years, I am sure of it), that the readership has grown more mature and is more ready to accept what he writes. You might say that the Polish readership has undergone a “self-education” ever since the mid-’70s, when underground publishing began. There has been a growing tendency to get access to forbidden sources of information. Poets like Milosz gradually became a source of poetic information about the world, and people not only wanted to get access to it but became ready to accept his work as a message. I think this “change of status” happened as early as the late ’70s, long before the Nobel Prize, which came when he was already considered by Poles to be an essential and important voice.

DB: How do you view the role of the Church in preserving Polish culture?

Baranczak: The Church provides priceless opportunities for independent culture to exist and develop in Poland. It is absolutely powerful there, having buildings, financial means, and relative freedom of assembly at its disposal. For instance, even under Martial Law the Church and its institutions were officially the only places where people could gather and discuss matters, where poetry readings could be given, etc.

DB: An editor, Mieczyslaw Orski of Odra, once told me of his concern for the next generation of Polish writers. He meant basically writers in their early twenties, those at approximately the age when you “woke up” as a writer. He was worried about how they would get support, books, housing. What do you think about that? And do you know any very young poets and writers?

Baranczak: We have to realize that this is precisely what the regime wants: to break writers’ spines by putting them into a situation in which they are not able to earn a living by writing. So the only choice would be for them to seek another profession. I think that this is why the old Polish Writers’ Union was disbanded in 1983, because it was the last bastion of resistance and source of material help. Younger writers have an especially difficult time and I think it is important that everything be done to help them. There is a fund in Paris called “The Fund for Independent Culture and Science in Poland,” which is chaired by Czeslaw Milosz. It provides help for writers and intellectuals who are in an extremely difficult situation. Young writers, translators, and scientists have received grants from this fund so that they can continue their work.

DB: Do the authorities allow this?

Baranczak: No, it must be clandestine. I won’t mention any names but there are people who have been saved in this way. The amounts of cash are not great by Western standards, but in Poland even one dollar means quite a lot of money, so even small sums are helpful.


*Zapis is a literary quarterly edited in Poland but published in London under the aegis of Index on Censorship. It is available in both Western and underground editions.

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