Even When No One is Looking

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

Sarah P Reid

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.”