Stanislaw Baranczak, 68; poet left Poland to teach at Harvard
Sitting comfortably in 1989 at his Macintosh computer in Newtonville, in what he called “the clapboard landscape of suburban New England,” Stanislaw Baranczak reminisced about his earlier life as a young man in a “cramped Polish apartment,” using a “chewed-up ballpoint pen” to write what would become his first published poem.
More than a decade before that April 1989 day, government authorities in his native Poland had banned him from publishing or publicly reading his poetry because he cofounded the Workers’ Defense Committee. It was a few years before the Solidarity freedom movement emerged. The government briefly silenced Dr. Baranczak’s public voice but never stilled his battered pen or dulled the sly sense of humor he brought to poetry as a writer and translator.
“Writing poetry is perhaps nothing more than trying to play a straight man to that rambling, rambunctious, never-to-be-interrupted, always-on-a-roll, stand-up comic, the world,” he wrote in a preface to his 1989 book “Selected Poems: The Weight of the Body.”
Dr. Baranczak, who left Poland to teach at Harvard University in 1981 and stayed there until illness prompted him to retire in the late 1990s, died Friday in his Newtonville home of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 68.
He relished his straight man role and added in the preface: “That’s why all the metaphors and rhythms — it’s just a way of putting the world’s chaotic gibberish in some meaningful order and restoring the original weight to the overabused words.”
In his homeland, Dr. Baranczak’s cultural significance was such that more than three decades after his departure, the country’s culture minister Malgorzata Omilanowska mourned the poet’s death as a “great loss to Poland’s culture,” the Associated Press reported. “He paid a great price for his views, for his unwavering attitude. He dedicated his whole life to literature, to poetry. His work will always be an important part of Poland’s culture.”
Dr. Baranczak’s work also drew praise in his adopted country. Praising “The Weight of the Body,” Robert Pinsky, a Boston University professor and former US poet laureate, wrote that the poems were “distinguished by their copious intelligence and their generosity, an Eastern European sense of the world’s madness, and a humane spirit of hope.”
In 1990, Harvard professor Helen Vendler wrote that in Dr. Baranczak’s collection “Breathing Under Water and Other East European Essays,” he “treads on dangerous ground — the terrain where politics and literature intersect. I cannot recall a critic of Baranczak’s acute, fastidious, and exacting mind writing so well on this terrain before.”
As important in Poland as a translator as he was a writer, Dr. Baranczak adapted the works of Shakespeare and poets including John Donne, Joseph Brodsky, and Emily Dickinson. “Good literature requires a good writer to translate it,” he told the Globe in 1985. He also translated the lyrics of musicians such as the Beatles, laboring to ensure that the Polish versions were “singable,” said Clare Cavanagh, a professor of Slavic languages at Northwestern University who was Dr. Baranczak’s first graduate student at Harvard and later a translating collaborator.
“He was a phenomenon as a translator. He could translate anything,” she said. “He could do rhyme and meter like no one else. ... For him, translating was just like breathing.”
Though some translators focus on capturing a poet’s images at the expense of other elements, for Dr. Baranczak choices such as setting aside “rhyme and meter were never under discussion,” Cavanagh said. “He didn’t like the idea that what you were going to jettison was what made it a poem.”
Instead, he believed a translator should focus on “the one thing this poem cannot survive without, and make that the center of your translation,” she said.
Born in Poznan, Poland, Dr. Baranczak was the brother of the novelist Malgorzata Musierowicz, who still lives in Poland.
He received a doctorate from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan. While there, he met Anna Brylka, whom he married in 1968. She is a preceptor in Slavic languages and literature at Harvard.
Dr. Baranczak began publishing poetry and criticism in the 1960s, while lecturing at Adam Mickiewicz University. After nearly a week of protests rocked Poland in 1976, he became a cofounder of the Workers’ Defense Committee . The organization provided aid to political prisoners and drew the ire of the Polish government.
Arrested on a trumped-up charge, he was fired from the university job and blacklisted as a writer. Censors even prohibited publication of translations he wrote under a pseudonym, so he cofounded Zapis, an underground literary journal. In the late 1970s, Harvard offered him a teaching job; after three years of refusals, the Polish government allowed Dr. Baranczak to leave the country.
In the preface to his selected poems, he wrote that “regardless of its theme and specific address, poetry is always some kind of a protest.” With his poem “Second Nature,” Dr. Baranczak recounted the experience of an immigrant who moves from a repressive regime to a freer land. While stopping along a street to tie a shoe:
you realize that you’re actually doing it just to tie your shoelace,
and not in order to routinely check
if you’re not followed
An excerpt from “A Winter Diary” seems to capture the guilt of a survivor who didn’t endure as much as other dissidents:
I never really felt the cold, never
was devoured by lice, never knew
true hunger, humiliation, fear for my life:
at times I wonder whether I have any right to write
In addition his wife and sister, Dr. Baranczak leaves a son, Michael of Ithaca, N.Y., and a daughter, Anna J. of Newton.
A memorial service will be held at 11:30 a.m. Saturday in the chapel at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.
Dr. Baranczak’s sense of humor and wistfulness were on display in “Curriculum Vitae,” in “The Weight of the Body.”
My skills and accomplishments, unappreciated here:
my East European expertise in how to remain silent while arrested or
how to fool the censor,
my repeated championship of my housing project in standing in line
He closes by lamenting the time he spent mastering skills best used in a land left behind.
I will never learn now, at my age and with my ingrained habits,
the new ones that are more in demand here:
the art of an easy smile and unshaken belief
that you can be what you want to be.