A few months before martial law was declared in Poland on Dec. 13, 1981, the poet and samizdat writer Stanislaw Baranczak arrived at Harvard. He was the Alfred Jurzykowski Professor of Polish Language and Literature there until Parkinson's disease forced him to retire in 1997. He died of pneumonia Dec. 26 at age 68.
Baranczak was a cofounder of a pre-Solidarity organization, the KOR, was arrested for supporting the workers, and was fired from his teaching post at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan. He then edited Zapis, an underground literary journal. After the regime banned his work, he finally accepted Harvard's repeated offers of an appointment. Even then, the Polish government denied him a visa for years, making him wait.
A few months after Baranczak got to the United States, I wrote him, asking how I could help the thousands imprisoned or detained by the Polish government. He wrote back promptly, putting me in touch with activist and exile Irena Lasota in New York and linguistics professor Henryk Híz at the University of Pennsylvania. Within weeks we would form a committee to support the Solidarity movement, mainly the underground press.
Baranczak's letter ended with characteristic commitment and irony:
"Being a newcomer to America (I arrived here nine months ago) I am still astonished by how much sympathy this country has for the Polish cause. But I am also getting used to the fact that this is the country where some basic values of mankind are still considered essential."
The following year, our Solidarity support committee produced a Solidarity exhibit at Moore College of Art. Besides artifacts and mementos smuggled out from the detainees, it also included a photography exhibit by Reuters photojournalist Joseph Czarnecki, whose photographs graced every major publication worldwide, exposing the brutality of the regime Baranczak had escaped.
In March of 1987, our committee organized a reading for Baranczak at Drexel University. I still remember his soft, gentle voice reading these incongruously harsh words from his poem "Because Only This World of Pain":
Because only this world of pain, only this
body in the vise of earth and air,
flogged with bullets, put into the hands
of torturers, cracking at the bone-seams
of the skull struck with a truncheon, only this
thin crust of human skin, gushing
blood, salty with seas of sweat,
between the blow of birth and the blow of death.
In an essay titled "The Revenge of the Mortal Hand," which appeared in the 2007 anthology Polish Writers on Writing, edited by Adam Zagajewski, Baranczak spoke of what is accomplished by the poet writing in protest: "Don't we find pleasure in writing because writing, as such, even though it doesn't make the pain actually disappear, is nonetheless a way of retaliating against what causes the pain?"
Irena Grudzinska-Gross, research scholar at Princeton University's Slavic languages and literatures department, was one of that exhibit's organizers. Reached by phone, she spoke of Baranczak's "unusual mastery of languages, a talent for rhyming, punning, word creation, great knowledge, wisdom, and wit - quite an unusual combination. He enriched both Polish- and English-language cultures enormously, and brought new literary forms into both cultures. For example, he is the most innovative pure-nonsense author in Polish." Baranczak even translated American limerick master Ogden Nash into Polish.
With Clare Cavanagh, his former student, he won the PEN Translation Prize in 1996 for a translation of the poetry of Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, who won the Nobel Prize in literature that year. Earlier translations were ponderously formal, but theirs captured Szymborska's ironic, modern lilt.
He also translated English into Polish. Allen Kuharski, chair of the theater department at Swarthmore College and translator of Polish and English texts, called Baranczak "the most significant contemporary translator of Shakespeare's plays into Polish: 25 of the Bard's works since 1986, with almost 200 productions staged by the country's most noted directors.
"The combination of Baranczak at Harvard and Czeslaw Milosz at Berkeley powerfully buttressed the status of Polish poetry and literature in the U.S.," Kuharski continued. "Their promotion of other major Polish poets such as Szymborska and Zagajewski as outspoken public intellectuals and dissidents ushered in a period of unprecedented interest and prestige for Polish poetry in the English-speaking world."
The life and career of poets like Baranczak make us realize that it may take electricians and trade unionists to finish a revolution, but it's often a poet who begins it.