Poet Jakob Ziguras on Stanislaw Barańczak in ‘Rhyming the Dead’ by The Red Room Company

The Red Room Company  are a non-profit organisation dedicated to bringing poetry to the masses, making it accessible in new and exciting ways. Their latest poetry project is ‘Rhyming the Dead‘, commissioning ten living poets to respond to the works of ten dead poets.

Episode three sees contemporary poet Jakob Ziguras exploring the works of  Stanisław Barańczak, who wrote and translated prolifically between Polish and English during the communist period of the 1960s. Barańczak was awarded the PEN translation prize in 1996, and passed away in 2014.

Listen to episode three, ‘Chalk is Falling’…


Writer’s Edit was lucky enough to talk to Jakob Ziguras, exploring ‘Rhyming the Dead’ as a poetry project and the importance of reading translated poetry.

Jakob Ziguras on Stanisław Barańczak

Jakob Ziguras is a Sydney-based poet and academic with Polish and Greek heritage. His writing has been featured in Meanjin, Australian Poetry, Southerly and Mascara, as well as winning various award including the 2011 Harri Jones Memorial Prize and the 2013 David Harold Tribe Poetry Award.

Ziguras’s first poetry collection, Chains of Snow published by Pitt Street Poetry, was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards in 2014.

Jakob’s poetic response to Barańczak can be found on the Red Room Company website.

1. How did you get involved with The Red Room Company and the ‘Rhyming the Dead’ project?

I first contacted the Red Room Company to express my interest in participating in their various educational programs. As as result of this initial correspondence, Johanna Featherstone invited me to participate in Rhyming the Dead.

The idea of a poetic conversation with a dead poet, especially one who has influenced one’s own work, struck me as a deep and rich theme, so I was very happy to contribute something.

2. What is it about Barańczak that makes him important for writers and poetry readers to explore? Why should we read his work, and why is he still relevant today?

‘Relevance’ is a problematic criterion for assessing the importance of a poet’s body of work, at least unless one defines quite clearly what one means by this term. In my view, the least interesting way of approaching this issue, is to conceive of ‘relevance’ as the potential of a work to be translated into the language of our own contemporary, local concerns, in such a way that its otherness is minimised.

This is the sort of ‘relevance’ provided in abundance by the popular media, which specialises in representations that please and titillate and generally reaffirm a comfortable sense of belonging to a certain naturalised ‘world’.

Polish poet and translator Stanislaw Baranczak. Photo Credit: Anna Janina Baranska, 1994.
Polish poet and translator Stanislaw Baranczak. Photo Credit: Anna Janina Baranska, 1994.

A more interesting, and certainly more important, form of ‘relevance’ (though perhaps another term would serve better) is that whereby a work forces us to expand the horizons of our contemporary, local concerns, by providing perspectives that we cannot fully assimilate. To my mind, a poet like Barańczak is important (especially for readers from a different cultural and historical context) in the second sense.

One example of this is his poetic treatment of political (or, perhaps more accurately, ethical) issues. In one of his essays, Barańczak discusses the ways in which different critics categorised his work, as either ‘political’ or ‘metaphysical’. He wants to undermine the apparent opposition between these two categories.

He is by no means denying the fact that his work is deeply involved with the political realities of his time (in particular the reality of life in a totalitarian state). His point, it seems to me, is rather that political oppression is only one of the various forms of oppression to which a human being is subject (e.g. time, sickness, suffering, death).”

He is also, I think, concerned to put more narrowly political questions in the context of more fundamental human concerns. For Barańczak opposition to social injustice and political oppression is motivated by reasons that go beyond the realm of political pragmatism.

Thus, the struggle against the debasement of language by propaganda, the striving for autonomy and dignity in a political system which suppresses these, is only a particular instance of the more general struggle against a dictatorship more permanent than any political system, that of a universe ruled by forces indifferent or hostile to the human being.

Speaking to the Australian context, what intrigues me about Barańczak is that his work combines certain elements in a way that is rare in contemporary Australian poetry.

He engages in a deep investigation into the oppressive, ideological character of the language of power, but he does so in poems that are clear—one might say Apollonian—often formal and exquisitely crafted, and typically suffused with a light, playful wit.

Combining politics and poetry. Image Credit: Johanna Helander.
Combining politics and poetry. Image Credit: Johanna Helander.

There is also a particular kind of irony, which seems characteristic of Polish (and perhaps Eastern European?) poets of a certain era. It is not the bottomless, self-referential irony one sometimes associates with post-modernism, but an irony aimed at the ‘liars in public places’, and wielded in the name of ‘truth’, in full awareness both of the irreplaceability of this idea, and its dangerous seductions.

In an interview, Barańczak makes the important point that:

Given a certain political context, writing poems about flowers can be a radical act.”

I think this observation is instructive in the context of the sometimes simplistic oppositions one finds, in the Australian context, between different poetic tendencies.

3. What works would you recommend to a new reader who wants to start reading from Barańczak?

Unfortunately, only a small portion of Stanisław Barańczak’s work has so far been translated into English. To my knowledge, the only book length selection of his poems in English is Selected Poems: The Weight of the Body.

For readers interested in Barańczak’s critical writings, there is, again, only one collection of essays available in English: Breathing Under Water and Other East European Essays.

The more ambitious reader would need to search the relevant academic journals, especially those dedicated to the study of Slavic languages and literatures, to find individual poems or essays translated for that purpose, but not available in book form. This would probably require access to online academic resources like JSTOR or the assistance of library with access to the same. I have recently translated his important late book Winter Journey, so if everything goes according to plan, this will be available in English at some point in the future.

4. Why are projects like ‘Rhyming the Dead’ and organisations like The Red Room Company important for writers and readers to be involved in?

As far as educational programs are concerned—such as the ones run by the Red Room Company—I think these are extremely important. They are important, above all, for a completely non-instrumental reason:

Poetry, like all art, reveals and develops capacities and ways of experiencing and understanding the world, without which a human life is radically impoverished”

For reasons I can’t expand on here (though they have do do, primarily, with the constitutive role that language plays in human self-consciousness) poetry touches on human existence perhaps more intimately than any other art.

Programs which help school students to work through the obstacles that stand in the way of understanding and appreciating poetry are serving their human development in a fundamental way.

With Rhyming the Dead, it was the specific project that impressed me. To their great credit, the Red Room Company put together a project which is accessible to a wide audience and deals with themes that are at once universally relevant and intellectually and artistically substantial.

It is common to find poets and other interested parties, wondering why poetry is not more popular. It’s a complex question of course, but the popularity of poetry in Poland, during the period in which Barańczak was writing, is instructive.

To put it bluntly, the best Polish poets of the time told the truth in a society governed by official lies. They were popular because they dealt with fundamental issues of genuine and pressing interest to a wide variety of people. Obviously, we, in Australia, live in a very different context, with different challenges.

But there could hardly be a more fundamental issue than death, and all that it implies—our own death, the shape which that thought imposes on our lives, our debt to the past.


Writer’s Edit would like to thank Jakob Ziguras and The Red Room Company for their insights and advice. More episodes of ‘Rhyming the Dead’ can be found on SoundCloud.

Kyra Thomsen

Kyra is a writer and editor from Wollongong. She works full-time as a content writer while reading on the train and drafting short fiction stories in her spare time. Kyra won the 2012 Questions Writing Prize and has been published in Kindling, Seizure Online, Space Place & Culture and Tide. She enjoys admiring her bookshelves, watching cheesy shows on Netflix, and browsing her Tumblr. You can learn more about Kyra's previous publications, plus find fortnightly posts, on her website: kyrathomsen.com.

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