Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1114
One of the primary concerns of Stanisaw Baraczak’s early poetry is the perversion of language perpetrated by government systems, which seek to manipulate reality through ideologically charged “newspeak.” The poet can effect the restoration of objective reality by attempting to point to the distinction between the distorted speech of official discourse and normal speech, with the unruly power of language and all its irrepressible contradictions. The act of reading a poem, through the social interaction of the reader and poet, allows the poet to return a measure of the complexity of language stripped of its ideological uses. As Baraczak notes in his introduction to The Weight of the Body, he began writing poetry in part to “restor[e] the original weight to the overabused words.” In Baraczak’s poems, this restoration is often achieved as the poem’s speakers voice bureaucratic constructions and clichés, then use repetition, minor alterations, or the context of the poem to counteract the currents of official language.
Though his work has frequently been called political, Baraczak has noted in interviews that he prefers to be considered a public poet. Although his work contains a component of social commitment, it is not political poetry in the sense of being a topical response to current situations and injustices. According to Baraczak, the topical political poem is insufficiently complex because it fails to grapple with the problematic form of the poem’s transmission: the language that has been contaminated by the very uses it argues against. Part of the complexity of Baraczak’s poems arises in the self-scrutiny of their speakers, who not only voice an outward-pointing condemnation of the falsifications perpetrated by the state in all aspects of life, but also incorporate the self-recrimination of an individual who considers himself to be implicated in the same world he criticizes, partially through the language on which he relies. “The perfidy of modern totalitarianism,” writes Baraczak, “lies precisely in the fact that it imperceptibly blurs the difference between the oppressors and the oppressed, by involving the victim in the process of victimization.” Perhaps the most profound, and difficult to observe, means by which this blurring occurs is through propaganda, which taints all language and caused Baraczak to note that for the New Wave poets, “the most interesting thing was not pure language but ’dirty’ language, language spoiled and misused . . . that of mass media, of political speeches, of posters, things like that.” The reason that the superficially political poem is insufficient is that it does not interrogate the language of its dissent, which operates on the ground belonging to its antagonists. A better solution, argues Baraczak, is for the poet to heighten and emphasize the vitality of the language he usesor, as he puts it, simply to “write his poems well.”
It is notable that a poet so concerned with languageits official degradation, which forces its users to become party to the manipulations of the stateis also recognized as being among the most linguistically resourceful poets of his generation. Baraczak’s poetry is characterized by his virtuosic use of intricate poetic forms. Although this quality may be most pronounced in his later work, it is evident in his earliest collections as well. The complex elaboration of his versification is matched by involved, imaginative patterning of images and conceits, which give the impression of a searching, flexible intellect struggling through impediments to create a finished thought of monumental stability and beauty. In an essay about prison letters composed in response to totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, Baraczak notes that “the chief wonder of art is that it thrives on overcoming difficulties. Being...
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bound by countless rules immobilizes the author and sterilizes his expression only if he does not have much to say in the first place. . . . This is, in fact, the essence of all poetry.”
The Weight of the Body
The poems of The Weight of the Body are divided into two sections, corresponding to Baraczak’s writing life in Poland and in the United States. Many of the early poems focus on the qualities of life under suppression, often presented through unexpected motifs. “The Three Magi,” for example, compares the arrival of officers from the secret police to the visitation of the Magi on Epiphany, as the speakerresponding to his inevitable arrest with surprising detachmentmuses about the “gold of their watches” and the “smoke from their cigarettes,” which “fill the room with a fragrance like incense.”
Although some of the poems respond to political events, even these poems are equally concerned with qualities of language. The first section of “The Restoration of Order”a poetic sequence begun in December of 1981, written in response to General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s imposing of martial law in an effort to suppress the Solidarity movementcontains the recurring phrase “according to unconfirmed reports,” which introduces the dry tonalities of bureaucratic speech to the poem and also serves both to point to the irony of brutal suppression being characterized and diminished by such language and to heighten the reality of the exile’s disengagement from “facts on the ground.”
Many of the poems in the second section of the book are preoccupied with questions of what Baraczak calls “the invisible craft of exile” in the poem “Setting the Hand Brake.” For example, “After Gloria Was Gone” is set during the aftermath of Hurricane Gloria and describes the banding together of the speaker’s neighborseach of whom appears to be a first-generation transplant, from Mrs. Aaron, who “. . . because she was blond,/ the nuns were willing to hide her . . .” to “. . . the new neighbor, what’s his name,/ is it Nhu or Ngu. . . .” The only suitable response to the cataclysmic power of the hurricane, the poem suggests, is banding together in a community, though it is impossible to forget “. . . our pasts and futures which have been crossed out/ so many times. . . .”
Another common metaphor running through the collection involves the depiction of the failing body. At times, pain and bodily inadequacy are connected with interrogation or torture, which also serve as an analogue to the body politic that is being diagnosed. In a larger sense, however, these occurrences point to the despair an individual feels as an inherent part of the self betrays the rest. This complexity of image and concept emphasizes one of the essential qualities of Baraczak’s writing: Its emphasis on human interaction and experience leads to its ability to be simultaneously concrete and allusive, political and metaphysical. According to the poet, “What political writing needs now is some sort of metaphysical dimensionnot 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.”