Roque Dalton 1935-1975
Salvadoran poet, essayist, and novelist.
Poet and communist revolutionary, Dalton brought ideological militancy to his poetry, and a sense of poetic spontaneity to his revolutionary action. Contemptuous of poets who wrote of injustice and suffering while still enjoying the comforts of their class and the privileges of their fame, Dalton eschewed publication by capitalist publishing houses, and actively engaged in revolutionary organizing, guerrilla training, and clandestine violence. Dalton's poetry combines surrealist imagery and montage with a Marxist awareness of exploitation and suffering.
Dalton was born May 14, 1935, a few years after the massacre of thirty thousand Salvadorans in an effort to suppress an uprising against General Martinez, the country's dictator. Dalton's mother, a nurse, supported the family after his father, rumored to be a bank-robber and member of the outlaw Dalton brothers, abandoned the family. Dalton grew up schooled by the Jesuits, but his sense of the injustice and poverty of El Salvador turned him from Catholicism to Marxism. In 1956, a student at the University of San Salvador, he helped found the University Literary Circle. A year later, Dalton joined the Communist Party. He was arrested in 1959, in 1960, and in 1965 in El Salvador for being a communist and for organizing the Salvadoran students and peasants against the landowners. Twice he was sentenced to death, and each time he escaped execution. In 1960, on the morning he was scheduled to die, there was a coup against the government that had condemned him and he was freed. In 1965 he escaped his death sentence after an earthquake knocked down the wall of his prison cell. Dalton lived many years in exile in Cuba, where he took guerrilla training and worked as a journalist, and in Czechoslovakia, where he hung around the taverns and wrote poetry. In addition to poetry, he wrote a social biography of the founder of the Salvadoran Communist Party, an autobiographical novel, and tracts on revolutionary theory. After having plastic surgery in order to make him unrecognizable, Dalton fought in the guerrilla underground in El Salvador. His death was bizarre—what his enemies failed to accomplish, his ostensible comrades achieved. He was condemned by members of his guerrilla group for strategic and ideological differences, along with charges of working with the C.I.A., and spying for the Soviet Union and Cuba. Dalton was tortured and executed a few days short of his fortieth birthday.
Although ardent in his devotion to communism and the violent revolutionary struggle against capitalist exploitation, Dalton's poetry does not conform to the kind of dogmatic and dour socialist realism which produces propaganda rather than poetry, even in such works as the half jestingly named A Red Book for Lenin (1970). His poems are ironic, cynical, and full of longing and humor. They combine a social awareness of economic misery and exploitation, a loyalty to Marxist revolutionary vision, and a consciousness of individual desire and the living self. Moreover, they are informed by the shifting perspectives that are derived from an awareness of differing personalities, multiple points of view, and varying frames of reference. These characteristics are evident particularly in The Tavern and Other Places (1969), which he wrote while in exile in Prague, and for which he won the Casa de las Américas prize in 1969.
Dalton's poetry is intrinsically connected to the theory and practice of communist revolution, and at the same time, dedicated to the non-ideological expression of the liberty essential to poetry, which reflects the unimpeded gaze, the individual sensibility, and the personality of its author. Both non-Marxist and Marxist critics have found portions of Dalton's poetry praiseworthy, and portions objectionable. Seymour Menton, for example, gives special praise to poems “that reveal the poet's own difficulty with the communist world,” but Dale Jacobson takes Dalton to task because, “[t]oo rarely do the poems represent the emotional and dramatic turbulence of the working-class experience.” With the publication of his poems in The Small Hours of the Night (1996) critics have commented on Dalton's sense of humor, luminosity, and the way in which his poems are strengthened by his politics. Lawrence Ferlinghetti writes that Dalton's poetry “suffers from politics as does man himself,” while Chris Searle claims that Dalton was “an enigmatic poetic genius.”
La Ventana en el rostro [The Window in My Face] 1961
El mar [The Sea] 1962
El turno del ofendido [Turn of the Offended]) 1962
Los testimonios [Testimonies] 1964
Taberna y ostros lugares [The Tavern and Other Places] 1969
Las historias prohibidas del pulgarcito [The Forbidden Histories of the Little Thumb] 1974
Poemas clandestinos [Clandestine Poems] 1980
Poesia escogida 1983
Un libro rojo para Lenin [A Red Book for Lenin] 1986
Un libro levemente odioso 1988
Small Hours of the Night: Selected Poems of Roque Dalton 1996
For the Record: Selected Poems 1999
Miguel Marmol: Los sucesos de 1932 en El Salvador [Miguel Marmol] (biography) 1972
Pobrecita poeta que era yo [Poor Little Poet, I Was] (autobiography) 1976
Poesia y militancia en América Latina [Poetry and Militancy in Latin America] (essay) 1981
SOURCE: “An Hour with Roque Dalton,” in Fiction International, Vol. 16, No. 2, Summer/Fall, 1986, pp.133-43.
[In the following interview, translated by Elsie B. Adams, Dalton discusses the relationship between ideology and literature, especially as it pertains to his work.]
Roque Dalton, winner of the 1969 Casa de las Américas prize for The Tavern and Other Places, was born in San Salvador, El Salvador, on May 14, 1935. He studied anthropology and law. A student leader and journalist, he participated actively in the politics of his country; he was a member of the Communist Party in El Salvador for 22 years. On numerous occasions he was imprisoned for his revolutionary activity; in 1961 he was exiled from El Salvador by the military government. He returned clandestinely various times, and in 1964 was again imprisoned, but this time managed to escape. During his last years, he lived in Czechoslovakia and Cuba. He published three books of poems: Window in My Face, 1961; Turn of the Offended, 1963; Testimonies, 1964.
In his last years, the Salvadoran poet became a member of the People's Revolutionary Army, in whose ranks he was fighting when he was assassinated in 1975. In 1980, Casa de las Américas, of Havana, published a full anthology of his work in verse, including numerous unedited poems and others which had been published clandestinely in El Salvador under several pseudonyms.
[Benedetti:] How would you characterize the thrust of your poetry?
[Dalton:] Like a great number of Latin American poets of my age, I was born into the Nerudian world—that is, into a type of poetry dedicated to singing, to praising, to constructing a hymn to things, to humankind, to society. It was the concept of poetry-as-song. If in some way I managed to save myself from this concept of poetry, it was because of the urgency of national affairs. The national problem in El Salvador is so intricate that I was obliged to use a certain degree of complexity in framing its poetic expression—to depart, for example, from its mythology. And then, my perception of the political problem required a more profound analysis than mere adulation or condemnation. I was obliged to infuse my poetry with anecdotes and with more and more individualized characters. I then added certain narrative aspects; however, at a particular point, these too proved inadequate and I substituted for them a kind of explanation of events. My poetry thus becomes more ideological, more charged with ideas.
In this latter stage, do you also use poetry that depicts character?
Yes, I continue to use it. For example, the prize-winning book is filled with character portraits. At times, I present characters who express opinions contrary to what I think. I do that to establish a dialectical opposition at the heart of the poetic expression. The reader is the one who can resolve it.
And the subjective area?
It also exists, of course. Juxtaposed against the story are expressions of that type: simply opinions that arise from subjective appraisal of reality.
How would you judge The Tavern and Other Poems with respect to your previous work? Continuity or discontinuity?
I would say both. As far as development of expression is concerned, it represents continuity. The use of character, narrative, anecdote, etc., are all present there. But it also represents discontinuity in that it establishes, and accentuates in a new way, political expression, thus carrying the conflict to the ideological level, and breaking with some decrepit forms of the revolutionary movement in which I am in some manner immersed.
I understood that the first title was Problem Poems.
Exactly. That title had two meanings for me: first, I was influenced by the movement of concrete poetry and I wanted to play a little with typography (now concrete poetry has ceased to interest me as a typography game): bear in mind that the word problems has only three letters more that the word poems. Apart from that, I was reflecting the essence of what I wanted to express in this book in its contents, i.e.: poems that, on being submerged in ideological struggle, are themselves converted into problems.
And why did you change the title?
The situation set forth in the book is truly problematic: to accentuate it even more in the title would have been repetitive, tautological.
I believe that the great poem of the book is the one entitled “Tavern.” It was also the one that most impressed the judges, in spite of its unusual dimension. What was its genesis?
“Tavern” is virtually a chronicle of the mental patterns of an important sector of Czech youth in the years 1966 and 1967. My method of work was the following: there is in Prague a very famous tavern, a beer bar which dates from the 13th century, called Ufleku, where the Czech youth meet to drink beer and talk; many foreign residents of Prague frequent it as well. On various occasions I heard bits of conversations there; they were of such interest (especially if one considers the context in which they were given: a socialist country, twenty years after the revolution) that I was impelled to take notes. Suddenly I realized that that was sociological material and that I was carrying out a sort of furtive inquiry into an entire ideology. I confess that I began with no very definite purposes, simply putting in order what I was gathering; then I thought that possibly the value of that material was its very existence, and that the most appropriate treatment of it ought to be a rigorous objectivity. I then decided to construct a poem, since the expressions I had gathered had sufficient literary quality: a poem in which it might be possible to introduce those expressions, permitting them to create the possibilities of conflict by themselves. I juxtaposed them and gave them some type of montage, but with no intention of setting priorities among them. Thus it was something like an object-poem; however, the political import was such that it ceased to be an object-poem and was converted into something eminently political.
From a formal point of view, what difference is there between the procedure that you used and that currently used by ethnologists and anthropologists? I am thinking of Oscar Lewis, or—to mention an example from Cuba—of Miguel Barnet.
In Barnet's case, there was an original purpose. One must not forget that Miguel has scientific training and worked with the intention of reconstructing a period of Cuban history. On the other hand, my point of departure was much more ingenuous. I started from the political surprise that, as a foreign Communist in Prague, I experienced on finding myself confronted with an ideological program that I did not expect to find in a country that had had twenty years of socialism. In addition, the experience of socialism that I had was the Cuban, where the sense of the heroic, the fervor of the revolution, the pride of being a Communist and revolutionary, were, naturally, every day's bread for the young; in contrast, the program set forth by the young people of Prague was a mixture of mysticism, religiosity, anti-Communism, snobbism, nihilism—that is, a group of ideological forms that imperialism exports for the consumption of those it oppresses.
I of course know that there are inevitable distortions of memory, and I am not referring to them when I ask the question: did you never put some invented expression into the mouths of the young people?
I invented practically nothing. Of course in the work of montage there were some complementary turns of phrase that provided continuity from one thought to another. At times, thinking that an idea might be better understood through the use of metaphor, I made additions in that direction. For example, there is a moment when they speak of Africa in a somewhat scornful manner. So then I made a metaphor that contained that scorn, and put in the mouth of one of the boys these words: “Africa, that black market.” Nobody ever said them in the tavern, but they are a refinement of what was meant.
Was the Czech section of the book written before or after the events of August 1968?
It was written in the years 1966-1967—that is, when I lived in Prague.
It seems to me important to emphasize it, because the events of 1968 infuse your poems with a very special meaning.
Of course. My poems present the perspective of a Latin American in those years, when many of today's conflicts were gestating. The Czech part is the final section of the book. The intermediate part is a vision of my country from a foreign perspective. Once again—a poetry of character portrayal. I gave voice to the members of a very decadent, aristocratic English family, who arrive in El Salvador with the goal of reclaiming their fortune, lost in England, and who are confronted by the conditions of an underdeveloped country with the attitude of the English aristocracy of diminished means. I had information about that family through stories that I heard from my father (who, as you know, was a North American), referring to the total lack of comprehension with which those English looked at the country. I sketched those melancholy characters, and constructed a series of poems that reflect the way we Latin Americans laugh at the view that Europeans have of us. Finally—and indeed we are following an inverse order—the introductory part of the book is composed of a collection of poems without a wider unity, about various themes.
And do you continue the amorous line, which has been quite important in your poetry, in this book?
Yes. It continues at all levels: both in the uncollected poems, where there are personal amorous problems, and in the references to the English family, where a decadent amorous conflict is presented. Finally, I present from the point of view of a deformed consciousness, some aspects of love at the heart of a socialist society, when love and society are in opposition. It is an instance, founded in false values, of the exaltation of love over the baseness of a common life. There is a poem entitled “Story of a Love” that is unified through a series of documents about the tragic destiny of a couple, a foreigner and a Czech girl who marry in Prague and begin to live socialism falsely; finally, the marriage is destroyed in the most bourgeois way possible.
Through the parts of your book that I know, and through what you are telling me now, I see that it could be considered poetry of commitment. Now then, what meaning do you give to commitment?
It seems to me that for us, for Latin Americans, the moment has arrived to give structure as well as we can to the problem of commitment. In my particular case, I consider that all that I write is committed in that I see literature and life from the starting point of our most important labor as men, the fight for the liberation of our peoples. However, we ought not let this concept be converted into something abstract. I believe that it is tied to a concrete revolutionary way, and that that way is armed struggle. At this stage, I understand that our commitment is irreducible, and that all the other stages of theoretical and methodological commitment of literature to Marxism, to humanism, to the future, to the dignity of man, etc., ought to be argued and amplified, with the end of clarifying for whom others are going to practically fulfill that commitment in their work and in...
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SOURCE: “Class Poetry: Five Books from Curbstone Press,” in Fiction International, Vol. 16, No. 2, Summer/Fall, 1986, pp. 202-9.
[In the following review, Jacobson compares Dalton to Latin American poets Otto René Castillo and César Vallejo, and, although recognizing Dalton's power as a poet, reproaches him for being “intellectual,” and for what he sees as Dalton's tendency to criticize “bourgeois” institutions using “bourgeois” standards and means, rather than writing “from the perspective of the working class.”]
“This machine kills fascists,” folk-singer Woody Guthrie wrote on his guitar. Here was a cultural statement that was much more...
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SOURCE: “Verse,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 3, Summer, 1989, p. 459.
[In the following review of Un libro levemente odioso, a posthumous collection of Dalton's poetry, Menton singles out for special praise Dalton's poems questioning orthodox communist ideology.]
Roque Dalton is unquestionably El Salvador's most internationally known writer, in part because of his revolutionary activities in Cuba and his execution by Salvadoran guerrillas in May 1975. However, his fame also rests solidly on his literary production: Las historias prohibidas del Pulgarcito (1974), an anecdotal, multigeneric history of his country, comparable to Guillermo...
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SOURCE: “Salvadoran Revolutionary Poetry,” in Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions, University of Texas Press, 1990, pp. 115-43.
[In the following excerpt, Beverley and Zimmerman discuss the relation of Dalton's poetry to the historical events and the revolutionary movements of Central America in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.]
The most compelling poet of the Committed Generation and the central figure in modern Salvadoran literature is clearly [Roque] Dalton. He writes as a Marxist-Leninist from within the ideological and organizational boundaries of the sectarian left in El Salvador. Though he shares with [Nicaraguan poet Ernesto] Cardenal a...
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SOURCE: “Roque Dalton,” in Spanish American Authors: The Twentieth Century, edited by Angel Flores, The H.W. Wilson Company, 1992, pp. 238-40.
[In the following essay, Arias offers a brief account of Dalton's formative influences and outlines the role of his ideology in the formation of his prose and poetry.]
The Salvadoran writer Roque Dalton is one of the greatest figures in Central American letters of this century. His genius is transcendent, both in and outside of our continent, and without doubt will continue to be so, provided that political passions give way to reason, translations multiply, and literary criticism plumbs his complex modernity.
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SOURCE: A review of Small Hours of the Night: Selected Poems of Roque Dalton, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 243, No. 30, July 22, 1996, p. 236.
[In the following review, the writer gives a thumbnail sketch of Dalton's work, praising his extravagance, wry sense of humor, and iconoclasm.]
Long overlooked in the U.S., Dalton was born in El Salvador in 1935. He joined the Communist Party and became a guerrilla in the El Salvadoran revolution, producing a massive body of poems before being murdered in 1975. The early poems, those from a young revolutionary, are full of extravagance: “I have this wild itch to laugh / or kill myself” and “I don't believe in angels /...
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SOURCE: “The Death of a Clown,” in The Nation, Vol. 263, No. 9, September 30, 1996, pp. 32-33.
[In the following review, King emphasizes the qualities of revolutionary joy and wonder Dalton celebrated in his poetry.]
Roque Dalton [author of Small Hours of the Night,] once addressed a poem to a woman asking that she never speak his name when he was dead because he would rise from the ground at the sound of her voice, and he should have “earned silence” by then. I think we are safe in speaking his name, though, because nothing a North American could say now would sound good enough to summon him. Since he died in 1975, our government has secretly helped...
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SOURCE: A review of Small Hours of the Night: Selected Poems of Roque Dalton, in Race and Class, Vol. 39, No. 2, October-December, 1997, pp. 85-87.
[In the following review, Searle praises Dalton's “poetic genius.”]
I first met the poetry of Roque Dalton of El Salvador during the late 1970s, at the height of the national liberation struggle of that tiny nation's people. I remember, in particular, the poem that imagined communism as an aspirin as big as the sun. A stunning image, I thought, recalling Donne's compasses and Marvell's chariot—is this an authentic Latin American metaphysical poet?
He is, but as the collection of his poems,...
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