Roque Dalton Critical Essays


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”