Roque Dalton - Poetry and Militancy in Latin America
[Poesía y Militancia en América Latina]#
What is it I mean to do, working in poetry? In general, to express my life, by which I mean the life to which I’m witness and coauthor. My time, its people, the environment we share, with all its interdependence. I walk towards this goal from the apparently simple starting point of being Salvadoran, which is to say, part of a Latin American people that seeks its happiness fighting against imperialism and the criollo oligarchy that, for well-established historical reasons, has an extraordinarily poor cultural tradition. So poor, in fact, that it has only been to a profoundly weak degree that this culture has been able to be incorporated into the struggle that calls for all weapons. These basic facts result in all kinds of anxieties over imbuing my work with a national content— content, in other words expressive of the people of El Salvador. But when I speak of the Salvadoran people, I’m speaking of the workers and campesinos, of the middle class, and, in general, of all social classes subject to oligarchic-imperialist oppression, all classes whose fundamental communitarian interests align with the great interest of building a free, sovereign nation full of the best incentives for human progress. For this reason, I also pursue the creation of a democratic tendency. The above is a general outline of my poetic intentions in which I’ve determined the needs which, in order to develop my work, I’ve had to establish and try to satisfy in the face of the historic panorama that my people demonstrate: the human environment that gives me roots and real foundations in space and time. It would be appropriate now to attempt a brief, general examination on the personal conditions in which I participate in the creative attempt— not with any desire to damage my own modesty, but to provide a logical backup for the proposals I’ll need to make later on.
My attitude towards the ideological content and social signficance of poetic work is fundamentally determined —as far as I understand it— by two extremes: my long and profound bourgeois education, and the communist militancy I’ve maintained for some years. Experience in the ranks of the Party has channeled my lifelong concern for the problems of those around me —of the people, ultimately— and has placed in my attention the fundamental responsibilities to be attended to, as well as the concrete ways of fulfilling those responsibilities over the course of a whole life. But those long years at the Jesuit school, my earliest development in the breast of the narrow-minded Salvadoran bourgeoisie, the cling to irresponsible ways of living, cut off with holy terror from sacrifice or the essential problems of these times, have left their marks on me, scars that still pain me. I’ve become conscious of this last fact for the general self-critical ends that we all pursue now, when the people demand that their children be clean and transparent. Now, what I can’t do in this regard is wipe away its actual effects with the stroke of a pen. To this end —and at least for analyzing my literary possibilities— it’s better to accept it as an existing reality. From a serious analysis of my own poetic work —which is the work I consider most representative of myself, the one the expresses me best— I can say that the point of view of the communist I am today is outweighed by the the attitude of the bourgeois I once was; the intentions of the communist are outweighed by the results of bourgeois roots. In use of the considerations made above and pursuing the functionality that the work of art must have in the concrete situation of El Salvador (and Central America in general), I think it right to ask: has this bourgeois point of view exhausted all its possibilities for us? Speaking for myself, I think no, and furthermore that we do well to make use of all its creative possibilities, tending not only to abandon its negative fundamental aspects but to use it as an instrument to create the ideal conditions for the birth of the new art to come, no matter who likes it or not. It will be the reflection of the new life that Salvadorans will know how to win. The possibilities of bourgeois culture and art (which, moreover, oligarchy and imperialism have imposed upon Salvadoran creators and audiences with a gross lack of nuance) are not yet exhausted, and it’s a good thing that revolutionary writers begin the journey towards the art of the future, the revolutionary Salvadoran literature of the future, from within the very guts of bourgeois culture, accelerating the sinking and decomposition of this culture as we confront it with its insurmountable internal contradictions, as we confront it with itself and with the sources of its birth, taking it, finally, consciously and with the holy malice of the people, to the impasse where it would have ended up anyway if we were to let it keep developing peacefully in the hands of its logical creators, bourgeois creators, the creator-ideologues of the bourgeoisie.
Widening the consideration and heading, therefore, beyond that which touches my own individual work, it’s worth asking the following questions: to what degree has the nation been expressed in the literature that has been made in El Salvador up until now? Is the history of Salvadoran literature capable of giving us a cohesive vision of our social development, of the class struggle that has propelled this development? It seems the answer is no. But if the most important works of that literature have been produced in the last fifty or sixty years, which is to say, the span of time in which our country has come to be a semi-feudal wasteland dominated by US imperialism, with a huge mass of dispossessed campesinos on one hand, a ravening oligarchy on the other, and a weak, incipient working class, a tiny, deranged bourgeoisie, and the germ of a national bourgeoisie without any hopes for development in the middle, can we, in our literature, follow the expressions of some or each one of these classes and define them as authentic in respects to each class? Or is it due to the economic, political, and social —and therefore cultural— deformations that imperialist domination implies in our development, deformations that obstruct the classic rise of several social classes to self-realization, that we are obliged to assert that all the problems of the artistic superstructure belong to one basic and general contradiction? Which is to say, the contradiction that exists between the people: the nation on one side, and imperialism and its intermediaries on the other. Because, if this is so, all the previous questions can be answered on the basis of dividing our literature into two: that which generally works towards, or does not opposed, the interests of the dominant “two faced monster,” and that which, also generally, has looked to be the expression of the people, of their lives, their problems, their struggles and their hopes. But I suspect the problem isn’t so simple.
Taking these two considerations — the needs of Salvadoran literature, and my own personal conditions in the face of creative labor — into account, I became eager to map out cultural labor in search of the following general objectives which, obviously, I’m still a long way from achieving: 1.) Fight, because the work of the Salvadoran writers and artists of my generation is nurtured by our national reality, with the goal of transforming this reality through revolution. 2.) Definitively explain the problem of El Salvador’s cultural tradition in order to incorporate it into our works with a new sense of cultural development. This means, among other things, determining its basic elements, its reach at the universal level, the dead and the living, the useful and the useless, in order to give the scattered culture of El Salvador the principle characteristic of any culture: organic unity, interconnection, the basis of specific and general existence. And, in accordance with the first general objective: 3.) Advocate the scientific understanding of our reality (applying the Marxist-Leninist method) and support creative labor with militant activity within the ranks of the Revolution, the great objective of all modern art or literature worthy of mankind.
Having made, then, some definitive statements, it’s vital to start drawing some particularizations and separations. I’ve said that I am a poet who, in regard to my political militancy, acts within the ranks of the Communist party. But this fact only indicates that a social concern exists within me, while at the same time demonstrating direct contact with the organization that best interprets social phenomena. All of this means I have a responsibility in the struggle of humanity. But I primarily meet this responsibility in the specific work of the Party, in the concrete actions of the Revolution. My poetry, besides saving that responsibility in its particular ways, pursues other purposes. It becomes something other than a mere ethical instrument, since the force of imagination, among other things, intervenes. Imagination, for example, enriches reality, and in those circumstances its expression might in some way be more valuable for the people, since it not only grants them firsthand knowledge of the real —which alone might be enough in their struggle for freedom— but puts them in contact with the truly transcendental, we might say eternal, aspects of that reality. Art and literature’s functions of “bettering man and nature” are worth noting here. We must not forget, on the other hand, that even in pursuing political ends (achieving the people’s awareness of themselves and their needs) poetry and art must do so through their particular artistic means, more effective to the degree that they artistically best capture the reality that must be expressed.
This is why I’ve been saying for some time that today’s great poets must work from two points of departure: a profound understanding of life, and their own imaginative freedom. They need to have lived intensely, at the center of nature and the human, to have descended into the terrible pits of the fire within and ascended to radiant popular dramas, to have been witness to the nakedness of insects and to the catastrophes of mountains. On the basis of this experience, acquired over years in hard, marvelous everyday movement, their imagination, with its expressive instruments (styles, genres), will be able to construct the great work of art if its owner has a clear conception of creative freedom and of their own responsibilities in the face of beauty. There are many material mediums that will help them on this path: the incorporation (critical assimilation) of the cultural tradition of humanity into the work of the modern creator; the adequate treatment of mythology; the use of symbols with the feeling appropriate to each age.
The poet must be fundamentally loyal to poetry, to beauty. In the stream of beauty, the poet must submerge the content that their attitude towards life and humanity imposes on them as the great responsibility of coexistence. And neither subterfuge nor inversion of terms can be possible here. The poet is a poet because they make poetry, that is, because they create beautiful work. If they do anything else they can be whatever they like, except for a poet. This does not, of course, imply a privileged position for the poet among men. It implies only an exact location among men and a rigorous limitation of their activities, which would also be effective in specifying the quality of doctors, carpenters, soldiers, and criminals.
“Is the poet also a communist?” they ask me here and there. To answer, I’d start by repeating what’s already been said: the great duty of the poet —communist or not— is to beauty, the very essence of poetry. Granting this —as algebra professors say— their own responsibility, or, if you prefer, their level of revolutionary consciousness in the face of the concrete needs of the time in which they practice their creation, will show them the thematic tendencies, for example, that it will be correct to choose. And now that we’re talking about theme, I have to add that I have an old hypothesis, which I think is full of honesty, in this area: everything that fits in life fits in poetry. The poet —and, therefore, the communist poet— must express all of life: the proletarian struggle, the beauty of the cathedrals that Spanish colonialism left us, the wonder of the sexual act, the shuddering stories that filled our childhoods, the prophecies of the fecund future that the great symbols of the day proclaim to us.
Now then: what kind of beauty are we talking about? What do we mean when we say the beautiful? We warn openly of the danger of working with terms that idealism has tried to revindicate for its own purposes. From Plato to the modern swooners who cling to that which has never stopped being an idiocy, the concept of art for art’s sake, some words have been manipulated with such a disconcerting sense that it’s now very difficult for a revolutionary to use them without making themselves suspicious of holding positions that define the opposite philosophical pole. As is made clear above, we haven’t abandoned for a second the lands of form when we speak of beauty and the beautiful. Now then: form and content constitute the inseparable unity that comprises the work of art. It’s in this sense we say that beauty is a matter of the same essence as poetry. Furthermore, we consider the concepts of beauty and the beautiful to be cultural realities imbued with historical scope and social origins.
“What about the feísta [grotesque] forms of poetry, of Art?” they ask me again. This isn’t a valid argument against poetry’s essential beauty. In the so-called feísta forms, what occurs is either that beauty is more hidden than it usually is (by the non-traditional forms through which it’s transmitted) or that it arises through contrast.
It seems apparent to me that the creative labor of the communist poet has several levels. According to the everyday needs of the struggle, the poet immersed in the party of the workers and campesinos will need to produce agile slogans of agitation, satirical quatrains, poems that incite rebellion against anti-popular repression. To what extent can the results of this work be called poetry? There are extraordinary cases, but in general, from a formal point of view, the results tend to be exceptionally poor, although in the historical-political domain they can come to be, depending on circumstances, of immense value.
The Party must educate the poet as a good communist militant, as a valuable cadre for people’s revolutionary action. The poet, the artistic creator, must contribute in the highest degree to the cultural education of all Party members. The Party, in particular, must help the poet realize their potential as an efficient agitator, a crack shot soldier, an ideal cadre, in a word. The poet must make sure that all comrades know Nazim Hikmet and Pablo Neruda and that they have a clear concept of the role of cultural work within general revolutionary activity. The poet must make the Secretary of the Central Committee, for example, love San Juan de la Cruz, Henri Michaux, and Saint-John Perse.
We must shake off the false, mechanical, harmful conception that the poet who is committed to their people and their era is an irritable or excessively-pained individual who goes around saying to anyone who’ll listen that the bourgeoisie is disgusting, that the most beautiful thing in the world is a union meeting, and that socialism is a rose garden under an especially tender sun. Life isn’t so simple, and the true Marxist needs to be sensitive enough to capture it perfectly. The poet’s duty is to fight against mechanistic schematism, which blocks the development of poetry —which, like the conquest of the cosmos, must keep its thirst for adventure fresh forever— and wounds possible positive conceptual content.
Someone defined the poet as a person who doesn’t live normally if living normally stops them from writing. The construction of this concept is similar to that of a feeling I have felt firmly in myself for a long time: that of the impossibility of performing creative labor outside the ranks of the revolution. If the revolution, I mean, if the struggle of my people, my party, my revolutionary theory, are the fundamental pillars I want to base my life on, and if I consider life, in all its intensity, to be the great origin and great content of poetry, what sense is there in thinking about creation when the tasks of man and militant are abandoned? Clearly, there is no sense in this. And this, I should clarify here, has nothing to do with the expressive form (pardon the redundancy) which poetry itself must respond with when it faces its civic duties, in other words.
The feeling I’m referring to is firmly rooted in objective truths. I’ll illustrate this point with some lines by Roger Garaudy, written to recount the conclusions at which the First Week of Marxist Thought (held in Paris last year) arrived, lines which clearly and concisely signal the fundamental concepts that the revolutionary position incorporates into our lives. “Marxism-Leninism,¨says the wise professor, “allows us to think and live through the three greatest forces acting upon today’s world, in the wonderful work of illumination: the most complete form of humanism, the concept which most highly exalts humanity, with its endless horizons; the surest scientific method, which stems from dialectical materialism; and the greatest force capable of putting this science and humanism into action: the revolutionary proletariat.” Love for humanity, the greatest method of coming to the truth and a force that assures the realization of our hopes: can you think of any greater basis for poetry?
The revolutionary is, among other things, the most useful person of their time. They live to carry out ends that represent the highest interests of humanity. This is valid for the revolutionary poet, as poet and as revolutionary, given that from the moment they publish their first word they direct themselves towards all people in defense of their greatest desires. Considering this, it’s stupid to even argue with those who affirm that the social function of and humanist attitude in poetry are at best extra-poetic elements. Stupid, primarily, because this kind of argument inherently implies an a priori renunciation of the universality of poetry.
It’s beautiful to think of the poet as a prophet. This idea in itself is a poetic act in which the poem-creator appears to us looking down from the tall peaks of humanity’s future and pointing out the great paths. Rather than the future, however, I prefer to see the poet as sifting through their own time, because, like it or not, through insisting on the world to come we lose, in some way, immediate perspectives and run the risk of not being understood by all those who find themselves submerged in the everyday world. The same problem of the Revolution deserves to be focused on —within the poetic task— from that point of view. Case in point: should revolutionary Latin American poets center our work on proclaiming socialist society before elevating the contradictions, disasters, flaws, customs, and struggles of our actual societies to the category of poetic material? I sincerely believe that the answer is no. I think that the average reader of the capitalist world, in order to be convinced of the need for the Revolution, must among other things understand the structure of the degraded mental schema of the bourgeoisie, the sordidness of individual deeds in the capitalist underworld, the clash between noble humanistic sentiments and the boredom of the environment that exploitation gives birth to. I also believe that readers must be given the opportunity to learn about new viewpoints on life, deeds and characters, for example, of national life, over which a whitewashed retelling has been thrown by the dominant classes. The specific qualities of literature would have very little trouble combating this. Only after such work, which I don’t deny implies a large measure of destructive action, will it be possible to begin, without further obstacles, to proclaim the future. And we must note an essential point of view: I give this thesis validity in the insurrectional stage and in the triumph of any Latin American revolution. And even when that revolution has already on the road of building socialism. Although in this last case, obviously, my thesis would be only partly relevant.
The honor of the revolutionary poet is in convincing their generation of the need to be revolutionary today, in the hard times, the only option that makes it possible to be the subject of an epic. To be revolutionary when the revolution has already eliminated its enemies and been consolidated can be, no doubt, more or less glorious and heroic. But to be revolutionary when that quality tends to be rewarded with death is what is truly worthy of poetry. The poet takes the poetry of their generation and delivers it into history.