by Jon-David Settell
“I remember a laughing Roque Dalton. Skinny, pale, his bones sticking out, big-nosed like me, and always laughing. I don’t know why I always remember you laughing, Roque Dalton. A laughing revolutionary.” – Ernesto Cardenal
Roque Dalton, Central America’s laughing revolutionary, defies the stereotype of the Marxist revolutionary, that of the stern, angry young man without grace and humor. With his sardonic wit, irreverent jokes and sarcasm, and the ease with which he made fun of himself and others, Dalton made humor a critical part of his revolutionary aesthetics, one he used without hesitation in the struggle for a socialist El Salvador. And yet, humor has long played a role in political subversion. Mikhail Bakhtin, in Rabelais and His World, made this observation a central part of his concept of the carnivalesque in the novel. In this essay, I explore the role of humor in two distinct poetic traditions linked by a shared commitment to Marxism. I do this through a comparison of the carnivalesque in Dalton’s irreverently revolutionary poetry, and the cautious humor used by post-revolutionary Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
Humor has a long history of subversion, both politically and socially. Sigmund Freud has described humor as “not resigned, [but] rebellious,” as Michael Billig notes in his article on the language of humor. “Jokes, like dreams and slips of the tongue,” Billig writes, “bear the traces of repressed desires. Sexual and aggressive thoughts, which are forbidden in polite society, can be shared as if they are not serious. Humor then becomes a way of rebelling against the demands of social order” (452). Mark Weeks, writing on the history of humor, notes that “at least since Freud humor has been commonly equated with a release from repression, the liberation of energies . . . . Humor . . . is typically imagined as a reaction against containment, against a monolithic and comparatively fixed structure by ideally irrepressible libidinal energies” (134).
The role of humor as a release from repression, specifically in the sense of “rebellion” against political repression, is the central thesis of Bakhtin’s Rabelais. He notes that:
a boundless world of humorous forms and manifestations opposed the official and
serious tone of medieval ecclesiastical and feudal culture. In spite of their variety,
folk festivities of the carnival type, the comic rites and cults, the clowns and fools,
giants, dwarfs, and jugglers, the vast and manifold literature of parody – all these
forms have one style in common: they belong to one culture of folk carnival
For Bakhtin, the humor of the carnival actively subverts authoritative discourse and the fear it engenders. He goes on to observe that “fear is the extreme expression of narrow-minded and stupid seriousness, which is defeated by laughter…Complete liberty is possible only in the completely fearless world” (47).
Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque as a comic form of resistance provoked controversy at the time of its writing in 1940, in the midst of World War II and Stalinist Russia; his work would not be published until 1965. In Rabelais, Bakhtin finds the corporal, at times scatological, humor of the carnival employed as a mechanism of resistance. The principle of degradation at work in the carnivalesque, specifically in its distinction between the “classical body” and the “grotesque body”, as Simon Dentith has argued, shifts focus from one of completion, to one of becoming, inherently linking to material realities and signifying an “openness to the world” (68). Bakhtin himself recognized the topicality of his radical theory of comic resistance, writing that “a new and powerful revival of the grotesque took place in the twentieth century…The second line [of this revival] is the realist grotesque (Thomas Mann, Bertold Brecht, Pablo Neruda, and others). It is related to the tradition of realism and folk culture and reflects at times the direct influence of carnival forms, as in the work of Neruda” (46). Neruda, a Communist and long-time party member, was instrumental in the rise of democratically elected Communist, Salvador Allende, in Chile in 1970. Though Dalton publicly rejected Neruda’s notion of the “fellow traveler of the revolution,” opting instead for armed resistance as a guerrillero poet (Beverly 74), the link between Bakhtin’s theory and a poetics of revolution in the legacy of Spanish American poetry is one that Bakhtin himself prophetically envisioned.
With his writing, Bakhtin attempted to “mobilize the…rumbustious popular life of the carnival against the official but murderous pieties of church and state” (Dentith 71), which made his writing on carnival “some of his most exciting and controversial” (65). And yet, his concept of mobilizing the carnival as a form of resistance to the state is undermined by two factors, according to Dentith. The first factor he notes is that humor and the grotesque in carnival forms have also been used by Church and State in an appropriated form. Many, if not all of the carnivals Bakhtin references, were state or church-sponsored. Specifically, Dentith points to the concept of the “allow’d fool” as one way the “anarchic and anti-authoritarian energies of carnival [can] be simply deflected” (73). The second factor undermining Bakhtin’s concept is the association of the novel with the carnival; Dentith calls this an “intractable difficulty” (85), in that the novelistic form rose to prominence as the carnival declined. Despite these two factors, Dentith concludes that Bakhtin’s carnival plays an important role in understanding the de-centering of authority, because “it liberates the sign…into the specific freedoms won for it by the rituals and festivities of carnival” (87). Both areas of difficulty, the “allow’d fool” and Bakhtin’s idealization of the novel as the best vehicle for his concept, are addressed here through the application of the carnivalesque, as analytical framework, to two divergent poetics of revolution.
By comparing two poems by Yevtushenko, “Поэзия” (Poetry) and “Юмор” (Humor), with Dalton’s “Historia de un pueta” (History of a Poet) and several shorter poems, I will show first how their poetics of revolution were dialogically engaged, through Yevtushenko and Dalton’s time in La Habana at Casa de las Américas1 and the cultural influence of the Soviet Union. Next, I focus on the divergence of their poetics, through Dalton’s transition into a guerrillero poet, and Yevtushenko’s to statesman poet. The rapid decline of Yevtushenko’s literary reputation and his use of mediated humor stand in stark contrast to Dalton and his increasingly carnivalesque and grotesque poetry. Though Dalton was killed in a grim incident of internecine revolutionary strife, his reputation as guerrillero poet continued to increase; his poetry would be widely reproduced in FMLN2 posters, educational materials, and magazines, and go on to shape the revolution in El Salvador for years to come (Cardenal xiii). In this way, Dentith’s argument of fatal flaws in Bakhtin’s theory is, on the one hand, borne out by Yevtushenko’s literary decline. I argue here that Yevtushenko’s evolution into the role of “approv’d fool” precipitated this decline. On the other hand, Dalton’s remarkably successful use of carnivalesque humor, and specifically grotesque realism, contributed to a legacy of revolutionary poetics that lingers in the triumphs of the Central American revolutions, substantiating Bakhtin’s view of the carnivalesque as a mode of resistance and, ultimately, liberation.
Yevtushenko, often described as the civic tribune of the Soviet Union, was until the 1970s a highly regarded and popular poet. Boris Dralyuk notes that Yevtushenko first became famous as the poet of Soviet youth (25). He was originally considered a dissident writing against Stalinist repression in the early years of Khrushchev’s post-Stalinist thaw, as Peter Rudy observed in his review of the Soviet literary scene in 1961 (254). Yevtushenko’s dissidence endured him to young Russians; partly because of this popularity, after being expelled by the Komsomol in 1956, he was reinstated in 1958 as Secretariat of the Writers’ Union, as Merle Fainsod notes (434). Fainsod points out, however, that this promotion may have been intended to “tame him into conformity.” Nevertheless, his 1961 poem, “Бабий Яр” (“Babii Yar”), a “markedly personal poem of protest,” decried anti-semitism in the USSR and memorialized a massacre of Jews in the Ukraine (Drayluk 26).
As he gained popularity, Yevtushenko focused on developing a “civic-minded” poetics, one that would allow him, as a Communist Party member and avowedly loyal Soviet citizen, to liberalize the nation by working within the party and governmental system. Robert Conquest, writing for The New York Times in 1973, described his dilemma as the “the sad case of Yevgeny Yevtushenko”, writing about how he had come to be seen, in his overtly “public” role, as part of a “batch of third-rate intriguers,” going on to describe how Yevtushenko had grown to be considered a “petty political marauder and literary huckster” (2). He was accused by many Soviet writers, especially dissident writers unable to publish or forced into exile, of “selling out and betraying his comrades” for the comfort of his role as head of the Writers’ Union. Guy Houk notes that Yevtushenko was brutally mocked in Venedikt Erofeev’s poem, “Moscow-Petushki,” observing that “Erofeev mocks Evtushenko’s personal life, his art, and his beliefs, but saves his most vicious attacks for what he perceives to be Evtushenko’s most profound act of betrayal – the prostitution of his talent in exchange for the privileged life of the obedient lapdog” (190). In describing the decline of Yevtushenko’s literary reputation, Dralyuk writes:
It is clear that Evtushenko’s status as a civic tribune, a mouthpiece of the youth, discredited him as a serious poet…Furthermore, [his] political stance as a moderate dissident who turned his poetic sails whichever way the ill wind of authorized expression happened to blow, has contributed to the impression that the poet was at best a hack, and at worst a lackey of the regime (25).
As a Communist poet writing in an ostensibly Communist state, his work engenders a larger question about the value of a revolutionary aesthetic in a post-revolutionary context. I turn here to two poems; first, his poetic manifesto on the role of poet as soldier in “Поэзия” (“Poetry”3), and second, his use of humor as “approv’d fool” in “Юмор” (“Humor”).
As dialogic mechanism informing Dalton’s poetics, Поэзия is especially important: “Поэзия — не мирная молельня. Поэзия — жестокая война. В ней есть свои, обманные маневры. Война — она войною быть должна. Поэт – солдат . . .” (152) [“Poetry / is no chapel of peace. It has its own maneuvers of deception. War / must be war. A poet / is a soldier . . .” (153)]. Written at the height of his literary fame and popular acclaim as the “poet of the youth” in 1962, Поэзия lays out a poetics of revolution that itself resonates with over forty years of revolutionary aesthetics. Mayakovsky’s poem, “Во весь голос” (“At the Top of My Voice”) illustrates this aesthetic legacy: “Я, ассенизатор / и водовоз, / революцией / мобилизованный и призванный, / ушел на фронт / из барских садоводств / поэзии — / бабы капризной” (220) [“I, a latrine cleaner / and water carrier, / by the revolution / mobilized and drafted, / went off to the front / from the aristocratic gardens / of poetry – the capricious wench” (221)]. Like Mayakovsky, Yevtushenko envisions poetry as revolutionary: “Поэт – солдат” [“A poet is a soldier”]. In Russian, with no present tense for the verb “to be,” the verse becomes a powerful statement of equivalency. A literal translation of the verse reflects this: “poet – soldier.” A poetics of revolution, then, is Yevtushenko’s heritage as a Soviet citizen and poet. The poem ends with a militancy that, in light of Dalton’s death in 1975, is uncanny: “Ну а когда поэт – он погибает, / и мертвый / он внушает им испуг. / Он погибает так, / как подобает, / оружия не выпустив из рук” (153) [“Well, when a poet . . . / a poet perishes, even in death / he inspires them with fear. / He perishes as behooves him – / without dropping his weapons” (154)].
Echoes of this revolutionary legacy, so eloquently described in Yevtushenko’s “Поэзия,” resonate in Dalton’s poetry. He deeply believed in Yevtushenko’s notion of “Поэт – солдат”; it is perhaps no coincidence that Dalton and Yevtushenko were both in La Habana in 1961, shortly after the victory of the Cuban revolution. Marío Rosa Mencal has noted Dalton’s extensive involvement with Casa de las Américas, “donde tantas veces estuvo Roque Dalton no como huésped o simple forastero, sino como hijo predilecto (350) [where Roque Dalton had been so many times, not as a guest or foreigner, but as a favorite son].” Yevtushenko, in turn, visited Cuba in 1961, the same year Dalton came to Cuba as an exile, having recently escaped, by one day, a sentence of death, according to the Academy of American Poets. While it has not (yet) been possible to document contact between Dalton and Yevtushenko, given Yevtushenko’s fame at the time, his role in writing the screenplay for “Я Куба” [“I am Cuba”] in 1964, the publication of the poem, “Поэзия” [“Poetry”] in 1962, and the fact that Dalton stayed in Cuba until 1965, it is entirely possible that he would have been at least notionally familiar with his work. As additional circumstantial evidence, I note that a collection of Yevtushenko’s poetry, translated in Spanish as No he nacido tarde [I was not born late], was published by La Rosa Blindada in 1963.
Heberto Padilla, an intimate of Dalton (“Así lo describe” [“How he describes him”] n. pag.), was friends with Yevtushenko and attended the famous sessions at the National Library where Fidel Castro gave his “Speech to the Intellectuals,” according to José Manuel Prieto (142). Padilla traveled extensively throughout the Soviet Union with Yevtushenko, who advised Padilla to “keep a low profile,” because of what he described as the instability of post-revolutionary periods (143). He would go on to describe the revolutionary writer’s role as that of “[one] who, never ceasing from being a revolutionary and from declaring himself as one, sought to be critical of that very revolution by establishing himself from within it as a dissident voice.” Though purely speculative, it is possible Padilla may have repeated this advice to Dalton; Dalton would go on to become a revolutionary writer, the “Поэт – солдат” of Yevtushenko’s manifesto. He would not, however, “keep a low profile”; nor would he focus on working within the revolution as a dissident voice. Instead, Dalton embraced the full legacy of revolutionary aesthetics as originally laid out by Mayakovsky.
Yevtushenko, for reasons already described above, would take a different route. Dentith’s notion of the “allow’d fool” in relation to the Bakhtinian notion of the carnivalesque, is particularly relevant here. In his poem “Юмор” [“Humor”], Yevtushenko lays out a “low profile” vision for humor, one that maintains a revolutionary stance:
Властители всей земли, sovereigns of the all the earth,
Командовали парадами, have commanded many a parade,
Но юмором – but they could not command
не могли. (96) humor. (97)
This first stanza aligns Yevtushenko’s conceptualization of humor with Bakhtin’s concept of the comic, specifically as resistance to “ecclesiastic and feudalistic culture” embodied here as “Цари, / короли, / императоры” [“Tsars, / kings, / emperors”]. Yevtushenko’s poem is written with the same stepladder techique pioneered by Mayakovsky, and uses a rough, unmetered, at times lyrical Russian. The similarites end there, as humor is personified in the text as “В потрёпанном куцем пальтишке” [“in an overcoat, shabby and short”]; a “преступником политическим” [“political criminal”]; a man who submits, “Всем видом покорность выказывал,” [“He appeared to submit in every way”], but deviously so, “Как вдруг / из пальтишка / выскальзывал, / рукою махал / и – тю-тю!” (98) [“of a sudden / he wriggled out / of his coat, / and, waving his hand, did a bolt!” (99)]. In this sense, humor in the text is a small, infinitely devious person, one who represents not the danger of resistance or revolution, but instead that of the court jester, or, in a Bakhtinian sense, a carnival fool.
And yet, the subversive power of humor emerges here as a kind of mediated resistance, in the sense of outwitting, escaping, and parodying. In a post-revolutionary context, this becomes a challenge for Yevtushenko, since humor, one might argue, has nothing to outwit or escape in a workers’ state, one ostensibly free of what in this context might be called the tyranny of Capitalism. The poem is itself post-revolutionary, in that it describes humor in the final stanzas as escaping from prison and joining the Russian Revolution:
Откашливаясь простужено, Coughing from the lungs
как рядовой боец like any man in the ranks,
шагал он He marched
частушкой-простушкой singing a popular ditty,
с винтовкой на Зимний Дворец. rifle in hand upon the Winter Palace.
Привык он к взглядам сумрачным, He’s accustomed to frowning looks,
Но это ему не вредит, but they do no harm;
И сам на себя and humor at times
с юмором with humor
Юмор порою глядит (100). glances at himself (101).
With the grounding of the revolutionary force of humor in an event several decades in the past, there is no modern context in the poem; in fact, the fool in this poem laughs at himself. Elements of the grotesque and the materiality of the body surface in the poem, in the coughing, and “Его голова отрубленная” (98) [“His hacked-off head” (99)], but apart from these elements, the poem itself is less grotesque than jovial, in a peculiarly self-deprecating sense. Reading the verses about storming the Winter Palace, one cannot help but notice an awkwardness; there has been no reason offered in the poem, apart from imprisonment, to motivate personified humor’s march on the Palace. The verse seems stilted and incongruous, almost as if inserted in a fillip to the revolution.
Max Oppenheimer notes that “[Y]evtushenko is neither pro-Western nor anti-Soviet. Expressed bluntly, he knows where his bread is buttered. He remains consistently apolitical; when commissioned to produce a few pro-Soviet or anti-Western propaganda items, he discreetly intersperses them among his lines” (4). It is precisely this sense of textual incongruity, of a “discreet interspersing” of strategic praise of the revolution, that positions this poem as a paean to civic-minded jocularity, or, put another way, as an example of humor in the service of the State. Taken together with the stylized elements of the grotesque, the self-deprecation, and the multiple allusions to humor as small, shabby, and devious, the poem exemplifies the role of the “approv’d fool.”
The final verses substantiate this, especially as humor is glorified: “Итак – /
да славится юмор. / Он – / мужественный человек” (100) [“So – / glory be to humor. / He – / is a valiant man” (101)]. In the process of making humor into a hero, Yevtushenko uses the language of the State, specifically, glory and valor, in similar ways to the sloganeering of the Soviet state. One is reminded of the slogan, Великому Ленину слава [Glory be to the great Lenin!]. Though it could be argued that the verses contain a subtle parody of sloganeering, they locate humor well within the confines of the State, in their possibly devious, but glaringly earnest use of the language of the State.
Yevtushenko, as a Communist living within a notional workers’ state, is in quite the bind, as this poem shows. His evolution from dissident to “approv’d fool,” raises the question of whether a poetics of revolution, as envisioned by Mayakovsky and articulated by Yevtushenko in “Поэзия,” can survive the revolution. In this sense, the poem appears to substantiate Dentith’s assertion of a fatal flaw within Bakhtin’s central thesis of the subversive power of the carnivalesque.
Dalton’s poetry, on the other hand, offers wholly different lessons. In his work, we see a poet struggling to live by what Mayakovsky and Yevtushenko conceived of as the role of the poet soldier; in this role, he employs the Bakhtinian mechanism of the carnivalesque as resistance. In the short poem, “Poeticus eficacciae” (Latin, “An Effective Poetics”), he lays out the case for humor as satire: “Podréis juzgar / la catadura moral de un regimen politico, / de una institución política, / o de un hombre políltico / por el grado de peligrosidad que otorguen / al hecho de ser observados / por los ojos de un poeta satírico” (10) [“You can judge / the moral quality of a political regime / or a political institution / or a political man / by the degree of danger they detect / in the act of being observed / through the eyes of the satirical poet”]. For Dalton, humor, in this case as satire, is a most “effective poetic.”
He further refines his conceptualization of the function of poetry in the three-line poem, “Arte poética 1974” [“The Art of Poetry 1974”]: “Poesía, / perdóname por haberte ayudado a comprender / que no estás hecha solo de palabras” (25) [“Poetry / forgive me for having helped you to understand / that you are not made of words alone”]. In 1970, as John Beverley has pointed out, Dalton left the Communist Party to found the Ejército Revolucionario Popular, a Marxist revolutionary group that focused primarily on armed resistance; the group would later join with the FMLN in 1980, together with the Communist Party of El Salvador. At the time he wrote this poem, Dalton was preparing to return to El Salvador to fight as a guerrillero in the Civil War. This poem, then, is his own manifesto of the poet soldier described by Mayakovsky and Yevtushenko. In “A la poesía” [“To Poetry”], he thanks poetry for its role in resistance: “Hoy también puedes mejorarme / ayudarme a servir / en esta larga y dura lucha del pueblo” (23) [“You can make me better today, too / help me serve / in the people’s long and hard struggle”].
Among the most well-known of Dalton’s poems, “Como tú” [“Like you”], deepens his conceptualization of the role of poetry, as both resistance and nourishment:
Creo que el mundo es bello, I believe the world is beautiful
que la poesía es como el pan, de todos. and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.
Y que mis venas no terminan en mí, And that my veins don’t end in me
sino en la sangre unánime but in the unanimous blood
de los que luchan por la vida, of those who struggle for life,
el amor, love,
las cosas, el paisaje y el pan, little things, landscape and bread,
la poesía de todos (27). the poetry of everyone (Hirschman n.pag.)
In Dalton’s linking of poetry to eating and sustenance, in his use of blood and veins to proclaim solidarity, echoes of Bakhtin’s grotesque realism begin to emerge. In his later poems, as a guerrillero and organizer of an armed Marxist revolutionary uprising, irreverence and the grotesque merge together to create a uniquely powerful poetics of revolution. Bakhtin notes the subversive potential of the grotesque:
The grotesque body, as we often stressed, is a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed . . . . Moreover, the body swallows the world and is itself swallowed by the world…Eating, drinking, defecation and other elimination… all these acts are performed on the confines of the body and the outer world, or on the confines of the old and new body (317).
In Dalton’s work, the grotesque body takes on particular importance, as the revolutionary potential of a new body, a new Marxist state to be fashioned out of the materiality of working people in all their glorious eating, drinking, and shitting. In “Como tú”, Dalton locates poetry within the grotesque, specifically within the act of consumption. It is “como el pan, de todos” [“like bread, for everyone”]; he situates himself within this materiality as poet and part of the revolution, a man whose veins end only in the “la sangre unánime / de los que luchan por la vida” [“in the unanimous blood / of those who struggle for life”].
Grotesque realism becomes a constant in Dalton’s later poetry, both as part of an irreverent use of humor and, more importantly, as celebration of the materiality of the body. I return here to what Dentith calls that the principle of degradation at work in the carnival, the distinction between the “classical body” and the “grotesque body,” and the shift in focus from one of completion, to one of becoming (68). We see this process at work in the short poem, “El Salvador, país con corazón” [“El Salvador, country with a heart”]: “Claro que un poco decapitado. / Y (según el gobierno / y la oligarquía) / sin estómago” (75) [Of course a little decapitated. / And (according to the government / and the oligarchy / with no stomach”]. In the classical body, the head was the source of enlightenment and reason; in the sardonic wit of the text, that body is decapitated, shifting focus to the grotesque body, with its heart and the absurd absence of a stomach.
“Historia de una poética” [“History of a Poetics”] continues this shift, describing the radicalization of “un pueta” (a play on words combining the Spanish slang for slut, puta, and poet, poeta, in a nod to the El Salvadoran dialectical pronunciation of the word “poet”). The poem uses the language of El Salvadoran dialect and slang, a kind of carnivalesque, situating it from the very start as a poem of the people, and turning this language on the poet in a jovial and grotesque manner: “Puesiesque esta era un pueta / de aquí del país / que no era ni bello ni malo como Satanás / (como él soñaba que era) / sino mero feyito y pechito y retebuena gente” (100) [“Well and there was this poet / from right here in the country / who wasn’t handsome or really so bad as Satan / (like he was in his dreams) / but just a little ugly and skinny and just really good people”]. By locating the poet firmly with the grotesque (“mero feyito y pechito”) he becomes a poet of the people, no greater than you or I. The physical characteristics of his body, gently ridiculed, shift the focus from a classical narrative of completion, to one of becoming; his process of becoming is the theme of the poem.
At the start of the poem, the poet, “retebuena gente” [“really good people”], “amaba a la justicia y a las muchachas / (tal vez un poquito más a las muchachas que a la justicia)” (100) [“he loved justice and girls / (maybe he loved girls just a little bit more than justice)”]. The poet (recalling Dalton’s play on words with “pueta”) embraces the grotesque realities of the carnival, from sex to laughter. In the textual process of becoming, for Dalton a process of radicalization, the poet abandons classical poetic tradition when “subío hasta las nubes el precio de papel” (101) [“the price of paper rose sky high”], and begins writing on walls and streets. Dalton satirizes classical poetics, because “frases que antes le embriagaban tanto / como «oh sándalo abismal, miel de los musgos» / se miraban todas cheretas en las paredes descascaradas” [“phrases that until then had intoxicated him so / like, ‘oh abysmal sandal, honey of the moss’ / looked all beat up on the peeling walls”]. In a nod to the humor of the grotesque, Dalton describes the poet as intoxicated by his own words.
The evolution of this “pueta,” in his move from a classical to a revolutionary poetics, is described again in grotesque terms: “De ahí que el pueta agarrara vara de una vez / y se metiera a guerilla urbana” (102) [“From there the poet gathered up his courage / and joined the urban guerilla”]. Significantly, the word vara in formal use means a measuring stick, though in Central American slang it can be understood as gathering strength or convictions. As a stick, though, the words hint at a phallic symbology, and imply power through a grasping of the phallus, in another nod to the grotesque body.
The “pueta’s” classical poetics are replaced by revolutionary ones, such as “viva la guerrilla” [“long live the guerrilla”] and “lucha armada hoy – socialismo mañana” [“armed struggle today – socialism tomorrow”]. And yet, this revolutionary aesthetic exuberantly embraces the grotesque, as the final stanza shows: “Y si alguien dice que esta historia es / esquemática y sectaria/ y que el poema que la cuenta es una / tremenda babosada ya que falla / «precisamente en la magnificación de las motivaciones» / que vaya y coma mierda” (102) [“And if anyone says that this story is / schematic and sectarian / and that the poem that tells it /is a tremendous stupidity because it fails / ‘precisely in the magnification of the motivations’ / well, they can go and eat shit”]. In one single stanza, Dalton uses three functions of the body, spitting (“babosada” is derived from the Spanish verb babosear, to drool or slobber), shitting, and eating, to satirize those who might call into question the poetics of revolution he is endorsing. As a mechanism of becoming, the verses gleefully illustrate Bakhtin’s notion of the grotesque body swallowing and being swallowed by the world. “Historia de una poética,” in its grotesqueness and process of becoming, with its crass humor and El Salvadoran dialect, is an exemplar of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque in poetry.
As a final note on the grotesque body and the process of becoming, I turn to Dalton’s poem about headaches: “Es bello ser comunista, / aunque cause muchos dolores de cabeza…/ Bajo el capitalismo nos duele la cabeza / y nos arrancan la cabeza…/ En la construcción socialista / planificamos el dolor de cabeza…/ El comunismo será, entre otras cosas, /Una aspirina del tamaño del sol” (El adversario cubano n. pag.) [“It’s great to be a communist / although it gives you many headaches…/ Under capitalism our heads hurt / In the construction of socialism / we plan for the headache / which doesn’t alleviate it – quite the contrary. / Communism will be, among other things, / an aspirin the size of the sun” (Beverley 84)]. With humor and the carnivalesque driving his poetics of revolution, Dalton has found a cure for the closed-ness of the classical body, starting with the head: “el comunismo, una aspirina del tamaño del sol.”
I have sought here to explore the applications of Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque to the poetics of revolution. Earlier I described how Yevtushenko, the civic tribune of the Soviet Union, uses humor with the permission of the State. In his poetry, humor and aspects of the grotesque serve as release valves for political dissent, effectively maintaining hegemonic power structures. His willing participation, while perhaps ideologically motivated, earned him a great deal of scorn. In this sense, he embodies Denith’s “approv’d fool,” substantiating his criticism of Bakhtin’s concept.
Dalton, in contrast, uses his poetry to disrupt hegemony, in this case, the oligarchy of El Salvador. As the poet soldier Mayakovsky and Yevtushenko envisioned, he appropriates sarcasm, irreverence, and grotesque realism to overcome the second difficulty Dentith described in Bakhtin’s theory, his reliance on the novel as the most suitable form for comic resistance to hegemony. Dalton has shown that poetry, even more than the novel, can give voice to the folk humor of the carnival; with its carnivalesque humor and grotesque realism, his work illustrates its subversive power in precisely the way Bakhtin envisioned.
Because Dalton was killed before the end of the El Salvadoran Civil War, the question of the relevance, and even feasibility, of a poetics of revolution in post-revolutionary contexts lingers. María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo and David Sartorius allude to this in the concluding remarks to their article on revolution, noting that “we respond to obituaries for revolution dating from the 1990s with Beverley’s — and Dalton’s — resolve: to continue to make revolution a useful political and aesthetic concept for the future. Revolution will be an aspirin the size of the sun” (229). Similarly, I find an answer in the final stanzas of a poem by Ernesto Cardenal, “Ofensiva final” [“Final Offensive”] ostensibly dedicated to Leonel Rugama: “La luna era la tierra. El pedazo nuestro de la tierra. / Y llegamos. / Ya empieza Rugama, a ser de los pobres; / la tierra ésta / (con su luna)” (2). [“The moon was the earth. Our piece of the earth. / And we got there. / Now it begins, Rugama, to belong to the poor; / this earth / (with its moon)” (3)]. This poem could have been written for Roque Dalton. His poetics of revolution led to the moon – “our piece of the earth” and the construction of socialism. The revolution may or may not have been won in Central America, but the work of becoming has only just begun. It is always beginning; as Bakhtin observed, the process of becoming is never complete.
1 According to their website (www.casadelasamericas.org/casa), la Casa de las Américas is “concebida como un espacio de encuentro y diálogo de distintas perspectivas en un clima de ideas renovadoras, la Casa de las Américas fomenta el intercambio con instituciones y personas de todo el mundo. Cuando todos los gobiernos de la América Latina, con la excepción del de México, rompieron relaciones con Cuba, la institución contribuyó a impedir la destrucción total de los lazos culturales entre la Isla y el resto del continente. La Casa difundió la obra de la Revolución y propició la visita a Cuba de intelectuales que se pusieron en contacto con la nueva realidad del país [“conceived as a space of encounter and dialogue with different perspectives en a climate of innovative ideas, la Casa de las Américas fosters exchange with institutions and people from all over the world. When all of the governments of Latin America, with the exception of Mexico, broke off relations with Cuba, the institution contributed to the preservation of cultural ties between the Island and the rest of the continent. La Casa has disseminated the work of the revolution and supports visits to Cuba by intellectuals to put them in contact with the new reality of the country”]. Translation mine.
2 Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, or Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front.
3 All English translations of Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Vladimir Mayakovsky come from George Reavey’s translation and bilingual editions. Bibliographic information can be found in the Works Cited. For Roque Dalton and critical texts in Spanish, all translations are mine, except where noted with a parenthetical citation and page number.
“Así lo describe el poeta cubano Pablo Armando Fernández.” Roque Dalton Archivo Digital. 15 October 2013. Web. 10 December 2013.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Rabelais and His World.” Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The M.I.T. Press, 1968.
Beverley, John. “Poems: Roque Dalton, John Beverley, Edward Baker.” Social Text 5 (1982): 74-85.
Billig, Micheal. “Freud and the language of humor.” The Psychologist 15.9 (2002): 452 – 455. Web. 12 December 2013.
Cardenal, Ernesto. “I remember Roque Dalton.” Trans. Hardie St. Martin. In Small Hours of the Night. Willimantic, Connecticut: Curbstone Press, 1996.
—. Vuelos de Victoria. Flights of Victory. Trans. Mark Zimmerman. Maryknoll, New York: Curbstone Press, 1985.
Conquest, Robert. “The Politics of Poetry: The Sad Case of Yevgeny Yevtushenko.” New York Times Magazine 30 Sept (1973): 16, 17, 56, 58-60, 62, 64, 69-70. ProQuest. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.
Dalton, Roque. Historia y poemas de una lucha de clases. Mexico City, D.F.: Ocean Sur, 2010.
—. “Como tú.” Trans. Jack Hirschman. The Kasama Project. n.d. Web. 7 December 2013.
—. “El comunismo, una aspirina tamaño del sol.” El adversario cubano. 30 April 2013. Web. 14 December 2013.
Dentith, Simon. “Bakhtin’s Carnival.” In Bakhtinian Thought. Ed. Simon Dentith. London: Rutledge, 1995. 65 – 87.
Dralyuk, Boris. “Evgenii Evtushenko’s Civic-Minded Lyricism in ‘Babii Yar.’” Toronto Slavic Quarterly 43 (2013): 24 – 39.
Fainsod, Merle. “Soviet Youth and the Problem of the Generations.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 108.5 (1964): 429-436.
Houk, Guy. “Erofeev and Yevtushenko.” In Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow-Petushki: Critical Perspectives. Ed. Karen Ryan-Hayes. New York: Peter Lang, 1997. 179-195.
Macal, Mario Flores. “Casa De Las Américas y Roque Dalton.” Anuario De Estudios Centroamericanos 3 (1977): 349-350.
Mayakovsky, Vladimir. The Bedbug and Selected Poetry. Trans. Max Hayward and George Reavey. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1975.
Prieto, José Manuel. “Heberto Padilla, the First Dissident (of the Cuban Revolution).” Trans. Jorge Castillo. In Caviar with Rum: Cuba-USSR and the Post-Soviet Experience. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012: 141 – 154.
“Roque Dalton.” American Academy of Poets. Web. 4 December 2013.
Rudy, Peter. “The Soviet Russian Literary Scene in 1961 – A Mild Permafrost Thaw.” The Modern Language Journal 46.6, 1962: 245-254.
Saldaña-Portillo, María J. and Sartorius, David. “Revolution.” Social Texts 100 27.3, 2009: 223 – 229.
Weeks, Mark. “Milan Kundera: A Modern History of Humor Amid the Comedy of History.” Journal of Modern Literature 28:3 (2005): 130-148.
Yevtushenko, Yevgeny. The Poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 1953 to 1965. Trans. George Reavey. New York: October House, 1965.