Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: Killing Poets

by lizard

In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.
—Orwell

The role of the poet in Latin America is different than the states, especially during the seventies, when ideological clashes south of the border took countless casualties, including the poets Pablo Neruda and Roque Dalton.

That first name probably rings a few bells. Neruda is a well known poet, thought to have died of prostate cancer, but a story published just a few days ago calls that into question (NYT):

Forty years after the death of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, a judge has issued an order for police to make a portrait of and find the man who prosecutors allege may have poisoned him.

Neruda’s death was attributed at the time to prostate cancer but the case’s plaintiff lawyer, Eduardo Contreras, says there is new evidence showing he was likely murdered by agents of dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Contreras said Dr. Sergio Draper, who originally testified that he was with Neruda at the time of his death on Sept. 23, 1973, is now saying there was another doctor named “Price” with the poet.

But Price did not appear in any of the hospital’s records as a treating doctor and Draper said he never saw him again after the day he left him with Neruda. Moreover Price’s description of a blond, blue eyed, tall man, matches Michael Townley, the CIA double agent who worked with Chilean secret police under Pinochet.

Now that’s respect. Killing Neruda, if true, exemplifies the actual weakness of the perpetrators and the larger forces they represent.

In the case of Roque Dalton, the forces that led to his execution came from the rebel left. Here’s a recent article exploring the new details of his death:

The death of Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton in 1975 is one of the great tragedies of Latin American literature and of the Latin American left. And it was a tragedy the left inflicted on itself.

Dalton had joined one of the armed rebel groups fighting against El Salvador’s dictatorship. He had, by then, already established an international reputation as a writer. Most of his best writing came during his exile in Cuba, where he wrote seven books of poetry, and “Miguel Marmol,” a biography of a 1930s Salvadoran revolutionary that’s one of the great, underappreciated masterpieces of Latin American historical writing.

Dalton was executed by his own rebel movement on Mother’s Day in 1975 — he was accused of being a spy for both the CIA and Cuba. This month, Dalton was officially incorporated into the pantheon of El Salvador’s national cultural heroes: El Salvador’s new, center-left government declared May 14 as National Poetry Day in Dalton’s honor.

At the same time, new details have emerged about Dalton’s killing, and a more complete portrait of the poet’s final hours can finally be told.

The threat of poetry is the threat of truth in a time of universal deceit. The threat of truth is also why Bradley Manning is facing the possibility of life in prison.


  1. 1 Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: Iranian Poet Executed | 4&20 blackbirds

    […] wrote a post last June about killing poets. In that post I looked at allegations that Pablo Neruda was poisoned by agents of Pinochet’s […]

  2. 2 152 Poetry Posts to Celebrate April, National Poetry Month | 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Killing Poets […]




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