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Ernesto Cardenal


  • 2009 & 2007 Nobel Prize Nominee |

  • 2009 Pablo Neruda Award |

  • 2008 Int'l. Poetry Award Mexico |

  • Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandel

Ernesto Cardenal, b.1925, widely acknowledged as Latin America's greatest living poet, and twice nominated for the Nobel Prize, continues to craft works of striking beauty with his latest "The Origin of Species" (TTUP, 2011) recently featured on Charlie Rose.

The author of more than thirty-five books, many of which have been translated into multiple languages, Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1965. His studies with Trappist monk Thomas Merton and his involvement with the Sandinista movement in his home country have informed his writing and political activism. He lives in Managua, Nicaragua, where he is vice president of Casa de los Tres Mundos, a literary and arts cultural organization. Ernesto Cardenal is recognized as one of the most urgent and eloquent voice in a country of poets and revolutionaries, a cultural icon whose life and writings have altered history, and a major, if not the major, current poet of The Americas. At the moment his life memoirs and two new books of poetry are being edited. Also a book of poetry by children with cancer edited and introduced by Cardenal ( a result of his poetry workshops with the children)is in the making.

From the Poetry Foundation:


Ernesto Cardenal is a major poet of the Spanish language well known in the United States as a spokesman for justice and self-determination in Latin America. Cardenal, who recognizes that poetry and art are closely tied to politics, used his poetry to protest the encroachments of outsiders in Nicaragua and supported the revolution that overthrew Somoza in 1979. Once the cultural minister of his homeland, Cardenal spends much of his time as "a kind of international ambassador," noted Richard Elman in the Nation.

Victor M. Valle, writing in the Los Angeles Times Calendar, cited Cardenal's statement, "There has been a great cultural rebirth in Nicaragua since the triumph of the revolution. A saving of all of our culture, that which represents our national identity, especially our folklore." Literacy and poetry workshops established throughout the "nation of poets," as it has been known since the early twentieth century, are well attended by people whose concerns had been previously unheard. Most workshops are led by government-paid instructors in cultural centers, while others convene in police stations, army barracks, and workplaces such as sugar mills, Valle reports. In these sessions, Romantic and modern poetry is considered below standard; Cardenal also denigrates socialist realism, which he said "comes from the Stalinist times that required that art be purely political propaganda." The "greatest virtue" of Cardenal's own poems, stated a Times Literary Supplement reviewer, "is the indirectness of Cardenal's social criticism, which keeps stridency consistently at bay." In addition, said the reviewer, Cardenal's poems "are memorable and important both for their innovations in technique and for their attitudes." In this way, they are like the works of Ezra Pound, whose aesthetic standards Cardenal promotes.

Review contributor Isabel Fraire demonstrated that there are many similarities between Cardenal's poetry and Pound's. Like Pound, Cardenal borrows the short, epigrammatic form from the masters of Latin poetry Catullus and Martial, whose works he has translated. Cardenal also borrows the canto form invented by Pound to bring "history into poetry" in a manner that preserves the flavor of the original sources—a technique Pablo Neruda employed with success. Cardenal's use of the canto form "is much more cantabile " than Pound's Cantos, said Fraire. "We get passages of a sustained, descriptive lyricism ... where the intense beauty and harmony of nature or of a certain social order or life style are presented." Pound and Cardenal develop similar themes: "the corrupting effect of moneymaking as the overriding value in a society; the importance of precision and truthfulness in language; the degradation of human values in the world which surrounds us; [and] the search through the past (or, in Cardenal's poetry, in more 'primitive' societies, a kind of contemporary past) for better world-models." Fraire also pointed out an important difference between the two: "Cardenal is rooted in a wider cultural conscience. Where Pound seems to spring up disconnected from his own contemporary cultural scene and to be working against it, Cardenal is born into a ready-made cultural context and shared political conscience. Cardenal's past is common to all Latin Americans. His present is likewise common to all Latin Americans. He speaks to those who are ready and willing to hear him and are likely to agree on a great many points."

Cardenal's early lyrics express feelings of love, social criticism, political passion, and the quest for a transcendent spiritual life. Following his conversion to Christianity in 1956, Cardenal studied to become a priest in Gethsemani, Kentucky, with Thomas Merton, the scholar, poet, and Trappist monk. While studying with Merton, Cardenal committed himself to the practice of nonviolence. He was not allowed to write secular poetry during this period, but kept notes in a journal that later became the poems in Gethsemani, Ky. and the spiritual diary in prose, Vida en el amor.Cardenal's stay in Kentucky was troubled by illness; he finished his studies in Cuernevaca, Mexico, where he was ordained in 1965. While there, he wrote El estrecho dudoso and other epic poems that discuss Central America's history.

Poems collected in With Walker in Nicaragua and Other Early Poems, 1949-1954look at the history of Nicaragua which touches upon the poet's ancestry. During the 1800s, the William Walker expedition from the United States tried to make Nicaragua subservient to the Southern Confederacy. According to legend, a defector from that expedition married into Cardenal's family line. Incorporating details from Ephraim George Squier's chronicles of that period, Cardenal's poem "With Walker in Nicaragua" "is tender toward the invaders without being sentimental," Elman observed. "This is political poetry not because it has a particular rhetorical stance but because it evokes the distant as well as the more recent historical roots of the conflict in Central America," Harris Schiff related in the American Book Review. The poet identifies with a survivor of the ill-fated expedition in order to express the contrast between the violent attitudes of the outsiders and the beauty of the tropical land they hoped to conquer. "The theme of the gringo in a strange land," as Elman put it, an essentially political topic, is developed frequently in Cardenal's work.

Later poems become increasingly explicit regarding Cardenal's political sympathies. "Zero Hour," for example, is his "single greatest historical poem about gringoism, a patriotic epic of sorts," said Elman. The poem's subject is the assassination of revolutionary leader Cesar Augusto Sandino, who used guerilla tactics against the United States Marines to force them to leave Nicaragua in 1933. "It's a poem of heroic evocation in which the death of a hero is also seen as the rebirth of nationhood: when the hero dies, green herbs rise where he has fallen. It makes innovative use of English and Spanglais and is therefore hard to translate, but ... it is very much a work of national consciousness and unique poetic expression," Elman related.

Moving further back in time to reclaim a common heritage for his countrymen, Cardenal recaptures the quality of pre-Columbian life in Homage to the American Indians. These descriptions of Mayan, Incan, and Nahuatl ways of life present their attractiveness in comparison to the social organization of the present. In these well-crafted and musical poems written at the end of the 1960s, the poet praised "a way of life which celebrates peace above war and spiritual strength above personal wealth. One has a strong sense when reading Cardenal that he is using the American Indian as a vehicle to celebrate those values which are most important to him as a well-educated Trappist monk who has dedicated himself to a life of spiritual retreat," F. Whitney Jones remarked in the Southern Humanities Review. That the poems are didactic in no way impedes their effectiveness, say reviewers, who credit the power of the verses to Cardenal's mastery of poetic technique.

The use of Biblical rhetoric and prosody energizes much of Cardenal's poetry. El estrecho dudoso, like the Bible, "seeks to convince men that history contains lessons which have a transcendent significance," James J. Alstrum maintained in Journal of Spanish Studies: Twentieth Century. Poems in Salmos, written in the 1960s, translated and published as The Psalms of Struggle and Liberation, echo the forms and the content of the Old Testament psalms. Cardenal's psalms are updated to speak to the concerns of the oppressed in the twentieth century. "The vocabulary is contemporary but the ... sheer wonder at the workings of the world, is biblical," Jack Riemer observed in Commonweal. "Equally memorable are those Psalms in which Cardenal expresses his horror at the cruelty and the brutality of human life. His anguished outcries over the rapaciousness of the greedy and the viciousness of the dictators are the work of a man who has lived through some of the atrocities of this century."

As the conflict between the Nicaraguan people and the Somoza government escalated, Cardenal became convinced that without violence, the revolution would not succeed. "In 1970 he visited Cuba and experienced what he described as 'a second conversion' which led him to formulate his own philosophy of Christian Marxism. In 1977 the younger Somoza destroyed the community at Solentiname and Cardenal became the field chaplain for the Sandinista National Liberation Front," reported Robert Hass in the Washington Post Book World. Poems Cardenal wrote during that "very difficult time in his country"—collected in Zero Hour and Other Documentary Poems —are less successful than the earlier and later work, says Hass, since "there is a tendency in them to make of the revolution a symbol that answers all questions." Some reviewers have found the resulting combination of Biblical rhetoric and Marxist revolutionary zeal intimidating. For example, Jascha Kessler, speaking on KUSC-FM radio in Los Angeles, California, in 1981, commented, "It is clearly handy to be a trained priest, and to have available for one's poetry the voices of Amos, Isaiah, Hosea and Jeremiah, and to mix prophetic vision with the perspectives of violent revolutionary Marxist ideology. It makes for an incendiary brew indeed. It is not nice; it is not civilized; it is not humane or sceptical or reasonable. But it is all part of the terrible heritage of Central Latin America." Also commenting on Zero Hour and Other Documentary Poems, American Book Review contributor Harold Jaffe suggested, "Although the manifest reality of Cardenal's Central America is grim, its future—which to Cardenal is as 'real' as its present—appears eminently hopeful. Furious or revolted as Cardenal is over this or that dreadful inequity, he never loses hope. His love, his faith in the disadvantaged, his great good humor, his enduring belief that communism and Christ's communion are at root the same—these extraordinary convictions resound throughout the volume."

"Though Cardenal sees no opposition between Marxism and the radical gospel, neither is he a Moscow-line communist," Mary Anne Rygiel explained in Southern Humanities Review. Rygiel cited the poem "Las tortugas" (title means "The Turtles") to demonstrate that Cardenal's reference to "communism" as the order of nature might better be understood as "communalism," a social organization of harmonious interdependence founded on spiritual unity. The poet-priest's social vision stems from his understanding of "the kingdom of God," Lawrence Ferlinghetti noted inSeven Days in Nicaragua Libre. "And with [Cardenal's] vision of a primitive Christianity, it was logical for him to add that in his view the Revolution would not have succeeded until there were no more masters and no more slaves. 'The Gospels,' he said, 'foresee a classless society. They foresee also the withering away of the state' [Ferlinghetti's emphasis]." In the 1980s, Pope John Paul II reprimanded Cardenal for promoting a liberation theology that the prelate found divergent from Roman Catholicism. Alstrum notes, however, that El estrecho dudoso "reaffirms the Judeo-Christian belief that there is an inexorable progression of historical events which point toward the ultimate consummation of the Divine Word. Cardenal himself views his poetry as merely the medium for his hopeful message of the transformation of the old order into a new and more just society in which the utopian dreams and Christian values of men ... can finally be realized." Cardenal founded the Christian commune Solentiname on an island in Lake Nicaragua near the Costa Rican border to put that dream into practice.

Cardenal's work of several decades reaches its zenith in two collections focusing on his primary subjects: American Indians and Christian Marxism. Golden UFOs: The Indian Poems/Los ovnis de oro: poemas indios gathers Cardenal's poetry on North, South, and Central American Indians placed against the background of his Christian-Marxist viewpoint. This reveals "nothing less than an original mythology closely tied to a modern poetics," as Terry O. Taylor noted in World Literature Today. Cosmic Canticle unifies Cardenal's cantos written over three decades into a modern epic poem. It covers Nicaraguan and world history from the "Big Bang" through the present-day as Cardenal contemplates political leaders, oppressed peoples, capitalism, and the Nicaraguan Revolution, among other topics.

Some critics feel that the political nature of Cardenal's poetry precludes its appreciation by a sophisticated literary audience. Reviewers responded to the 1966 volume El estrecho dudoso, for example, as an attack on the Somoza dynasty while neglecting "the intricate artistry with which Cardenal has intertwined the past and present through myth and history while employing both modern and narrative techniques in his poem," asserted Alstrum. Others point out that Cardenal's work gains importance to the extent that it provides valuable insights into the thinking of his countrymen. Cardenal's poetry, which he read to audiences in the United States during the seventies, was perhaps more informative and accessible than other reports from that region, Kessler concluded in 1981, soon after Nicaraguan revolutionaries ousted the Somoza regime. "It may well be that Cardenal's poems offer us a very clear entrance into the mentality of the men we are facing in the ... bloody guerilla warfare of Central America," Kessler suggested. More recently, a New Pages reviewer commented, "We can learn some contemporary history, [and] discover the feelings and thoughts of the people who were involved in Nicaragua's revolution by reading Cardenal's poems. And once we know what the revolution 'felt' like, we'll be a lot smarter, I believe, than most ... who ... make pronouncements about Nicaragua's threat to the free world."

“Cardenal epitomizes what makes literature live in Central America today.”Booklist

“One of the world’s major poets.”Robert Bly


“One of the most influential (and controversial) poets of his generation.”Choice


“A kind of international ambassador.”Robert Hass


“Cardenal’s poetry is impure, defiantly, in that it unites political ugliness and the beauty of imaginative vision.”Richard Elman, in the Nation


“Cardenal is a major epic-historical poet, in the grand lineage of Central American prophet Rubén Darío.”Allen Ginsberg

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