Ernesto Cardenal 1925–
Nicaraguan poet and nonfiction writer.
A poet and Roman Catholic clergyman, Cardenal is a leading figure in the revolutionary literature of Latin America. Frequently compared to such distinguished authors as Ezra Pound and Pablo Neruda, Cardenal composes most of his poetry in a montage style that unites political ideology with theological reflection. His work critiques the values and ideology of modern capitalism in an effort to initiate societal change.
Born in Granada, Nicaragua, Cardenal studied philosophy and letters at Mexico's National University and later attended Columbia University in New York City. During his college years, Cardenal composed love poems wherein he frequently incorporated news clippings or historical documents. He returned to his native country in the early 1950s and became involved in subversive activities directed against the regime of President Anastazio Somoza. After Somoza's murder in 1956, Cardenal experienced a spiritual conversion and entered the Trappist Monastery of Gethsemani, in Kentucky. Illness forced Cardenal to leave the monastery in 1957; two years later, he entered the Benedictine community at Cuernavaca, Mexico, and composed Gethsemani, Ky. A year after his ordination to the priesthood in 1965, Cardenal founded Solentiname, a Christian commune devoted to a life of manual labor, prayer, and scholarship. In 1977 the Nicaraguan government destroyed Solentiname, forcing Cardenal into exile in Costa Rica. When the Marxist Sandinistas seized control of Nicaragua in 1979, Cardenal was appointed Minister of Culture; however, Sandinistan human rights atrocities and ecclesiastical disapproval eventually forced him to resign.
Cardenal's verse explores themes such as spiritual love and the quest for the transcendental life. Gethsemani, Ky., for example, espouses a lyrical interpretation of the universe as having been formed by the outpouring of God's mercy. Likewise, El estrecho dudoso combines biblical rhetoric with prosody to show readers that history has an anagogical dimension. Echoing the form and content of the Old Testament psalms, the poems in Salmos frequently relate humanity's joy in beholding creation. In addition to religious motifs, Cardenal's poetry also manifests strong social and political concerns. Many of his works, including With Walker in Nicaragua and Other Early Poems, 1949-1954, examine Nicaragua's history, elucidating the
roots of conflict in Central America. Critics have found that Cardenal's later verse is markedly more explicit regarding the author's political sympathies. The poems in Zero Hour, for instance, mix archaic biblical prophetic teaching with contemporary Marxist ideology. The dialectic between the past and the present is similarly explored in Homage to the American Indians; recapturing the quality of pre-Columbian life, Cardenal's descriptions of the psychic wholeness of extinct Mayan, Incan, and Nahuatl civilizations are contrasted with the superficiality of modern imperialism.
Critical reaction to Cardenal's work has been mixed. Some reviewers have denounced his poetry as didactic and propagandistic; many have found his Marxist treatises incompatible with his Catholic beliefs, yet others have praised the prophetic insight of his writing. Commentators have pointed out that Cardenal's poetry bears many similarities to Ezra Pound's verse. Like Pound, he borrowed the short, epigrammatic form from Catullus and Martial, masters of Latin poetry, whose works Cardenal has translated. Critics have also maintained that in his use of factual information, crosscutting, and contrast, his poetic technique resembles that of documentary filmmakers. His complex narrative El estrecho dudoso, for example, relates the history of destruction in Central America; through comparison and juxtaposed images, however, critics note that the poem becomes a commentary on contemporary political and cultural exploitation.
Ansias lengua de la poesía nueva nicaragüense 1948
Gethsemani, Ky. 1960
Horo 0 1960
Epigramas: Poemas 1961
Oración por Marilyn Monroe y otros poemas [Prayer for Marilyn Monroe and Other Poems] 1965
El estrecho dudoso 1966
Antología de Ernesto Cardenal 1967
Salmos [The Psalms of Struggle and Liberation] 1967
Homenaje a los indios americanos [Homage to the American Indians] 1974
Poesía escogida 1975
Apocalypse, and Other Poems 1977
Zero Hour and Other Documentary Poems 1980
Tocar el cielo: poesias 1981
Antología: Ernesto Cardenal 1983
With Walker in Nicaragua and Other Early Poems, 1949-1954 1985
From Nicaragua with Love: Poems 1979-1986 1986
Golden UFOs: The Indian Poems 1992
Other Major Works
Vida en el amor [To Live is to Love] (meditations) 1970
En cuba [To Cuba] (nonfiction) 1972
El Evangelio en Solentiname [The Gospel in Solentiname] (dialogues) 1975
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SOURCE: "Cardenal's Poetic Style: Cinematic Parallels," in Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos, Vol. XI, No. 1, 1986, pp. 119-29.
[In the following essay, Valdés discusses the cinematic images and techniques Cardenal utilizes in his poem "Oráculo sobre Managua."]
In commenting on the ethical purpose and art of the poet, Cardenal writes in his poem "Epístola a monseñor Casaldáliga":
These lines declare even as they demonstrate a belief in the avoidance of highly figurative language, and they suggest the reasons for this belief. Indeed, the reader of Hora 0, Salmos, and the poetry that follows will be struck by the abundant use of literal, commonplace details and the paucity of figurative language. The details include historical and current events, ordinary household objects, commercials, well-known biblical references, the names of some of Cardenal's friends, and familiar, twentieth-century political figures, all having an existence apart from the subjective world of the poet, all verifiable, as it were, in external reality. This is not to say that the poetry of Cardenal is devoid of similes, metaphors, or symbols. One need only turn to the evocative, intimate poems of Gethsemani, Ky. to find several examples of figures of speech. In Cardenal's poetic work as a whole, however, one discovers not only the predominance of literal images but an ever-increasing use...
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SOURCE: "Political Poetry and the Example of Ernesto Cardenal," in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 13, No. 3, Spring, 1987, pp. 648-71.
[In the following essay, Gibbons places Cardenal within the context of Latin American politics and examines the major themes of his political poetry.]
Perhaps the subject of political poetry is so inextricable from specific poems and poets at particular historical moments that one can discuss only examples. Ernesto Cardenal is an interesting one, not least because the cause for which he long spoke, the release of the Nicaraguan peasantry from the oppressive burdens of economic exploitation and arbitrary rule by force, was victorious; the Sandinista victory gave him an opportunity, or an obligation, to become a poet of praise and victory after he had been a poet of compassion and wrath:
In Latin America Cardenal is generally regarded as an enduring poet. He brought a recognizably Latin American material into his poetry, and he introduced to Spanish-language poetry in general such poetic techniques as textual collage, free verse lines shaped in Poundian fashion, and, especially, a diction that is concrete and detailed, textured with proper names and the names of things in preference to the accepted poetic language, which was more abstract, general, and vaguely symbolic. But what is notable in Spanish-language poetry is not only Cardenal's "craft," in the sense...
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SOURCE: "Tradition and Originality in the Denunciatory Salmos of Ernesto Cardenal," in La Chispa '87: Selected Proceedings, edited by Gilbert Paolini, Tulane University, 1987, pp. 15-22.
[In the essay below, Barrow provides a stylistic and thematic analysis of Cardenal's psalms.]
What Anita Brookner has said of Germaine Greer might be applied to the contemporary Latin American poet, Ernesto Cardenal. He is like Delacroix's portrait of liberty, marching forward with his banner, rallying the troops in his commune of Nuestra Señora de Solentiname, doomed to the eminence of a figurehead as the current Nicaraguan Minister of Culture and chained to the concept of permanent struggle. He has now given up writing, however, in order to dedicate himself to ministerial duties since, at least for this Catholic priest and Marxist poet who was radicalised by his visit to Cuba in 1970, the Revolution is the same thing as the Kingdom of God. Cardenal embraces the plight of the poor in Central America as well as the sufferings of the Nicaraguan people under the Somoza dynasty. He attacks issues of judicial corruption in politics, torture by the secret police, deployment of the military in furtherance of domestic political matters, American influence in Latin American affairs, and the threat of nuclear holocaust. His poetry embodies some of the most contentious issues of our times, and Robert Pring-Mill claims...
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SOURCE: "Ernesto Cardenal's El estrecho dudoso: Reading/Re-writing History," in Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos, Vol. XV, No. 1, 1990, pp. 111-21.
[In the following essay, Williams analyzes the epic structure and subject matter of El estrecho dudoso, maintaining that the poem is both secular and religious.]
Ernesto Cardenal's El estrecho dudoso (1966) is a book-length poem of over 3,000 lines. Divided into twenty-five cantos, the text's primary focus is on the historical events linked to the area now generally referred to as Mesoamérica, with a specific (but not exclusive) interest in Nicaragua. The poem concentrates on the first one hundred years of activity following the arrival of the Spanish on the American continent. It opens with Columbus' fourth voyage and his discovery of Terra Firma near the present Cape of Honduras in 1502, and concludes with a cataclysmic finale which narrates the destruction of the City of León, Nicaragua, by the volcano Momotombo in 1603.
The most remarkable feature of El estrecho dudoso is that it is constructed almost entirely from fragments of texts gleaned from an array of historical documents dating from the period in which the story takes place (1500-1650). The poet's use of history is not gratuitous; it serves the purpose of constructing a discourse which appeals to the reader as "authoritative" and evokes the...
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SOURCE: "Cardenal's Treatment of Amerindian Cultures in Homenaje a los indios americanos," in Renaissance and Modern Studies, Vol. 35, 1992, pp. 52-74.
[In the following essay, Pring-Mill traces the development of Cardenal's life and poetry, and relates this growth and change to his portrayal of Native American peoples in Homenaje a los indios americanos.]
In any examination of the ways in which the Americas have been perceived, and of the struggle to make sense of the continent and come to terms with the effects of cultural change and conflict, the range of images of its indigenous peoples found in literature is an obvious area for scrutiny. How have these been treated, and how has their 'treatment' helped to shape our present-day awareness of the identities of different Amerindian cultures? 'Treatment'—as used in the title of this article—is not merely a matter of 'attitudes' or 'views expressed', but also a matter of the 'modes of representation' which a writer employs (starting with his choice of genre, but including such stylistic features as rhetorical devices, register, symbolism, and tone). Hitherto, more critical attention has been devoted to the treatment of indigenous peoples and cultures in prose fiction than in poetry, yet poetry can offer different kinds of insight. It should be read in the light of its original context, however, and the reader must guard against the rash but...
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Cohen, Jonathan. Introduction to With Walker in Nicaragua and Other Early Poems, 1949-1954, by Ernesto Cardenal, translated by Jonathan Cohen, pp. 3-17. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1984.
Provides an overview of Cardenal's life and work.
Elias, Edward. "Prophecy of Liberation: The Poetry of Ernesto Cardenal." In Poetic Prophecy in Western Literature, edited by Jan Wojcik and Raymond-Jean Frontain, pp. 174-85. London: Associated University Presses, 1984.
Examines how Cardenal communicates a prophetic message by mixing historical documents, the language of pre-Columbian civilizations, biblical quotations, and colloquial Spanish in his poetry.
Pring-Mill, Robert. Introduction to Marilyn Monroe and Other Poems, by Ernesto Cardenal, translated by Robert Pring-Mill, pp. 7-32. London: Search Press, 1975.
Outlines Cardenal's life and career, focusing on his poetry's changing style and content.
Randall, Margaret. "Talking with Ernesto Cardenal." Fiction International 16, No. 2 (Summer-Fall 1986): 47-60.
Interview in which Cardenal discusses his literary influences, the Nicaraguan revolutionary struggle, and the relation of poetry to...
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