Nicolás Guillén 1902–1989
(Full name Nicolás Cristobal Guillén y Batista) Cuban poet, journalist, and editor.
Guillén is known as one of Cuba's finest poets and as an important figure in contemporary West Indian literature. Named National Poet of Cuba by Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in 1961, Guillén, who was committed to Marxist ideology and the Cuban Revolution, chronicled the turbulent social and political history of his native land. He is also credited as one of the first poets to affirm and celebrate the black Cuban experience and is noted for introducing the son, an African-Cuban dance rhythm, to literary audiences. Guillén's poetry has been translated into more than thirty languages, and he has been nominated numerous times for the Nobel Prize for literature.
Guillén, a mulatto from the Cuban provincial middle class, was born in Camagüey to Nicolás Guillén y Urra and Argelia Batista y Arrieta, both of whom were descendants of Africans and Spaniards. Guillén's father, a journalist and Liberal senator, was assassinated in a political skirmish in 1917. According to Vera M. Kutzinski, after his father's death, "the young Guillén became increasingly interested in poetry and journalism," and his poems were first published in the journal Camagüey Gráfico in 1919. Guillén graduated from high school in 1920 and then attended the University of Havana, where he planned to study law. Guillén left school after a year, however, and founded the literary magazine Lis with his brother Francisco while also writing for various Cuban newspapers and magazines. In 1937, Guillén joined the Communist Party, campaigning for various political offices throughout the 1940s. He became president of the Cuban National Union of Writers and Artists in 1961, a position he held for twentyfive years. His honors include the Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet Union in 1954 and the Cuban Order of José Marti in 1981. Guillén died after a long illness in 1989. He was given a state fianeral with military honors.
Major Works of Poetry
The majority of Guillén's poems are informed by his African and Spanish heritage, often combining the colloquialisms and rhythms of Havana's black districts with the formal structure and language of traditional Spanish verse to address the injustices of imperialism, capitalism, and
racism. In his first acclaimed volume of poetry, Motives de son (1930), Guillén utilized the rhythmic patterns of the son to evoke the energetic flavor of black life in and around Havana. Guillén expanded his focus in his next volume, Sóngoro cosongo (1931), to include poems depicting the lives of all Cubans, with emphasis on the importance of mulatto culture in Cuban history. Following the demise of the corrupt government headed by Gerardo Machado in 1933 and the increasing industrial and political presence of the United States in Cuba, Guillén began to write poetry with overtly political implications. In West Indies, Ltd. (1934), a collection of somber poems imbued with anxiety and frustration, he decried the social and economic conditions of the Caribbean poor. Guillén attacked imperialism through his recurring description of the region as a vast, profitable factory exploited by foreign nations. The poet's commitment to social change grew when he traveled to Spain in 1937 to cover the Spanish Civil War for Mediodía magazine and subsequently participated in the antifascist Second International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture. That year he joined the Cuban Communist Party and produced an extended narrative poem chronicling the Spanish Civil War, España: Poema en cuatro angustias y una esperanza (1937). In 1937, Guillén also published Cantos para soldados y sortes para turistas, a volume of poetry denouncing the escalating military presence in Cuban society. He employed biting satire in poems that contrast the darkness and squalor of Cuba's ghettos with the garish atmosphere of downtown tourist establishments. Guillén spent much of the 1940s and 1950s in exile in Europe and South America during the height of the Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar regime in Cuba. His works of this period reflect his opposition to Batista's repressive politics and denounce racial segregation in the United States. The poems in La paloma de vuelo popular (1958), favor revolution, praising the activities of such political figures as Castro and Che Guevara. Guillén returned to Cuba following the Cuban Revolution and Batista's expulsion in 1959, and in 1964 he published Tengo [Tengo]. In this volume, Guillén celebrated the triumph of the revolution and the abolition of racial and economic discrimination. In El gran zoo (1967; (¡Patria ο Muerte! The Great Zoo and Other Poems), Guillén drew from the bestiary tradition of such writers as Aesop, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Pablo Neruda to present people, places, and institutions as animals in order to metaphorically address social issues. La rueda dentada (1972), in which Guillén created new forms and adapted old ones to the changing social and political situation in Cuba, emphasizes social responsibility and addresses subjects not treated in the years before the revolution. El diario que a diario (1972) combines poetry and journalism to ironically and satirically examine what Guillén considered the injustice, immorality, and absurdity of Cuban colonial society before the Cuban Revolution.
Many commentators have distinguished between Guillén's early poesía negroide, or Afro-Cuban influenced poems, and the political poems he produced after converting to communism. However, because of Guillén's broad range of subject matter and his use of various poetic forms throughout his career, critics have found his work difficult to classify. As Richard Jackson noted, "Some critics have focused on Guillén as an exponent of Afro-Cuban poetry while others have viewed him as a poet having little to do with Africa. Some perceive a black aesthetic in his poetry; others say he is the most Spanish of Cuban poets. Some see him as a poet who stopped writing black poetry; others declare that he never wrote black poetry at all." Although early critics tended to label Guillén a black or political poet and related his poetry almost exclusively to political life in Cuba, contemporary scholars have begun to focus on Guillén's artistry and aesthetic concerns, commenting on a wide range of folkloric, satirical, elegiac, and lyrical elements in his poetry. Despite controversy concerning Guillén's treatment of racial themes and his status as a political poet, many scholars have found coherence in his oeuvre, consistently praising his focus on oppression and injustice, his mastery of diverse poetic forms, his celebration of black Cuban culture and identity, and his belief that poetry has the power to influence society and lead to constructive change.
Motivos de son 1930
Sóngoro cosongo: Poemas mulatos 1931
West Indies, Ltd. 1934
Cantos para soldados y sones para turistas 1937
España: Poema en cuatro angustias y una esperanza 1937
Cuba Libre: Poems by Nicolás Guillén 1948
Elegía a Jacques Roumain en el cielo de Haiti 1948
Versos negros 1950
Elegía a Jesus Menéndez 1951
Elegía cubana 1952
La paloma de vuelo popular: Elegías 1958
Buenos días, Fidel 1959
Antología Mayor 1964
Poemas de amor 1964
Tengo [Tengo] 1964
Che Comandante 1967
El gran zoo [¡Patria ο Muerte! The Great Zoo and Other Poems by Nicolás Guillén] 1967
Cuatro canciones para el Che 1969
El diario que a diario 1972
La rueda dentada 1972
Man-Making Words: Selected Poems of Nicolás Guillén 1972
Obra Poética, 1920-1972 1974
El corazon con que vivo 1975
(The entire section is 177 words.)
SOURCE: "Nicolás Guillén's 70th Birthday Conversation with Ciro Bianchi Ross," in The Poetry of Nicolás Guillén, New Beacon Books, 1976, pp. 58-80.
[In the following excerpt from a 1972 interview, originally published in Cuba Internacional, Guillén discusses his Cuban childhood, his thoughts on negritude, Cuban politics, and major themes in his work.]
- [Ciro Bianchi Ross]:
- How do you judge the literary formation that you received in your childhood? Which things in that childhood are you interested in highlighting now?
- [Nicolás Guillén]:
- No, I couldn't speak about a literary formation in the more or less strict sense of the word; and naturally neither from the academic point of view. What happened is that I found so much in my father's house as in my godfather's—both learned and scholarly—books of Spanish and world literature which awoke a great artistic concern in me. My father was a man well informed about the politics and literature of his time, and he was the one to whom I submitted for his opinion my first literary efforts; but I repeat, I had neither a systematic nor strict formation. Furthermore my father was a Liberal leader with a very active life, and a professional journalist of high standing. Having just returned from the War of Independence, in which he achieved the rank of...
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SOURCE: "Poetry from Latin America: 'The Most Important Harvest of the Times,'" in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring/Summer, 1973, pp. 175-86.
[In the following excerpt, Farber de Aguilar favorably reviews Guillén: Man-making Words, praising the artistry and intelligence of Guillén's political poems.]
It is unfortunate that [in Guillén: Man-making Words, Guillén's translators, Robert Márquez and David Arthur McMurray], have chosen to label him so quickly as "implacably anti-bourgeois." He is implacably anti-bourgeois; but the epithet is misleading, since about ninety percent of his colleagues, most of them lesser artists, would consider themselves marketable under the same sticker. Radical poets do not generally work in mysterious ways, and books prefaced with these a priori allegations of leftist commitment make me nervous. I always suspect that such political posturings are going to precede some very mediocre verse which I will then not feel free to dislike: nobody, after all, wants to knock the good guys. The wonderful thing about Guillén is that nobody has to. Cuba's national poet, the grand old man of the downtrodden and the insurgent, is as implacably artistic, as implacably meaningful and as implacably just as he is antibourgeois.
Nicolás Guillén is seventy years old. He is not widely read in the United States and even in...
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SOURCE: "The Turning Point: The Blackening of Nicolás Guillén and the Impact of his Motivos de son," in Black Writers in Latin America, University of New Mexico Press, 1979, pp. 80-92.
[In the following essay, Jackson discusses Guillén's rejection of the white literary aesthetic and his development of a black sensibility in his works of the late 1920s and early 1930s, focusing on the volumes Motivos de son, Sóngoro cosongo, and West Indies, Ltd. Jackson maintains that Guillén "represents the major turning point for literary blackness in Latin America. "]
Nicolás Guillén, … had his "white" stage, but … has lived long enough to pass through it and to go on to become the premier black poet writing in Spanish. Guillén's earlier poetry was definitely non-black and largely inconsequential, of interest to contemporary readers only as illustrations of his early expertise and technical domination of traditional Spanish verse forms, particularly those in vogue during and just after the literary reign of Ruben Dario, and as contrast they illustrate, as well, how far he has come in the blackening process he underwent from Cerebro y corazón (1922) to Motivos de son (1930). Before this metamorphosis, Guillén's literary output in the twenties, with only a very few exceptions, followed European models. Literary historians who want to "deblacken" him or turn him into a...
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SOURCE: "Literary Games in the Works of Nicolás Guillén," in Perspectives on Contemporary Literature, Vol. 6, 1980, pp. 135-42.
[In the essay below, Davis-Lett examines Guillén 's use of literary games, specifically, mockery of traditional poetry in his works.]
Nicolás Guillén is most recognized for his Afro-Cuban poetry written during the 1930's and for his social poetry written since then. But while he has achieved fame as a black social poet, he unfortunately has not been recognized as one of the greatest humorists in Latin American literature. Since much of his humor results from a sense of play or poetic games, no true appreciation of Guillén the humorist can overlook the aspect of play or game in his poetry. The purpose of the present study is to examine these poetic games so frequent in Guillén's works.
Games and play take many forms in Guillén's poetry; indeed, far too many for me to examine here. For this reason, I would like to consider only one of the most outstanding manifestations of play in Guillén's poetry—literary games. In general, we can reduce Guillén's literary games to one broad category—a mockery of traditional poetry (especially Modernist verse) and all that this type of poetry implies: a certain tone and rhetoric, traditional images, an appropriate subject matter, and even a specific form or structure, such as stanzaic arrangement.
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SOURCE: "West African and Hispanic Elements in Nicolás Guillén's 'La canción del bongó'," in SAB: South Atlantic Bulletin, Vol. XLV, No. 1, January, 1980, pp. 47-53.
[In the following essay, Martin examines elements of West African and Hispanic folk music forms in the poem "La canción del bongó. "]
"La canción del bongó," originally published in Guillén's Sóngoro Cosongo (1931), is a poem that succinctly illustrates the fusion of the West African and Hispanic oral traditions. This is so because it is a romance which functions like a son. Moreover, the image of the son, which infuses this poema mulato, is projected as a symbol of Cuba's cultural essence, which Guillén defines as mulatismo in his prologue to Sóngoro Cosongo:
Diré fmalmente, que ésos son unos versos mulatos. Participan acaso de los mismos elementos que entran en la composición étnica de Cuba, donde todos somos un poco níspero. ¿Duel? No lo creo. En todo caso, precisa decirlo antes de que lo vayamos a olividar. La inyección africana en esta tierra es tan profunda, y se cruzan y entrecruzan en nuestra bien regada hidrografia social tantas corrientes capilares, que sería trabajo de miniaturistas desenredar el jeroglifico. Opino, por tanto, que una poesía criolla entre nosotros no lo sera de un modo cabal con olvido del negro. El negro—a...
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SOURCE: "The Revolutionary Alternative," in Self and Society in the Poetry of Nicolás Guillén, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982, pp. 115-38.
[In the following essay, Williams discusses Guillén's treatment of the Cuban Revolution in his poetry. Williams notes that although Guillén's poems reveal his commitment to the socialist cause, they also raise doubts about the revolution's extremism and Cuba's political isolation.]
That the Cuban Revolution did not seek merely to transform the material conditions of man is well known. Ernesto (Che) Guevara's pronouncements on the need to create a "new man," as well as the debate regarding moral and material incentives in economic policy, are a clear indication that the revolutionary leadership not only undertook to restructure the socio-economic institutions of Cuban society, but also aimed at effecting [what Richard R. Fagan, in The Transformation of Political Culture in Cuba (1969) Called] a complete "transformation of political culture." Writers and intellectuals were expected to contribute to this project by endorsing revolutionary values in their work. Aware that a socialist consciousness could not be readily induced in a people long exposed to bourgeois modes of thought, the revolutionary government created a number of cultural organs—publishing houses, journals, literary prizes, and conferences—to provide writers with a forum for...
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SOURCE: "The Poetry," in Cuba's Nicolás Guillén: Poetry and Ideology, University of Toronto Press, 1983, pp. 147-61.
[In the following excerpt, Ellis examines poems in Tengo, Guillén's first book after the Cuban Revolution.]
La paloma de vuelo popular was published on 28 December 1958. The flight of [Cuban President Zaldivar Y] Batista from Cuba in the early hours of 1 January 1959 marked the triumph of Fidel Castro's rebel army. Guillén returned to Cuba on 23 January 1959 and was given a welcome the size and warmth of which suggested that he was popularly regarded as one of the heroes of the revolutionary struggle. He immediately undertook a variety of new tasks on behalf of the revolution. The popular poetry readings he had given in the late thirties and forties during the course of usually unsuccessful political campaigns were repeated now as events of acknowledged national importance. At the same time, his administrative abilities were put to the service of helping to design a cultural policy for his country and, as was indicated earlier, of establishing the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba. He resumed, too, his activities in journalism, and the diplomatic position of ambassadro-at-large was soon added to his duties. Along with all this activity, he continued to exercise his high artistic gifts, and published, in 1964, the collection Tengo ('I Have')....
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SOURCE: "The Yoruban-Cuban Aesthetic, Nicolas Guillen's Poetic Expressions: A Paradigm," in Current Bibliography on African Affairs, Vol. 18, No. 4, 1985-86, pp. 301-7.
[In the essay below, Purchas-Tulloch examines African folkloric, musical, and religious elements in Guillén's poetry.]
The transplantation of the African slave to the Americas, and more specifically, Cuba, was to result in the offshoot of a folklore tradition prolific in African elements, forming an amalgam with the Cuban. Nicolás Guillén's Afro-Cuban grounding stems from this transplantation, and his work has been singled out here as a tribute to his fifty plus years of dedication to this field. His work, replete with Afro-Cuban folkloric elements, is representative of a twentieth-century Afro-centric trend in the arts.
The role of folklore in a provincial and rustic society is incomprehensible, illogical, and even obnoxious to many an outsider-onlooker. Black folklore has often been condemned by this sentence. Consequently, many strange notions have sprung up around this lore, assigning it to labels of "primitive," "exotic," "carnal," "banal," "purely sensuous," "crude," and so on. Yet, what is folklore? According to the Spanish critic, Ildefonso Pereda Valdes, in his work on the "dynamics of folklore" [Dinamica del Folklore, 1966], it is art created by a homogeneous group of people. By homogeneous we mean...
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SOURCE: "Nicolás Guillén between the son and the Sonnet," in Callaloo, Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 318-28.
[In the essay below, Pérez-Firmat discusses Guillén's use of the son and sonnet forms, stating that Guillén imposed "poetic form on native rhythms" with the son and infused "traditional form with indigenous vitality" with the sonnet]
Nicolás Guillén, best-known as a composer of sones, has also favored the sonnet. Although the fame of the author of Sóngoro cosongo (1931) rests primarily on his innovative nativist verse, from his earliest poems Guillén has shown a special predilection for traditional poetic forms, and particularly for the sonnet. Indeed, almost half of the poems written before Motivos de son (1930) are sonnets. His first collection, Cerebro y corazón, completed in 1922 but not published until 1965, already contains twenty-two of these compositions. In Guillén's literary career, the sonnet preceded the son; the mature sonero grew out of the juvenile sonneteer. Beginning with Motivos de son, sonnets appear less frequently in his work, but they never disappear altogether. One finds sonnets in West Indies, Ltd. (1934), in Cantos para soldadosy sones para turistas (1937), in Elegía a Jacques Roumain (1948), in La paloma de vuelopopular (1958), in Tengo (1964), and in Poemas de...
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SOURCE: "The Central Creative Conflict, Mulatez" in Nicolás Guillén: Popular Poet of the Caribbean, University of Missouri Press, 1990, pp. 159-73.
[In the following excerpt, Smart examines the synthesis of European and African cultural influences, or mulatez, in Guillén's poetry.]
Mulatez is a cultural concept of direct artistic relevance, which involves an awakening to the full importance of the African cultural heritage. This new awareness engenders conflict in every cultural sphere, be it social, political, economic, or psychological—the inevitable conflict between Eurocentered and Afrocentered realities. In Guillén's view, the conflict of thesis and antithesis must be faced and resolved through the harmonious blending or synthesis of the opposing elements. In a real sense, there is conflict at the heart of Guillén's creativity; it is the very fount of that creativity. Without the tensions generated by the clash between Europe and Africa, Guillén's best and most characteristic work would have no emotional core.
The concept of mulatez finds direct expression in several of Guillén's poems. The most significant is, perhaps, the "Balada de los dos abuelos." This work, from the collection West Indies, Ltd, is written predominantly in octosyllabic lines, combined with five- and three-syllable lines. There appears to be no regular rhyme scheme,...
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SOURCE: "Some Early Readings of Motivos de son," in Romance Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 2, May, 1992, pp. 221-30.
[In the essay below, Mullen examines various critical interpretations of Motivos de son in order to show "the multiplicity of ways in which the same poem becomes a radically different object in the context of different critical approaches."]
When Nicolas Guillén died on July 16, 1989, he left behind an enormous obra, much of which has gone unstudied. His work, which had celebrated Cuba's multiracial and ethnic mix, had garnered for him in recent years wide recognition in the Latin American community. There is little doubt, however, that of all that he wrote, his starkly realistic portraits of black urban life in Havana—Motivos de son—occupy a privileged place in his writings. Guillén's Motivos de son not only represents a clear rupture in a continuous tradition but shares a relationship with the Africanist poetics of other black writers in the Caribbean and the United States, such as Jacques Roumain and Langston Hughes. In re-reading the criticism dealing with Guillén's Motivos de son, however, one is struck not only by the privileged place it occupies in his total obra, but by the array of readings produced by what in reality is not a book but eight brief poems.
If we assume that Guillén's Motivos de son constitute...
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Kubayanda, Josaphat B. The Poet's Africa: Africanness in the Poetry of Nicolás Guillén and Aimé Césaire. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990, pp. 153-70.
Primary and secondary bibliography of Guillén's works.
Kutzinski, Vera M. Against the American Grain: Myth and History in William Carlos Williams, Jay Wright, and Nicolás Guillén. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, pp. 282-86.
Lists works by Guillén published in Spanish, English translations, and critical studies.
Callaloo 10, No. 2 (Spring 1987).
Special issue devoted to Guillén. Includes a brief interview with the poet and essays on such topics as Guillén's incorporation of the baroque into his verse and the relationship between Guillén's poetry and that of Puerto Rican poet Luis Palés Matos.
Chrisman, Robert. "Nicolás Guillén, Langston Hughes, and the Black American/Afro-Cuban Connection." Michigan Quarterly Review 33, No. 4 (Fall 1994): 807-20.
Discusses Guillén's relationship with American poet Langston Hughes and each poet's influence in their respective countries.
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