Ernesto Cardenal Cardenal, Ernesto - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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 During his college years, Cardenal composed love poems wherein he frequently incorporated news clippings or historical documents.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.

Major Works

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 Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


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

La paz mundial y la Revolución de Nicaragua (nonfiction) 1981

Jorge H. Valdés (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

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 of prosaic detail, particularly in the poetry written after 1960—such as Homenaje a los indios americanos, "Canto nacional," "Oráculo sobre Managua," and the epistles to Casaldáliga and José Coronel Urtecho. In order to explain the poetic advantages of this technique, we need, first, to consider it by itself and, then, within a poetic structure or form. In doing the former, it will prove useful to invoke a parallel with the artistry of film, and, in doing the latter, to apply the language of film to an analysis of the structure of the first sequence of Cardenal's most ambitious poem, "Oráculo sobre Managua." But before doing either, it is necessary to discuss what led Cardenal to use literal detail so extensively.

Cardenal's penchant for a concrete language, often journalistic in style, can be explained partly by his faithful adherence to the principles of exteriorismo, a tendency predominant in Nicaraguan poetry since the 1950's. For Cardenal, the foremost exponent of this poetic tendency

El exteriorismo no es un ismo ni una escuela literaria. Es tan antiguo como Homero y la poesía bíblica (en realidad es lo que ha constituido la gran poesía de todos los tiempos).

El exteriorismo es la poesía creada con las imágenes del mundo exterior, el mundo que vemos y palpamos, y que es, por lo general, el mundo específico de la poesía. El exteriorismo es la poesía objetiva: narrativa y anecdótica, hecha con los elementos de la vida real y con cosas concretas, con nombres propios y detalles precisos y datos exactos y cifras y hechos y dichos. En fin, es la poesía impura.

Poesía interiorista, en cambio, es una poesía subjetivista, hecha sólo con palabras abstractas o simbólicas como: rosa, piel, ceniza, labios, ausencia, amargo, sueño, tacto, espuma, deseo, sombra, tiempo, sangre, piedra, llanto, noche …

Cardenal's affinity for exteriorismo cannot be explained solely in aesthetic terms, as this passage seems to suggest. It is, rather, the result of combined aesthetic and ethical interests. Indeed, in most instances, his aesthetic interests are subservient to his strongly ethical concerns. From the early Epigramas to the present, his poetry is patently didactic. As he emphatically states in the prologue to his anthology Poesía nueva de Nicaragua: "La literatura debe prestar un servicio. Debe estar—como todo lo demás en el universo—al servicio del hombre. Por lo mismo la poesía también debe de ser política. Aunque no propaganda política, sino poesía política." Thus, Cardenal's poetry seeks to inform, convince, and, ultimately, through immersion in apparently objective detail, move the reader beyond reflection into action. It seeks, in Robert Pring-Mill's words, "to provoke him [the reader] into full political commitment, thus fostering the translation of the poet's more prophetic visions into sociopolitical fact" [Ernesto Cardenal: "Zero Hour" and Other Documentary Poems, edited by Donald D. Walsh, 1980]. Exteriorist poetry, Cardenal feels, with its emphasis on the details of external reality is the mode most capable of rendering the troubled sociopolitical reality of Latin America, and, because of its sensory immediacy and readily verifiable frame of reference, the one most effective in engaging the reader.

Although in his definition of exteriorismo Cardenal focuses on the type of language employed by the poet, what mostly distinguishes his exteriorismo from "interiorist poetry" is the way in which he employs "los elementos de la vida real y … cosas concretas." The word "sangre," for instance, included by Cardenal in his catalogue of interiorist terms, is not uncommon in his exteriorist poetry, as we see in the following passage from "Oráculo sobre Managua":

Puertas destrozadas hierros retorcidos techo de zinc
perforado por la avioneta las paredes con grandes huecos
sangre en el patio un colchón ensangrentado en el baño
pedazos de camisas calzonetas pañuelos llenos de sangre
sangre en la cocina los frijoles regados tapas de parras
con goterones de sangre en el patio la casa llena de humo …

In all cases in which "sangre" appears in this passage, it is employed as one of many visual, concrete details depicting sensorially and directly the aftermath of Leonel Rugama's shootout with Somoza's forces. The term thus functions strictly as a literal image.

Cardenal therefore remains true to his exteriorist poetic credo, not by restricting his poetic language to certain words as he suggests, but by using visual details in a literal way. The literal use of concrete language allows him to create a reality external to the speaker. At times, the speaker appears to be totally independent of this reality, as when Cardenal writes in Hora O:

En abril, en Nicaragua, los campos están secos.
Es el mes de las quemas de los campos,
del calor, y los potreros cubiertos de brasas,
y los cerros que son de color de carbón;
del viento caliente, y el aire que huele a quemado,
y de los campos que se ven azulados por el humo
y las polvaredas de los tractores destroncando;
de los cauces de los ríos secos como caminos
y las ramas de los palos peladas como raíces;
de los soles borrosos y rojos como sangre
y las lunas enormes y rojas como soles,
y las quemas lejanas, de noche, como estrellas.

En mayo llegan las primeras lluvias.
La hierba tierna renace de las cenizas.
Los lodosos tractores roturan la tierra.
Los caminos se llenan de mariposas y de charcos,
y las noches son frescas, y cargadas de insectos,
y llueve toda la noche. En mayo
florecen los malinches en las calles de Managua.

The end of winter in the first stanza and the coming of spring in the second are described with such realism and objectivity that the passage seems almost a random documentation of external reality. The faithfulness to concrete detail on the part of the poet and his restraint in withholding his emotional attitude allow the reality its autonomy. In depicting places and events which immerse the reader in the physical world about him, Cardenal's poetry operates much like a camera recording elements and events that can be responded to with sensory immediacy. Such poetry Robert Pring-Mill calls "documentary poetry."

Whereas Cardenal's...

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Reginald Gibbons (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Geoffrey R. Barrow (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Tamara R. Williams (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Robert Pring-Mill (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 323 words.)