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 During his college years, Cardenal composed love poems wherein he frequently incorporated news clippings or historical documents.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