Ernesto Cardenal 1925-
Nicaraguan poet, translator, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Cardenal's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 31.
Noted as a major contemporary Latin-American poet and literary spokesperson for the political struggles of the Nicaraguan people, Cardenal, an ordained Catholic priest, is known for the unique fusion of Christian theology and Marxist political philosophy in his works. Cardenal's poetry often focuses on Latin-American history and comments on contemporary society, culture, and politics. His poetry incorporates a montage style, juxtaposing disparate voices from history, biblical lore, and contemporary popular culture, as well as interweaving lyrical passages with prosaic lines of verse. His most celebrated works include Hora 0 (1960; Zero Hour), Salmos (1967; The Psalms of Struggle and Liberation), and Homenaje a los indios americanos (1969; Homage to the American Indians). Cardenal's poetry has often been compared to the works of poets Pablo Neruda and Ezra Pound.
Cardenal was born January 20, 1925, in Granada, Nicaragua. He attended the University of New Mexico, where he studied literature and philosophy from 1944 to 1948, and Columbia University in New York City from 1948 to 1949. His first volume of poetry, Ansias lengua de la poesia nueva nicaraguense, was published in 1948. Cardenal returned to Nicaragua in the early 1950s, where he became involved in political activism in opposition to Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza. In 1956 Cardenal converted to Catholicism and enrolled in the seminary at the Trappist Monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky. Studying under the renowned monk, scholar, and poet Thomas Merton, Cardenal developed a commitment to nonviolence. Due to health problems, Cardenal left Kentucky before completing his course of study, but continued his studies in Mexico and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1965. He subsequently founded his own commune in Solentiname on an island in Lake Nicaragua where he could promote his unique synthesis of religious vision and commitment to social justice. During the 1960s, Cardenal published over ten volumes of poetry. In 1970, he visited Cuba, where he experienced what he called a “second conversion” and developed a philosophy of Christian Marxism that synthesized his religious and political convictions. The escalating political oppression in Nicaragua contributed to Cardenal's renouncement of his former commitment to nonviolence and his embracement of revolutionary struggle. During the 1970s, Cardenal published over twenty volumes of poetry and gave readings of his work during tours throughout the United States. In 1977 he became a chaplain for the revolutionary Sandinista Liberation Front. The Nicaraguan government responded to Cardenal's political activities by destroying his commune at Solentiname and sending him into exile in Costa Rica. In 1979 when the Sandinista revolution overthrew Somoza, Cardenal returned to Nicaragua and was appointed Minister of Culture. He eventually resigned from this post, however, in disagreement over human rights abuses committed by the new government. During the 1980s, Cardenal was criticized for his liberation theology by Pope John Paul II, who considered the poet-priest's politics to be at odds with the philosophy of the Catholic Church. During the 1980s and 1990s, Cardenal published over twenty-five volumes of poetry.
Cardenal's dominant themes throughout his four decades of writing poetry have included religious prophecy, Marxism, and political struggle. Cardenal's poetry often explores Latin-American history, from the pre-Colombian native cultures to the era of colonialism, focusing strongly on the latter's relationship to the problems of contemporary governments and modern culture. His early poem “With Walker in Nicaragua” is set during the nineteenth century when an expedition from the United States attempted to make Nicaragua a colony of the Southern Confederacy. Cardenal relates the story of one of his ancestors, a Nicaraguan woman who married a white man from the expedition. The poem is largely devoted to examining the perspective of the white man who renounces the stated mission of his countrymen. “Zero Hour” concerns the assassination of Cesar Augusto Sandino, a Nicaraguan revolutionary leader, in 1933. Sandino, the hero of the poem, employs guerilla tactics in an attempt to expel the United States Marines from Nicaragua. Through Cardenal's portrayal of this historical figure, the poet addresses themes of political resistance and Nicaraguan nationalism from the perspective of both biblical prophecy and Marxist political theory. The volume Gethsemani, Ky (1960) is comprised of a series of short poems based on Cardenal's notes taken while studying for the priesthood in Gethsemani, Kentucky. His poem “Oracion por Marilyn Monroe” (“Prayer to Marilyn Monroe”) is a commentary on modern commercialism as a corrupting cultural influence. The works collected in El estrecho dudoso (1966; The Doubtful Strait) make extensive use of biblical references and the colonial history of Latin America to comment on modern political struggles. Continuing Cardenal's use of biblical allusions, the poems in The Psalms of Struggle and Liberation take the form of Old Testament psalms to express outrage at the social oppression inflicted by modern governments on their constituents. In Homage to the American Indians, Cardenal contrasts the oppression and commercialism found in many modern societies with the spiritual wholeness and pacifism of the pre-Colombian cultures of the Mayan, Incan, and Nahuatl Indians. Golden UFOs (1992), a collection of Cardenal's previously published poetry, further examines the native cultures of the South, North, and Central Americas, once again viewed through the poet's Christian-Marxist perspective. Cosmic Canticle (1993) brings together thirty years of Cardenal's canto poetry in one long, epic poem. The volume covers historical events in Nicaragua and throughout the world, spanning from the origins of the universe to the present day. In these poems, Cardenal contemplates the role of political leaders, oppressed peoples, capitalism, and the Nicaraguan Revolution, among other topics.
Critics have consistently commented on Cardenal's mixture of Christianity and Marxism in his poetry. However, many reviewers have argued that Cardenal manages to avoid the strident tones and didacticism of other political poets, although his political views are increasingly explicit in his later works. Cardenal has been praised for effectively commenting on contemporary society and politics through his writings placed in pre-Colombian and early colonial Latin-American settings. Critics have also observed that, despite his focus on oppression and human suffering, Cardenal has maintained a strong sense of hopefulness and idealism, as evidenced by his frequent expressions of a utopian vision of the future. Critical response to Cardenal's poetry has often focused on the unique theological perspective of his works. Commentators have frequently discussed the elements of biblical prophesy in his poetry, noting his use of biblical references in his verse which also utilizes contemporary language to comment on history and modern society. Stylistically, Cardenal has been praised for his lyricism, experimental use of form, and well-crafted poetry, particularly his use of the canto form invented by Pound and later employed by Neruda. Cardenal has also been lauded for his montage style of writing, and his ability to juxtapose a variety of voices, including historical documents, colloquial Spanish, pop culture references, and biblical passages to create a decidedly individual poetic form.