Ernesto Cardenal

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Henry Cohen (essay date summer 1981)

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SOURCE: Cohen, Henry. “The Image of the United States in the Poetry of René Depestre and Ernesto Cardenal.” Revista Review Interamericana 11, no. 2 (summer 1981): 220–30.

[In the following essay, Cohen compares representations of the United States in the poetry of Cardenal and of the Haitian poet René Depestre.]

It is especially important at this particular time for students of interamerican affairs to know how the Haitian René Depestre and the Nicaraguan Ernesto Cardenal have portrayed the United States in their poetry of the past quarter century. First of all, by virtue of their extraordinary political status they are opinion leaders, respectively, in Cuba and El Salvador, those nations geographically closest to the U.S. whose present governments are also the most inimical to Washington. Secondly, since they are authors of world stature who write in French and Spanish, they have broadcast a view of the U.S. to a wide readership of students and intellectuals not only in Latin America, but also in Europe and Africa.

Despite their widely divergent backgrounds, especially as regards their exposure to North American culture, these poets' characterizations of U.S. society and culture fall into the very same categories and resemble one another to a striking extent, even in what they omit. Without doing violence to the two poetic corpuses, we can group them into five common themes: (1) the mechanisms of imperialism, (2) the psychology of domination, (3) the colonization of internal racial and cultural minorities, (4) the resistance to the ruling groups by some Americans versus the acquiescence of others, and (5) the utopian resolution of global social conflict.

After publishing his earliest verse in Haiti in 1945–46, Depestre was forced into exile by François Duvalier because of his political opposition to that dictator. He lived in Paris in the 1950's and in Cuba from after the revolution until recently, when he began to work for UNESCO in Paris and New York. All his poetry about the U.S. predates his residence there, however, so he does not write from first-hand experience. In his poetry, Depestre focuses on the manifestations of North American life most publicized in the Soviet and Cuban press which have touched him most deeply as a leftist, a Caribbean and a black, namely racism, capitalism, imperialism and militarism.

By contrast, Cardenal has studied certain aspects of U.S. history extensively, primarily North American economic penetration into Central America and the relations between Washington and native Americans during the white settlers' westward push. Twice he has lived in the States, first in the late 1940's, when he studied literature at Columbia University, and again for a few years beginning in 1957, when he entered the Trappist monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky. He returned to New York in 1972 to raise money for relief of victims of the Nicaraguan earthquake of that same year. Cardenal's poetry reflects his quest for an understanding of the spiritual underpinnings of Indian culture and social organization, his feeling threatened by U.S. economic expansionism, and his need to find elements of decency in a country in which he matured at two crucial moments of his life.

For both Depestre and Cardenal, whose political radicalization stems from the direct experience of imperialism, the United States is first and foremost the base par excellence of international corporate capitalism and its servants, the State Department, the military and foreign puppet rulers. In “Hora O,” Cardenal recounts in detail how the tentacular U.S. fruit, railroad, lumber, steamship and investment companies first reached into Central America, expropriating peasants' land and products through a combination of cleverness and cruelty. In his historically exact...

(This entire section contains 4710 words.)

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yet highly poetic treatment of the case of Honduras, for example, he chronicles the mechanism of economic domination involving the granting of commercial concessions, the manipulation of import and export taxes, the revision of earlier agreements, the securing of economic grants for new plantations, the violation of contracts and of constitutional law, the dictating of indemnifications in case of land reform, the price-manipulating control of plantation growth, the wangling of tax-free land leases, the breaking of promises and the bribery of public officials to retain privileges. The supporting role played by the U.S. State Department in commercial imperialism is demonstrated by American support of the elder Somoza in the 1930's:

Como le dijo a Sumner Wells el sonofabitch de Roosevelt:
“Somoza is a sonofabitch
                                                            but he's ours.”
Esclavo de los extranjeros
                                                            y tirano de su pueblo
impuesto por la intervención
                                                            y mantenido por la no intervención:

Via telegraph from Boston, faceless, anonymous corporate directors manipulate events in a remote area by dint of their governmental agents, who camouflage their machinations by cynically twisting the meanings of words, by hypocritical political justifications and by simple cover-up.

Although Depestre situates international capitalists vaguely “en occident,” certain specifics of “Litanies des hommes-cyclones” strongly imply their U.S. origins. Through a world-wide information network, they extend their influence via a seemingly infinite number of agents. We are left with an image of the totalization of control of the many by an insidious unnamed minority which sterilizes the enormous cultural, religious, affective and natural richness of the globe. An analysis of the poem's verbs reveals the extent, mechanism and type of power exercised by these “hommes-cyclones”: acheter (repeated 19 times) stresses money as their chief weapon of an absolutism which is expressed by régner and pouvoir (four incidences). Téléguider underlines the long-range nature of their control. Rompre, séparer, sécher, changer and creuser render their destructive and transforming power. The targets of the imperialists are those things which the humane individual holds most dear: joy, hope, tenderness, truth, human beauty, sensitivity, love and brotherhood. Not only do capitalists purchase natural resources, geographical areas, human relationships and institutions, but even feelings, such as hope itself:

Ils achètent des alouettes
Qui dans les rues du monde
Arrêtent chaque passant pour lui dire:
“Tu seras heureux I'an prochain au paradis!”(2)

Cardenal's case studies in imperialism stem from a double motive: Central American nationalism, and a desire to emulate his model Ezra Pound in making of poetry an encyclopedic synthesis of the outer world. Central to their purpose is the intent to provide historical justification for the national liberation struggle. Depestre's poetry appears rather to have been placed squarely in the service of the Soviet bloc in an East-West ideological contest. It is therefore more oriented toward casting blame on the Western ruling circles in a global context.

Depestre's familiarity with Cardenal's writings is illustrated by a striking pair of poems that evoke the life and death of film star Marilyn Monroe as a measure of North American business's inhumanity. In “Oración por Marilyn Monroe.” Cardenal indicts the Hollywood movie industry's exploitation of human beings for profit, charging it with the murder of the suicidal star. U.S. society is described as a false cinematographic set, based on outward spectacle instead of inner authenticity, a “Colosal Super-Producción” fueled by tranquilizers and psychoanalysis rather than love. In a daring metaphor, Cardenal brings together the exploited body of the sex goddess and Jesus' expulsion of the money-lenders from the temple, linking these historically and associatively remote phenomena both visually and conceptually (the body, the temple of the soul, is to be kept pure):

Pero el templo no son los estudios de la 20th Century-Fox.
El templo—de mármol y oro—es el templo de su cuerpo
en el que está el Hijo del Hombre con un látigo en la mano
expulsando a los mercaderes de la 20th Century-Fox
que hicieron de Tu casa de oración una cueva de ladrones.(3)

Monroe's white skin and golden hair are sanctified by dint of their depreciation by evil exploiters, in a double process of negative reference and reversal of values. The poem's second memorable image is the final one, in which the star is found dead with a telephone in her hand. The narrative voice wonders whether she has not been trying to call God at the last minute: “Alguien cuyo número no está en el Directorio de Los Angeles.”

Dedicated to the Nicaraguan poet, Depestre's “Christ répond à Marilyn Monroe” is his amplificatio on the two central images of the earlier poem. In this imaginary dialogue between the star and Christ, Jesus tells in scathing satirical tones how Christianity has been commercialized by twentieth-century capitalists, who have co-opted it in their design to dominate and extract value from all the world's resources, including workers. He reveals that he too has unwittingly become the star of a super-production, just as Monroe has been falsified and turned to the profit of 20th Century-Fox. Both have suffered the same fate: their true selves have been suppressed and their false images have helped covetous companies secure large gains. He confesses feeling as helpless as she, whereupon she does not answer but presumably kills herself. Depestre takes Cardenal's rapprochement of deity and actress one step farther, making of Monroe a Christ-figure, humanizing the son of God, and equating the corporate world to a Judas who is willing to sell the life of both for 30 pieces of silver.

The idea of Jesus' persecution of the money-lenders is the kernel out of which grows Depestre's notion that missionary evangelism is imperialism's cover for Third World economic conquest. In a startling example of ironic reprise, the whip, a symbol of divine retribution in the Biblical episode, is turned upon the innocent. Christ's rage incorporates that of all capitalism's victims, since they cannot speak for themselves. The den of thieves motif from Cardenal's poem is also woven into Depestre's:

Je suis par le sperme qui court: CHRIST AND CO!
Je suis un gros actionnaire de compagnies.
J'ai des mines, des banques, des plantations et des centrales sucrières,
Et depuis longtemps le fameux fouet
Qui chassait les marchands du temple
S'est tourné avec rage vers le dos nu
Des paysans et des ouvriers de tous les pays!
Je veille aujourd'hui sur le caverne des voleurs.
Je suis I'un de ceux qui vous ont vole.(4)

Their use of Christian ethics and symbolism as a basis for an attack on capitalism reflects the fact that the fundamental moral and religious formation of both the poets and their readership is Christian. Cardenal is an ordained priest even though he serves as the Minister of Culture in the revolutionary Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Depestre was raised in Haiti, where the Catholic Church holds sway in the religious realm together with vaudou, which is itself pervaded by Christian elements. Much of the appeal of Latin American revolution is its claim to be closer to the spirit of Christianity than are the great imperialist nations of the West that claim to be guided by the Judeo-Christian ethic.

In seeking to comprehend the psychology of domination that lies behind capitalists' drive for power, the poets uncover three phenomena: alienation from what is natural in the environment and in other people, the perversion of normal human feelings, and a deep-seated guilt complex.

In “La danza del espíritu,” Cardenal imagines that Jesus returns to the United States in the nineteenth century only to be slain by whites in their westward expansion. Resurrected, he goes to live among the Indians, who welcome him as their brother. The turning of a people's religious ideal against itself is a particularly effective satirical tool. “Grabaciones de la pipa sagrada” recounts the journey of the Indian Black Elk to the large cities of the East, as a member of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, in order to learn the white man's secrets. To his disgust, he finds only that they steal from one another and are ignorant of the fact that the earth is their mother. The will to dominate and disrespect for the environment are seen as generalized in white society, all of whose members appear to have internalized the values of their wealthy rulers.

Using as his central image the title of Vance Packard's famous book on the advertising industry, Cardenal evokes Madison Avenue in frightening terms:

el hondo cañón, el profundo desfiladero de edificios
donde se esconden detrás de sus vidrios the hidden persuaders
venden automóviles de Felicidad, Consuelo en lata.

(a 30 cts)5

Symbolic of the insidious domination of the citizenry through psychological domination, advertising is demonic because, while remaining hidden in dark, recessed places, the persuaders have a one-way window into everyone else's mind. Their anonymity demonstrates that control, and not fame or adulation, is their aim.

Depestre identifies in the U.S. another variety of perversion, a collective sterility and alienation from the rest of humankind. In “Poème à hurler sous les fenêtres de la Maison Blanche,” he probes North Americans' profound and neurotic desire for cleanliness, and discovers a need to cover corruption and callousness:

O civilisation qui se lave dix fois par jour
Et qui pisse du sang chaque soir dans son lit
Civilisation qui boit son urine
Civilisation qui mange ses excréments
Civilisation qui met du coton dans ses oreilles
Pour ne pas entendre les cris fous de l'esprit.(6)

This black Haitian, writing in a Cuba sharply divided between the races in its pre-revolutionary period, attributes white North America's moral insensitivity and hygienic compulsivity to guilt stemming from its role in the slave trade. The psychological portrayal elaborated by Depestre shows white America trapped in a syndrome of the denial of historical reality—“La traite des Noirs n'a pas eu lieu. C'est l'invention d'un historien dément.”7—and in a desperate attempt to suppress its detractors who tell the painful truth—“Et six balles aussitôt se jettent sur sa vie (…) / Il était Malcolm X un negrerayon qui / Haïssait les larmes, les chaînes et la haine.”8 Depestre's picture of the U.S. as monolithically racist seems to constitute an appeal to francophone Third-Worlders to mark that nation as a whole—not just a particular group or set of policies—as their inherent enemy, and as irremediably so. It has none of Cardenal's subtlety, no sense of part of white America's being victimized by another segment of white America in the context of racism. That Depestre's racially-based historical analysis flies in the face of Marxist theories of social science seems not to deter his pursuing that propagandistic course.

The U.S. ruling circles are perceived by the poets as subjugators of racial minorities within their own borders. Cardenal's Homenaje a los indios americanos is replete with allusions to the Indian Wars, to broken or unfair treaties and to the expropriation of useful land in exchange for unfruitful reservations. The case of the Black Hills of the South Dakota Sioux stands as the most striking of many examples of the bad faith of the wasichus, or whites:

Hubo un gran consejo con los wasichus (…)
Palabras y palabras y palabras: como un viento.
El Gran Padre de Washington quería los cerros Negros. (…)
Nos pusieron en islas a vivir como wasichus.(9)

Much like the Nicaraguan's moving evocation of what U.S. settlers used to term “Manifest Destiny” is Depestre's depiction of the unfeeling domination of the Indian—shown as a kindred spirit to the Caribbean black—the taking of whose possessions is rendered all the more pathetic for their paucity:

Il avait des chevaux et des tentes.
Il avait un puits et un seul fils
Et des femmes (…)
Un jour arriva I'homme blane qui jeta
Ces trésors au feu de sa civilisation.(10)

Depestre recalls the civil rights struggles of the 1950's and 1960's in the U.S. South, centering attention on the opposition to school integration, the fire-bombing of black churches in Mississippi by the Ku Klux Klan, the unleashing of police dogs against non-violent demonstrators, and religiously sanctioned laws against racial mixing. All references to white and governmental involvement in the civil rights movement's victories are omitted.

Cardenal focuses most pointedly on the cultural devaluation and denial which informs colonization, the assumption of a cultural void that allows conquerors to justify enslavement on the basis of conferring civilization in a void. The poet, a serious student of Indian religion, describes the horror and sadness the natives felt when they saw Europeans buying and selling land (“nosotros / nunca hemos comerciado / la tierra es parte de mi propio cuerpo / yo nunca vendí mi tierra”11), treating natural resources as personal property (“Dios (…) / mandó que los pescaderos y tierras fueran de todos / que no se demarcaran ni dividieran / ésta es la ley antigua”12), debasing sacred substances (“Antes no se fumaba por placer sino sólo por oración / los blancos enseñaron a la gente a profanar el tabaco”13) and construct rectilinear houses (“No hay poder cuadrado / (…) todo lo que hacen los indios es en círculo / y es que el Misterio lo hace todo en círculos”14), all of which constituted violations of holy law.

Both poets celebrate the heroic resistance of colonized and exploited peoples who resist by affirming their own cultures in the face of the attempt to impose the dominant culture. In “Tahirassawichi en Washington,” for example, Cardenal shows how, when he travels to the capital, an old Indian deprecates the white rulers' cultural assumptions. Thus, the Capitol is unworthy as a locus of legislation since its mainly rectilinear construction renders it unredeemably secular, the grandiose and impersonal Library of Congress “no servía para guardar objetos sagrados / que sólo podían guardarse en su choza de barro,” and the Washington Monument represents an impious threat to God's monopoly on the construction of high places.15 Cardenal uses native American culture as a foil for the North American value system, which he criticizes for its lack of a sense of the sacredness of life and nature.

While it technically lies beyond the geographical boundaries that I have set for this study, le vaudou may be understood analogously as an effective tool of black Antillean resistance to European cultural hegemony. In Un arc-en-ciel pour l'Occident chrétien, Depestre's poet-narrator's successive metamorphoses into deities (loa) that threaten, tease and berate a Southern white racist family, symbolize all the Afro-Americans' built-in cultural shields against the ravages of slavery, exploitation and neo-colonialism. Above all, the loa have kept these descendants of Africans in close touch with the natural world: “Ne riez pas de mes dieux agraires / Parce qu'ils n'ont pas rompu les ponts / Avee le premier sel de la terre: l'homme!”16

In addition to cultural resistance, we find in the poetry of both authors praise for specific North American radicals. Cardenal's visit to New York in 1972 placed him in contact with two groups that have born witness to the continuous presence in U.S. society of a small yet vital anti-capitalist and anti-militarist political movement. In “Viaje a Nueva York,” we meet some of the protagonists of the pacifist opposition to the Vietnam War: the Berrigan brothers, Daniel and Philip, and friends of theirs who served prison terms, destroyed conscription records and threw blood on the Nixon White House. Cardenal also signs of the Catholic Worker movement, born in the Great Depression and engaged for forty years in service to the poorest of the poor, in the denunciation of capitalism and in supporting left social activism.

In contrast to the positive dedication and energetic resistance of U.S. Catholic radicals—with whom he, as a leftist priest, was led philosophically to associate—Cardenal portrays the anomie, hedonism and commercial sedation of other sectors of the U.S. population. Instead of the stars that usually twinkle in the night sky, flashing neon signs with the names of consumer goods illuminate the urban blackness. The patently unnatural character of the light, the artificiality of the brand names and their association with ingestion, speed, power and deodorization represent a cutting commentary on U.S. civilization in “En la noche iluminada de palabras.” “Coplas a la muerte de Merton” more extensively satirizes middle-class Americans' aspirations than any other poem:

la cindad bajada del cielo no es Atlantic City—
Y el Más Allá no es un American Way of Life (…)
La muerte es una puerta abierta
al universo.(17)

If death is access to the universe, then the American way of life is a limitation, a dead end. The City of God is not an American vacation paradise, but a locus of true virtue and justice. Mocking the advertising industry's appeal to the illusory goal of eternal youth, Cardenal claims hedonism to be a sort of living death.

Depestre's role, as apparently limited by his blackness and his communism as Cardenal's is by his catholicism, is to sing the praises of black American radicals who have been persecuted. In an apologia reminiscent of the virulent ancient Greek and Roman satirists', Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver is made to object to his being characterized by the U.S. press as violent and destructive; he affirms that his society is more so than he and that his hyperbolic style is required by the injustice that he attacks and the indignation that he feels when confronted by the “Civilisation-tigre civilisation fin-du-monde! / Ton grand coeur légendaire est une chambre à gaz / (…) le Grand Ulcère du siècle!”18 Communist Party member Angela Davis, attacked for her political views when a professor at the University of California, is lauded and defended by Depestre, who claims that she is perceived as violent only by the U.S. ruling classes, whom she threatens by her teaching of Marxism to blacks. (He apparently is unaware that she has taught people of all races with less regard to the issue of race itself in her overall approach to U.S. society than Depestre might suspect.) As he did in the case of Marilyn Monroe, the Haitian draws a parallel between Christ and Malcolm X, “l'agneau de Harlem,”19 whom he portrays as a conciliator between blacks and whites after the conquest of his own racial hatred.

It is noteworthy that Cleaver, Davis and Malcolm X all asserted that racism can end in the U.S., and that Depestre chooses to celebrate individuals who worked toward that goal. Although a self-proclaimed Marxist, the Antillean tends to conceive of social conflict more in terms of race than of class. This simplistic and decidedly non-Marxist way of understanding political conflict is a tendency that we find even in his most recent writing. Critic Jean Métellus takes Depestre to task for ignoring class interest in favor of a racial interpretation of contemporary Haitian history in the novel Le mât de cocagne (1979).20 The Martinican playwright Aimé Césaire was found guilty of the same error in his drama about the Haitian Revolution, La Tragédie du Roi Christophe.21 It may well be that the nearly absolute association of class and race that existed in Haiti in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—first the native bourgeoisie's being composed of those racially mixed persons whose features were most Caucasian, and subsequently the black ruling group's gaining ascendancy at the expense of liberal and radical lighter-skinned Haitians whom they exiled or repressed—has imprinted so indelibly on Depestre's consciousness that he conceives of keen human conflict only in racial terms.

Both he and Cardenal, despite their insistence on the scope and the violence of colonialism, have composed long poems in which large-scale social and political conflict is resolved, not through armed struggle as one might expect, but rather via miraculous or quasi-miraculous means.

“Marchas pawnees” infers that U.S. whites might be able to undergo a psychological and behavioral transformation if they assimilate the philosophy contained in Pawnee songs as recorded by frontier ethnographer Alice Fletcher.22 If the white man heeds the soft yet powerful songs of peace, contends Cardenal, just as the Plains Indians attended to the song of the sparrow—whose notes are happier and sharper than those of larger, more powerful birds—then he too may attain wisdom and happiness. And if atomic war signals, in Apocalipsis,” the end of civilization as we now know it, it will also ironically usher in a new social order of perfect harmony in which all conflict will be resolved. Cardenal's visionary speaker describes a nuclear holocaust in which all people disintegrate, evaporate and are genetically transformed by H-bomb and chemical-wielding angels of death. Then comes the incredibly optimistic metamorphosis of a world thought doomed to extinction into a classless society!

Las clases ya no existían más
y vi una especie nueva que había producido la Evolución (…)
era un solo organismo
compuesto de hombres en vez de células.(23)

If this poet stands in his social philosophy for an amalgam of Marxism and Christianity, as he has often stated he does, then it is certainly the prophetic idealism of the latter rather than the materialism of the former that dominates his historical vision.

At the end of Un arc-en-ciel pour l'Occident chrétien, having just spent 133 pages castigating a U.S. family for its unpardonable racism and the U.S. for its demonic militarism that threatens to destroy the world, Depestre unexpectedly envisions a similarly marvelous resolution, which is to be accomplished through wisdom and love. The first of these is represented by Notre-Dame des Cendres, to whom the poet prays:

Reviens fille proaigue du savoir
Régner sur nos phares les plus familiers (…)
Reviens lever avec nos plus tendres marées
                              Un nouvel âge du coeur humain!(24)

The good will of the speaker, the spokesman for all the world's downtrodden, bridges the gap between oppressed and oppressor, since the U.S. rulers seem incapable of such generosity: “J'avance porteur d'une foi / (…) Occident chrétien mon frère terrible / Mon signe de croix le voici: / An nom de la révolte / Et de la justice / Et de la tendresse.”25 The revolutionary socialist gains the upper hand morally, since the “underdeveloped” has become the repository of the ultimate Christian values abandoned by the West.

It was never the intent of either of these Third-World poets to hold a mirror up to the United States in order to reflect it faithfully and totally. Depestre and Cardenal body forth in their works a myth of their gigantic neighbor which grows out of the experience of generations prior to and including their own: the tentacular invader poised over them as a constant threat. Upon this background they embroider patterns of militarism, racism and moral degeneration which are some, although by far not all, of the salient features of North American life.

What is essential is that we in the United States be aware of the continuance and amplification of this myth by some of the most widely read authors of the Caribbean region. We have too long ignored such images of the U.S., and we are too often uncomprehending when our southern neighbors relate to us in terms of that harsh, unflattering myth so out of tune with the ideology with which we are imbued as citizens.


  1. Cardenal, Nueva antologia poética (México: Siglo Veintiuno, 1978), 49.

  2. Depestre, Poète à Cuba (Paris: Pierre Jean Oswald, 1976), 130.

  3. Cardenal, Nueva, p. 89.

  4. Depestre, Poète, p. 119.

  5. Cardenal, Nueva, p. 243.

  6. Depestre, Poète pp. 123–124.

  7. Depestre, Un arc-en-ciel pour l'Occident chrétien (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1966), 114.

  8. Ibid., p. 115.

  9. Cardenal, Antología (Barcelona: Editorial Laia, 1978), 154–155.

  10. Depestre, Poète, p. 52.

  11. Cardenal, Nueva, p. 182.

  12. Ibid., pp. 183–184.

  13. Ibid., p. 203.

  14. Ibid., p. 158.

  15. Ibid., p. 202.

  16. Depestre, Arc-en-ciel. p. 133.

  17. Cardenal, Nueva, p. 219.

  18. Depestre, Poète, p. 124.

  19. Depestre, Arc-en-ciel, p. 114.

  20. “L'anti-mûlatrisme militant des personnages proches du gouvernement aurait été véritablement comme un programme du gouvernement. (…) On ne peut pas laisser croire qu'il n'y a eu que des noirs autour du fromage présidentiel ces deux dernières décennies. Il y a eu au pouvoir des mûlatres et des quarterons et même des blancs fraîchement naturalisés.” (“la négritude et le vandon,” La Quinzaine Littéraire, No. 311 (1979), 12.)

  21. “Il nous semble que si le présentateur nous avait montré Haïti sous l'angle de la lutte des classes (…) il aurait été plus facile de comprendre [les événements historiques de la Révolution haïtienne].” (Hervé and Nicole Fuyet and Guy and Mary Levilain, “Décolonisation et classes sociales dans La Tragédie du Roi Christophe d'Aimé Césaire,” French Review, Vol. 46, No. 6 (May 1976), 1110.)

  22. Alice Cunningham Fletcher, Indian Story and Song from North America (Boston: Small Maynard, 1900).

  23. Cardenal, Nueva, pp. 84–85.

  24. Depestre, Arc-en-ciel, p. 135.

  25. Ibid., pp. 137–138.


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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Henry Cohen (essay date November 1981)

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SOURCE: Cohen, Henry. “Daniel Boone, Moses and the Indians: Ernesto Cardenal's Evolution from Alienation to Social Commitment.” Chasqui: Revista de Literatura-Latinamericana 11, no. 1 (November 1981): 21–32.

[In the following essay, Cohen explores the development of Cardenal's sense of social commitment as expressed through his poetry.]

Jose Luis Gonzalez-Balado has stressed the importance of the Poundian element of el exteriorismo in the poetry of Ernesto Cardenal. As a student at Columbia University in New York during the period 1947–49, the critic writes, the Nicaraguan adopted as one of his prime models Ezra Pound, whose influence is most obvious in Cardenal's contention that “la poesía debe contener historia, y no sólo historia sino también economía, política, mística, sabiduría, incorporando todos los elementos exteriores posibles.”1 Poetry must not simply resonate with the writer's internal reactions to the outside world; the outside world must flow into and inform poetry.2

However imbued Cardenal's verse may be with philosophy and politics in the first part of his career, the relationship of the poet to the world as the arena of social struggle and change is problematic. Although he currently affirms for himself the role of the socially committed prophet-activist, this is a view of his vocation into which Cardenal has evolved. I will try to demonstrate this gradual development by studying poems written at three successive moments of the middle of his literary career. “Kentucky,” “Estrella encontrada muerta en Park Avenue” and “Marchas pawnees” delineate a turning point in Cardenal's journey from social alienation, through a crisis of faith in the possibility of a social role for the seer-poet, to an affirmation of poetry's transforming efficacy and the acceptance of an inspired social commitment that may be called prophetic.3

In his admirable doctoral dissertation of 1979 written at the University of Arizona, Edward F. Elías traces Cardenal's growth into a full-fledged prophetic vocation. Elías's study is much more comprehensive, beginning with the Epigramas composed in the 1940's and extending all the way through the Canto nacional and the Oráculo sobre Managua of the 1970's. The critic perceives Salmos (1961–65) as pivotal, for in these poems “el amor se ve dirigido a Dios,” but also, for the first time, “la fuerza amorosa se extiende horizontalmente. … El hablante básico se halla ya convertido en vocero de un pueblo” (263). In his analysis of Homenaje a los indios americanos, Elías lays stress on Cardenal's denuncia profética of present-day societies as contrasted with indigenous civilizations, a technique encapsulated in the formula: “La historia es profecía” (175). He portrays the poet along these lines in what is presumably his final stage of development in his most recent poetry:

En Canto nacional, el hablante épico-lírico definitivamente funciona como vocero de su pueblo. Su voz es la del profeta que interpreta la realidad circundante, como lo hace también el hablante de Oráculo sobre Managua, y que enuncia y delinea el camino que debe seguir el pueblo oyente de su mensaje. El amor que motiva a este hablante ya es un amor altruista que se dispersa entre toda la humanidad.4

Elías thus details Cardenal's ideas on the social role of the poet, beginning a few years prior to the point at which my analysis will end. I will focus on the period of hesitation and doubt that occurs before the poet resolves his difficulties and assumes social leadership. Our studies would therefore be seen as complementary, even in regard to Homenaje, our point of contact, since we stress different aspects of that book.

“Kentucky,” a Horatian satire on the theme of peior avis aetas, juxtaposes four images of Daniel Boone's idyllic eighteenth-century segundo paraíso with four corresponding images of suburban life and urban pollution in the Kentucky of the 1950's.5 The main idea of the poem is contemporary man's alienation from his natural environment. On the one hand, buffalos graze in countless numbers on a prairie; on the other, buses criss-cross the same terrain; in the past, the Ohio River flowed silently, while now a cacaphony reigns, composed of power lawnmowers, clinking highballs, laughter, raucous radios, cries of volleyball- and croquet-players and baseballs slamming into mitts; deer once roamed the forests of the new frontier, but Forest Grove, Prairie Village, Park Forest and Deer Park now are names of suburban subdivisions composed of uniform tract houses placed on lands cleared of trees; the lone pioneer canoeing along the Ohio, with his rifle and tomahawk, from one beaver trap to the next, has been replaced by a dead river, filled with industrial wastes and household detergents, and smelling of phenol; where Boone heard only the distant howling of wolves in the forest, the night is now filled with blaring hi-fi recordings; the lone hunter grilling a deer loin over an open fire beside a spring has given way to a barbecue of meat purchased in a supermarket and mass-produced a thousand miles from the consumer.

Space limitations permit me to offer only one example each of how skillfully Cardenal uses musical and lexical elements to reinforce his disappointment. The combination of diphthongs and sifflants in the opening lines creates a softness akin to the silence of the scene as well as a sense of infinite expansion along a horizontal plane represented by prairies and river:

Fue en busca de Kentucky andando hacia el oeste, y divisó desde un monte la planicie de Kentucky, los búfalos paciendo como en haciendas de ganado y el silencioso Ohio que corría por las anchas llanuras bordeando Kentucky …

(p. 73)

Against this smooth westward flow is set the shockingly unmellifluous phrase “fraccionamientos suburbanos” with its idea of rupture and containment. In the final stanza, in which is described the pollution of the river, a trio of words beginning with the prefix de-/des-, which intimates loss through attrition, summarizes the loss of the earthly paradise via industrialization:

Y ahora en el Ohio desembocan todas las cloacas, desperdicios industriales, sustancias químicas. Los detergentes de las casas han matado a los peces.

(p. 74)

Cardenal's Daniel Boone is le bon suavage, living in balance with nature, more Indian than European. Conserving natural resources, religiously respectful of his surroundings and in tune with their rhythm, Boone is naive, good, untainted by the preoccupation with property, and ruggedly self-sufficient, in short, a foil for everything that the poet finds distasteful in modern U.S. society. The modern Kentuckian is seen as stationary, hedonistic, dependent, cut off from nature, consumerized, threatened with industrial poisoning and anonymous in his mass identity.

The key to our understanding of this poem lies, I think, in Cardenal's own life experience. In 1957, he entered the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani, Kentucky, for besides being a political radical, he was—and is—a contemplative Christian. I believe that we can interpret the depiction of the contemporary U.S. in this poem as a reflection of the alienation that the poet was feeling at that particular time, and his image of Daniel Boone as a projection of his desire to recapture his own primitive purity, sereneness and equilibrium with nature. Like a monk, Boone is celibate, for rather than finding himself in Eden, he is in an Edenic state, but without an Eve, and therefore without the possibility of the Fall. This Daniel Boone is not even in a position to learn the distinction between good and evil, since the Tree of Knowledge is not visible for the forest, as it were. As God placed Adam in a paradise where all his physical needs would be met, Cardenal sets Boone in similar circumstances. But the Boone who is portrayed here is an anachronism, since he is infantile and devoid of moral and psychological complexity, as Adam was before Eve. It is interesting that Cardenal also depicts the modern Kentuckian as a child; he is characterized by laughter, playful screams, involvement in games and the immediate satisfaction of carnal appetites:

el tintinear de los highballs, las risas, el ronco radio, los gritos del juego de croquet y de volleyball

(p. 73)

But while Daniel Boone's childishness is viewed in positive terms because it is seen as reflective of and participating in a natural order that is harmonious and clean, quiet and peaceful, the modern man's childishness is censurable because it is associated with an attempt to escape or cover over, through anesthesia, artificially produced harmony and organized pleasure, an essentially corrupt and artificial order of things. Cardenal's contemporary American is surrounded by petty paradis artificiels because Boone's segundo paraíso has disappeared. One characteristic of Paradise is that it is there to be lost and never to be found again. The opening lines of the poem are ironic, for one does not search for paradise. Paradise being the absence of any need to search (since everything is perfect as it stands), because he is conscious of searching for paradise, Boone will not find it in Kentucky. Neither will Kentucky remain Edenic. In the same way, Cardenal's search for a contemplative paradise in the Trappist monastery will lead him back into the world, for there the monk and poet Thomas Merton would convince him that the true contemplative must not isolate himself from social problems and political struggles.6 Eventually Cardenal would leave Gethsemani to begin a non-monastic religious commune in the Nicaraguan archipelago of Solentiname: he has recently emerged into the world again in his role as the Sandinista government's Minister of Culture.

The poem “Kentucky” creates the impression that Cardenal would like to retreat from the world, a world unworthy of the social involvement of the poet because it is so corrupt as to have broken ecological faith with the Creator. Cardenal will overcome his pique and his aversion, but not all at once and even then not definitively as we shall see by examining two later poems.

The hablante of “Estrella encontrada muerta in Park Avenue” awakens in the middle of the night as a thunder and lightning storm breaks over New York.7 Next, the nocturnal activity of the city-dwellers and their means of transportation are evoked. Finally, a quotation from the next morning's edition of the Times reports the suicide of a star in her luxury apartment at the height of the storm.

Embedded in the initial description of the storm is the following Biblical quotation, perfectly clear in its reference to the central episodes of Exodus, yet puzzling in its shifting of the apostrophe from Moses to God:

No nos hables Tú. No nos hables Tú que moriremos
..........Que nos hable Moisés.
No nos hables Tú que moriremos.

(p. 75)

The source of this supplication is found in Exodus 19:17–20:17, when Moses leads his people to the foot of Mt. Sinai to meet God. The mountain is described as smoking and quaking as the Lord descends upon it (Exodus 19:18), much like New York on the night of the storm:

Me despertaron los rayos
como un ruido de mudanzas y de rodar de muebles …
...............y parecía que venían todos los rayos del mundo

(p. 75)

When Moses, having ascended Sinai to receive the Law, returns to reveal them to the Hebrews, they are still afraid:

And all the people perceived the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the voice of the horn, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled, and stood far off. and they said unto Moses: “Speak thou with us; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.” And Moses said unto the people: “Fear not; for God is come to prove to you, and that His fear may be before you that ye sin not.”

(Exodus 20:15–17)

The themes of a confused humanity, a stern yet fatherly divine protector and an effective intermediary whose words both clarify and assuage, reappear in this referential context. The intertextual problem is the striking inversion of the Biblical quotation by which the dreaded God is addressed directly while the supposed intermediary Moses seems to be absent.

Indeed, the speaker of the modified Biblical text is ambiguous. Is it the narrator? Is it the star about to kill herself with an overdose of sleeping pills? Is it all the New Yorkers who fear God? The poem's tone is mixed and its discourse is splintered: personal (description of narrator's sense perceptions), reportorial (quotation from New York Times article), Biblical, descriptive (New York at night). This splintered discourse, with its various functions, authors and points of view, reinforced by the inaccurate reproduction of the presumably immutable Word of God, reflects an equally splintered universe, one which has lost its center and thus its meaning. We are left without the means of decoding the universe, in our day and age, whereas when Moses ascended Sinai there was a single source of truth, God, a single conduit of transmission, the prophet chosen by God and recognized and trusted by the people, and a single message tapped into stone in ten commandments which seemed to cover most social situations.

The poem's final image reflects the absence of unequivocal moral communication in the modern world; when the star's corpse is found, she is engulfed by meaningless static noise:

y en el aposento un radio sonando a todo volumen sin ninguna estación.

(p. 76)

The simplicity of the Sinai situation has been replaced by a confusing proliferation of authors, messages and decoders, with the result that modern man is informationally overloaded and thus much more susceptible to sin, despair and death. How can one tune in to the Word of God when there are so many stations on the dial? Not that being cut off from God has produced a thoroughly evil humanity. Cardenal furnishes a balanced portrait of ordinary people left to their own devices, and with a vague memory of the Mosaic Law sinning (ilegítimos amores; los que … roban allá arriba una caja de hierro; los que violan a una muchacha; el grito … de una mujer en el parque) and engaged in non-sinful activities ranging from the banal to the sublime (se masturban; los que se están desvistiendo; legítimos amores; los que rezan). What is clear is that God is not there to guide them through the urban concrete wilderness, to intervene miraculously in their threatened lives, to place a reassuring prophet in their midst who will tell them which are the true laws to be followed.

The idea that there is a Moses figure in the poem is suggested by the privileged point of view of the speaker, who is able to perceive the entire city from above, just as Moses could survey his people from atop Mt. Sinai. In the opening lines of the poem, from the very limited point of view of a person lying abed with the blinds drawn, so that he can only guess at the source of the noise and light, he is suddenly placed in a position to see the lightning criss-crossing from the Upper West Side to Times Square and from the Woolworth Building to the Chrysler Building. He can also simultaneously perceive the Third Avenue El on the East Side and the New York Central trains emerging from the Grand Central Station tunnel at West 125th Street as well as what is visible through apartment windows and in Central Park.

This hablante does not prophesy to the New Yorkers; neither does he seem to maintain contact with God, whose very presence here is problematic. Rather, he contributes to our mystification, leaving us with additional questions about the relationship between man and God. While the Biblical Moses mediates between the human and the divine, the hablante is a kind of anti-Moses, who remains on his own mountain and whose knowledge is limited to what he sees, hears from his vantage point and reads in the newspapers. He is non-judgmental and therefore non-prophetic, but he is sympathetic toward suffering humanity, accepting of both the good and the bad in their character and their lot. The reader is left in need of an explanation, awaiting a modern Moses as he too wanders, fearful and unsure of his destination, in the desert of ignorance. Living in New York with the masses, the speaker is in fact more a confused Hebrew than a Moses. His sense of solidarity with humanity is expressed by his sharing of its limitations and search. (For example, he admits not even knowing whether the fire truck whose siren he can hear is on the way to his own building or not.) He is a humble and humane moralist, rather than the detached and disgusted moralizer of the poem “Kentucky.”

Cardenal suggests so many possible meanings that the very theme of his poem seems to be the search for meaning in an absurd universe. Nearly every event and object seems polyvalent. Perhaps the lightning at night signals that God is still guiding His people. Or it may be a sign of God's wrath visited on the urban sinners for violating the Commandments. Has the star died because she has indeed heard the word of God (as the Hebrews were convinced would happen to them) or because, having had no communication, she has committed suicide out of despair? Is the coincidence of the star's death and the storm a trivial event, reducible to a mere obituary in the Times, or does the reminiscence of the death of Christ, itself attended by the outbreak of terrifying natural forces, signify that the death of the star is analagous to the Passion, that each individual's death recreates the myth of human redemption and eternal rebirth? Is the cathedral-N.Y. Times-Woolworth-Chrysler rapprochement a symbol of the new Sinai (suggested by the fact that all these are towers), making new capitalist commandments for the Consumer Society to live by? Is God venting his anger on those institutions because they have conspired to violate his law? Or are all these secular and non-secular skyscrapers the symbols—as Vincente Cicchitti maintains—of the modern Babel, the symbol of non-communication, human disunity and punishment for aspiration to God-head?8 The poem may simply be an expression of Cardenal's misgivings and apprehensions about the meaning of life and the place of man in the world. If we accept this premise, different aspects of the poet himself could be understood to be represented by the various personages of the poem: the hablante (privileged yet still partial vision), the Times reporter (insufficiency of perceived phenomena to explain either life or death), Moses (overview and service to his people), and the dead star (separation from God, feeling of abandonment).

This poem seems to be a systematic expression of the opposite of prophecy, as this concept is defined, as distinguished from poetry, by the Biblical scholar Abraham J. Heschel:

In contrast to the inspiration of the poet, which each time breaks forth suddenly, unexpectedly, from an unknown source, the inspiration of the prophet is distinguished, not only by an awareness of its source and of a will to impart the content of inspiration, but also by the coherence of the inspired messages as a whole (with their constant implication of earlier communications), by the awareness of being a link in the chain of the prophets who preceded him, and by the continuity which links the revelations he receives one to another.9

Nevertheless, if “Kentucky” represents the world as unworthy of redemptive prophecy, “Estrella encontrada muerta en Park Avenue” at least opens up the possibility of prophecy in the modern world by demonstrating its need and the desire of some of humanity to make contact with a prime authority or ultimate source of wisdom and salvation. The poet seems willing to sympathize with and ready to commit himself to mankind. No longer the anti-social Daniel Boone questing for an unattainable paradise, he seems almost prepared to assume the role of a Moses—albeit an ignorant and confused one—and to attempt to bridge the gap between the secular and the sacred.

The figure of the poet-redeemer emerges optimistically in “Marchas pawnees,” one of the key poems of Cardenal's monumental Homenaje a los indios americanos.10 The poem contrasts nineteenth-century North American Indians, who make peace among the tribes within the framework of religious understanding, and the twentieth-century leaders of the U.S. military-industrial complex who wage war on their fellow human beings in order to sustain an expanding capitalist economy. It is a powerful piece of political propaganda, using the Utopian idealization of native Americans as a foil for the most flagrant examples of inhumane statements and behavior by U.S. governmental, industrial and military leaders during the Vietnam War. Part of Cardenal's message is that peace and profits are simply incompatible in the capitalist system. But instead of stopping with satire, as he does in Kentucky, he moves beyond cynical condemnation to suggest that the gap can (and very well may) be bridged between the human and the dehumanized, the caring and the callous, the sacred and the profane.

The structure of the poem is one of hope, for the means to convert white Americans to a sense of the sacredness of life is there, if only they will grasp and heed the message. Several references to birds are scattered throughout the poem, beginning in an oblique way that sheds no immediate light on the meaning of the whole:

era en primavera, cuando se aparean los pájaros
o en verano, cuando hacen sus nidos

(p. 172)

o en otoño, cuando vuelen en bandadas.
No en invierno cuando está dormida la vida

(p. 173)

These early references to birds draw our attention because of their seemingly utter inappropriateness in the context. They are surrounded by images of Vietnam War troop movements and by lists of percentages of return on stocks in giant corporations. Besides preparing the reader to eventually recognize the ornithological theme as the key to the poem, our ability to focus on something regarded by the Establishment as insignificant is a confirmation of the message of the poem, as we shall see.

An Indian priest contends that birds are privy to certain truths which, if his people learned them, would bring them happiness:

Una vez un sacerdote iba por una pradera
y vio un nido escondido entre el zacate y se dijo
si mi pueblo aprendiera de los pájaros
la tribu estaría alegre, llena de niños.

(p. 174)

In the lines immediately preceding, we read that the winds, although invisible, have great force, a truth known to birds, of course, who fly on air currents. Cardenal is telling us that the most powerful forces in the world are unseen and impalpable, and that the essence of life escapes and contradicts the capitalists' aggressivity and materialism. Not only are birds wise, but they can also communicate their wisdom. Another Indian priest is able to interpret a sparrow's song for his people because he is sensitized to it by virtue of his sacred function and because the message seems to lie in its very form:11

Un sacerdote oyó cantar un pájaro una mañana
con notas más alegres y agudas que los otros
lo buscó y era el gorrión, el más débil
se dijo: ésta es unha lección para mi pueblo
todos pueden ser felices y tener una canción.

(p. 176)

Song is thus established by the poet as the medium by which life's important truths are transmitted. Near the end of the poem, an old Indian agrees to record the sacred songs of the U.S. plains Indians for Alice Fletcher, a frontier ethnologist. That act is analogous to the birds' transmission of wisdom, via the priests, to the Indians.12 The sacred chants of the peacemaking Pawnees are recorded on Miss Fletcher's gramophone. Like the sparrow, the Indians, the weakest people of the continent yet the ones with the clearest song (here, read: “cultural values,” “world-view”), hold the key to wisdom and happiness and are willing to pass it on to the white man. The parallel between birds and Indians is underlined throughout the poem by allusions to their common migratory and flocking patterns. We also know that the potential for effective communication exists between whites and Indians, for we learn in the poem that the former have taught the latter to profane tobacco, which had formally fulfilled a strictly sacred function in their culture, and we suppose that this communication conduit is reversible. We are also told that Indians know the means of mediating between God and man. To the white man Indians can teach wisdom and happiness by giving to him that sense of the sacred which has been lost in the exploitation of nature, as well as the art of peace-making, which is seen as anathema by capitalism:

And, man
dice el vice-presidente de la Cámara de Comercio
de Wichita, Kansas
                    aquí hay prosperidad. La verdad
          es que si mañana terminara la guerra
habría pánico

(p. 173)

“epidemia de paz” dijo [President Lyndon] Johnson (Time, Feb. 17, 67) (p. 174)

On the level of economics, if corporate capitalism is bellicose, exploitative and destructive of the natural and social orders, it must be replaced. Its substitute is clearly indicated in the references to the Pawnees:

          Una manta. Unas cuentas de colores
          una pipa labrada por Gabilán Azul
                                        gratuitamente de tribu en tribu
en un intercambio no comercial sino religioso
gratis, a través de grandes extensiones
de los Estados Unidos.

(p. 172)

Era también un intercambio de bienes
y así los productos artesinales y artísticos de una tribu
iban gratis de tribu en tribu
a través de los Estados Unidos.

(p. 175)

The opposition between peace linked with spirituality on the one hand and war tied to materialism on the other is simplistic in its starkness. Behind it lies an elaborate piece of thinking on economics and culture which can be understood only from a reading of the entire work Homenaje a los indios americanos. Since such an analysis lies beyond the compass of the present study, suffice it to say that a Utopian transformation in society such as that envisioned and even thought possible by Cardenal must take place simultaneously on several levels: psychological, spiritual, economic, cultural and political. Cardenal casts himself in the role of the messenger/redeemer of the dominant North American culture. If song is the medium, then the poet is unquestionably the hero.

In summary, we see that Cardenal, having exhibited enough of a social commitment to engage in youthful clandestine activities against the Somoza regime, yet reticent about remaining in a corrupt world, seeks to withdraw in the late 1950's to a monastic retreat in order to recapture a lost innocence and purity.13 And like a new Daniel Boone, he is cut off from the rest of the human race, for which he appears to have little patience or understanding.

The poet then leaves behind this self-indulgent and self-righteous posture, casting himself in the role of a skeptical anti-Moses, affirming the superiority of his perspective on human problems, yet doubting the continuing commitment of God to the human race, identifying with the mass of confused and suffering humanity, yet uncertain of the efficacy of prophetic leadership in a world whose center has been dislodged.

Finally, Cardenal has moved to an optimistic conception of the social function of the poet and of the efficacy of the poetic word to transform the outer world. His self-image retains both the Edenic innocence of Daniel Boone and the prophetic quality of Moses, while taking on the philosophical wisdom of the Amerindian and the instinctual force of the animal kingdom.14


  1. Cardenal quoted in José Luis González-Balado, Ernesto Cardenal: poeta, revolucionario, monje (Salamanca: Ediciones Sígueme, 1978) p. 78. For a detailed analysis of Cardenal's assimilation of Poundian techniques, one should consult Robert Pring-Mill's introduction to his volume of translations, Marilyn Monroe and Other Poems (London: Search Press, 1975), pp. 12–28.

  2. “Behind this colossal effort lies a conviction that there must be such interpenetration of specialized knowledge if there is to be a real civilization, and further that poetry alone, in this uniquely muscle-bound age, could liberate the knowledge so industriously collected and stored away by others.” George Dekker, The Cantos of Ezra Pound (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1963) p. 135.

  3. The chronology of Cardenal's poetry is problematic. Pring-Mill dates and cites specific documentary sources for several poems, based on conversations with the poet himself. Although “Kentucky” was first published in Oración por Marilyn Monroe y otros poemas (Medellín: La Tertulia) in 1965, I believe that it could have at least been begun when Cardenal's impressions of Kentucky were fresh, either when he was in the Trappist monastery in Gethsemani, Ky. in 1957–1959, or shortly afterward. Pring-Mill tells us that while a novice Cardenal composed no poetry, but that he did keep “a notebook of loosely structured prose meditations, on the theme of love as the matrix of existence,” which later became Vida en el amor (loc. cit., p. 18). He may also therefore have kept notes that were to become future poems. Since Cardenal went to Medellín, Colombia early in 1961 to finish his seminary training and since he published Oración por Marilyn Monroe in that city, we can be fairly sure that the poem dates from the early 1960's at the latest.

    “Estrella encontrada muerta” was first published in Zona franca in 1968 (No. 58, p. 4), but since Cardenal seems to be referring in the poem to the death of Marilyn Monroe in 1962, it could have been written at any time during the six-year interim. If he had composed it before 1965, however, one could presume that he would have included it in Oración por Marilyn Monroe; it was therefore probably completed between 1965 and 1968, or approximately four to eight years after “Kentucky.”

    “Marchas pawnees” first appeared in Homenaje a los indios americanos in 1969 (León: Universidad Autónoma de Nicaragua), so it was written fairly soon after “Estrella encontrada muerta.” Pring-Mill informs us (loc. cit., pp. 18, 27) that only after Cardenal took up residence in Solentiname, Nicaragua did he turn his interest from pre-Columbian to less advanced civilizations such as that of the Pawnees. This narrows that date of composition to between February 1966 and 1969 and points to the abruptness of the shift from the vocational tentativeness of “Estrella encontrada muerta” and the self-assuredness of “Marchas pawnees,” a sudden optimism probably linked to Cardenal's undertaking his social-evangelical commune project in Solentiname.

  4. Edward F. Elías, “Ernesto Cardenal: nuevo lenguaje, nueva realidad,” Diss. University of Arizona 1979, p. 263.

  5. Ernesto Cardenal, Nueva antología poética (México: Siglo Veintiuno, 1978) pp. 73–74. Subsequent references to Cardenal's poetry in the body of the article will be followed by page numbers in parentheses; those numbers refer to this edition.

  6. While a student at Columbia University in 1947–49, Cardenal first read and was deeply influenced by Merton's early poetry: Thirty Poems (1944), A Man in the Divided Sea (1946), Figures for an Apocalypse (1948) and The Tears of the Blind Lions (1949). He would later publish translations of some of this poetry in Antología de la poesía norteamericana, published with José Coronel Urtecho in Madrid by Aguilar in 1963. Cardenal's desire to enter the Gethsemani, Kentucky monastery was probably spurred by Merton's presence there. Although they had never met, both were leftists and serious Catholics. In the 1930's Merton had been a member of a Communist youth organization. He had entered Gethsemani in 1941 and had been ordained in 1949. At the time of Cardenal's entry into the monastery, Merton was the Master of Novices, which would have placed him in close contact with Cardenal. Merton would later publish translations of Cardenal's poetry in New Directions anthologies. [Vide González-Balado, p. 94, and Janet Lynne Smith, An Annotated Bibliography of and about Ernesto Cardenal (Tempe, Ariz.: Center for Latin American Studies, Arizona State Univ., 1979), entries VI. 8, VI. 35, VI. 37, pp. 52, 56.]

  7. Nueva antología poética, pp. 75–76.

  8. Vicente Cicchitti, “Homenaje a los indios americanos de Ernesto Cardenal” in Elisa Calabrese (ed.), Ernesto Cardenal: poeta de la liberación latinoamericana (Buenos Aires: Fernando García Cambeiro, 1975) pp. 140, 147.

  9. Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper and Row, 1962) pp. 388–389.

  10. Nueva antología poética, pp. 172–177.

  11. Mircea Eliade, in his essay “La nostalgie du Paradis dans les traditions primitives,” lists as a primary trait of paradisiacal man in many world cultures his ability to comprehend the language of the animals. More specifically, in many civilizations shamans imitate the cries of birds when entering a trance-like state leading to mystical union with the deity. Knowledge of animals' language is a widespread sign of contact with higher truth:

    Remarquons tout de suite qu'oublier l'amitié des animaux (…) n'implique pas, dans l'horizon de la mentalité archaïque, une regression dans une condition biologique inférieure. D'une part, les animaux sont chargés d'un symbolisme et d'une mythologie trés importants pour la vie religieuse; par conséquent, communiquer avec les animaux (…) équivaut à s'approprier une vie spirituelle beaucoup plus riche que la vie simplement humaine du commun des mortels. D'autre part, les animaux ont, aux yeux du “primitif,” un prestige considérable: ils connaissant les secrets de la vie et de la Nature …

    (Mythes, rêves et mystères, Paris: Gallimard, 1953, p. 85.)

  12. Alice Cunningham Fletcher, Indian Story and Song from North America (Boston: Small Maynard, 1900). The two bird episodes quoted in the text are imitated by Cardenal from “Story and Song of the Bird's Nest” and “The Story and Song of the Wren,” pp. 30–32 and 53, 56, respectively, of Fletcher's collection.

  13. Cardenal's conspiratorial role and that of his friends are told in “Hora O,” Nueva antología poética, pp. 27–51.

  14. “Su palabra se instala entre la poesía y la profecía: su poesía, principalmente política, es cantada por un profeta que busca la efectiva comunicación con el pueblo para entregarle una palabra nueva, sin corrupción, originalmente revolucionaria.” Jaime de Giorgis, “Tres poemas de Ernesto Cardenal: ‘Hora O,’ ‘Economía de Tahuantinsuyu,’ ‘Oración por Marilyn Monroe’” in Calabrese, p. 44.

Principal Works

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Ansias lengua de la poesia nueva nicaraguense (poetry) 1948

Gethsemani, Ky (poetry) 1960

Hora 0 [Zero Hour] (poetry) 1960

Epigramas: Poemas (poetry) 1961

Oracion por Marilyn Monroe, y otros poemas [Marilyn Monroe and Other Poems] (poetry) 1965

El estrecho dudoso [The Doubtful Strait] (poetry) 1966

Salmos [The Psalms of Struggle and Liberation] (poetry) 1967

Mayapan (poetry) 1968

Homenaje a los indios americanos [Homage to the American Indians] (poetry) 1969

La hora cero y otros poemas [Zero Hour and Other Documentary Poems] (poetry) 1971

En Cuba [In Cuba] (nonfiction) 1972

Epigramas (poetry) 1972

Canto nacional (poetry) 1973

Oraculo sobre Managua (poetry) 1973

La santidad de la revolucion [The Sanctity of the Revolution] (poetry) 1976

Poesia cubana de la revolucion (poetry) 1976

Apocalypse, and Other Poems (poetry) 1977

Epigramas (poetry) 1978

Tocar el cielo (poetry) 1981

Wasala: Poems (poetry) 1983

Vuelos de victoria [Flights of Victory: Songs in Celebration of the Nicaraguan Revolution] (poetry) 1984

With Walker in Nicaragua and Other Early Poems, 1949–1954 (poetry) 1985

From Nicaragua with Love: Poems 1979–1986 (poetry) 1986

Golden UFOs: The Indian Poems/Los Ovnis de oro: poemas indios (poetry) 1992

Cosmic Canticle (poetry) 1993

Jorge H. Valdés (essay date fall–winter 1983)

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SOURCE: Valdés, Jorge H. “The Evolution of Cardenal's Prophetic Poetry.” Latin American Literary Review 11, no. 23 (fall–winter 1983): 25–40.

[In the following essay, Valdés examines the development of the theme of prophesy throughout Cardenal's poetry.]

In a frequently-cited interview with Ronald Christ in 1974, Ernesto Cardenal, when asked about his guiding esthetic, maintained that his later poetry, «is above all prophecy in the Biblical sense of guidance.»1 Guidance, he added, is based on «‘wisdom’—in the Biblical sense of wisdom, in the sense the prophets gave to the word.»2 Although he does not say so, Cardenal's prophetic poetry shows that wisdom is based on either a faith in God, a knowledge of history, or both. In characterizing prophecy as guidance based on wisdom, Cardenal casts aside the sense in which the word means a prediction of singular happenings with little or no value as a guide to our actions. Instead, he embraces a notion of prophecy that is both pragmatic and didactic; in his own words, prophetic poetry is that which seeks and prescribes «the solution for our problems, a poetry that serves for something in the construction of a new society.»3 Cardenal's poetry indicates that by «solution» he does not mean guidance in the negative sense of merely predicting the end of our present civilization but in the positive sense of suggesting the make-up of a new society. The dominant mood of prophetic poetry is one of certainty, both about the termination of the old society and about the creation of a new. As Cardenal develops his prophetic poetry, the basis for his certainty shifts from a faith in God's providential plan to reasoned reflection upon history and pre-history. Ultimately, Cardenal's prophetic poetry serves a double function: it hails the coming of «a new society» even as it serves as a means of achieving it.

In interpreting what Cardenal means when he uses «prophecy» to characterize his poetry, we immediately recognize that he does not seek to characterize his entire body of work, but only Homage to the American Indians (1959–1970) and works written after it. He distinguishes his earliest collection of poetry, the widely-disseminated Epigrams (1952–1956), from his prophetic poetry when he says: «My epigrams were written when I was young and they are a poetry of love and hate, some of both love and hate at the same time, because while they are political poems they are also love poems. It was much later that I developed a different kind of poetry—social, political and prophetic.»4 Given the meaning of «prophetic.» arrived at by examining Cardenal's statements above (further substantiated by his remarks here), the poems in Epigrams cannot be called prophetic. Clearly, the love poems do not qualify because they are narrowly personal in their focus. But even those epigrams with a political theme cannot be said to qualify. They tell of Cardenal's emotional reactions5 to the political and economic injustices of Anastasio Somoza Sr.'s regime without offering an historical lesson; that is, «wisdom» gained through analysis and reflection. Consequently, they do not meet either of the two criteria for prophetic poetry: constructive guidance toward a new social order and certainty about the coming of such an order.

In «Zero Hour» (1954–1956), the other work of major importance written during the early stages of Cardenal's evolution, we notice a poetic strategy different from that of the Epigrams. Not only has the focus shifted from the poet's emotions to an impersonal portrayal of his social milieu, but it has been enlarged to include post-colonial history in Nicaragua and other Central American countries. Composed of three lengthy parts preceded by a brief prologue, «Zero Hour» documents four stages of the political-economic history of Central America: (1) the political repression by the Somoza regime just before the poem was composed; (2) the economic exploitation and political corruption brought about by North American companies with holdings in Central America; (3) the insurrection led by Augusto César Sandino and Sandino's subsequent assassination; (4) and, finally, the unsuccessful Conspiracy of April, 1954, led by Adolfo Báez Bone, to bring down the Somoza government. The new, wider focus of «Zero Hour» shows an increased interest in description and narration and a preference for a documentary style, which dominates the poetry written after 1960. In contrast to the personal viewpoint and cathartic emphasis in Epigrams, documentary poetry presents a depersonalized portrayal of external, social-political reality in an effort to incite the reader to rebel against present social conditions. Whereas the political epigrams chiefly express Cardenal's personal bitterness and anger toward social conditions, «Zero Hour» takes the reader along the route that Cardenal took to arrive at his political convictions, and the reader undergoes the same reflections and emotions that led the poet to his beliefs. As a result, the poem becomes richer as felt experience and makes a stronger didactic impact.

Yet in spite of these successes, its strongly social theme, and its clear support for reflection and «wisdom» as the means by which we arrive at political conclusions, «Zero Hour» does not completely fit the criteria for prophetic poetry. Its perspective is so confined to denunciation and protest that it is not able to offer a constructive attitude, to posit a new social order. Even so, at the end of «Zero Hour,» Cardenal declares vaguely that the people of Nicaragua will be redeemed by the heroic sacrifice of Báez Bone. Although this hope is far from the certainty of conviction which characterizes the prophetic poetry, it does suggest what will lead to it.

It is not until the Psalms, written during Cardenal's stay in La Cega (Medellin, Colombia) between 1961 and 1965, that the first clear signs of prophetic expression appear. Inspired by the psalms of David, yet applied to our own times, the psalms of Cardenal are chiefly songs in praise of God and a testimony of the suffering inflicted on man by political tyranny. Cardenal communicates this anguish effectively through plaints and fervent pleas to God, through the denunciation of violations of human rights, and through graphic descriptions of heinous political atrocities. Integrated into the lament and protest we frequently hear the praise of God and, to a lesser extent, the hope for justice and retribution:

Defend me Lord from false trials!
Defend those exiled and those deported
those accused of espionage and sabotage and
condemned to forced labor
The weapons of the Lord are more terrible
than nuclear weapons!
Those who purge others will in turn be purged
But I will sing to You because You are just
I will sing to You in my psalms
                                                  in my poems(6)

In the declaration that «Those who purge others will in turn be purged,» the expression of hope for future justice appears to contain prophetic certainty. However, the force of the conviction is diminished by the context of the poem, the predominance of imploration over assertion, and there is no guidance toward a new social order. We see a similar pattern in «Hear my just cause, oh Lord,» where Cardenal integrates denunciation, plaints, an exaltation of God, and a concluding assertion of hope: «We are not allowed in their [the rich men's] Club / but You will satiate us / when the night passes … »7 This hope, however, is not only veiled, but it is projected vaguely into a time in the future. The suppliant's perspective is too much within the anguish of the present to proclaim with certainty a future redemption. In other psalms such as «I will sing of all Thy wonderful deeds, oh Lord» «Psalm 9» and «Thou God of vengeance» «Psalm 93,» the expression of hope has the strength and the ringing confidence of full-fledged prophetic statement. This is particularly evident in «I will sing of all Thy wonderful deeds, oh Lord,» which also presents as an accomplished fact the political redemption Cardenal desires:

I will sing of all Thy wonderful deeds, oh Lord
I will sing You psalms
For their Armed Forces were defeated
The powerful have fallen from power(8)

Although this psalm lacks the constructive ideals of prophetic poetry, it can nevertheless be pinpointed as the genesis of Cardenal's attitude of certainty.

The psalm «Their shares shall wither as the grass» is as close as Cardenal comes in this book to meeting both criteria for prophetic poetry. In this psalm, we not only find proclamations of certainty similar to those of the psalms already discussed, but we also discern a sustained focus on the future disappearance of our present society. Whereas in other psalms affliction and denunciation are the chief interests of the poet, in this psalm all such interests are subordinated to the focus on the future. At the beginning of the psalm we are offered a series of ethical imperatives: «Fret not that they make many millions / … Neither be envious of millionaires or film-stars.»9 These, we soon find, are used only in the service of prophecy: «for soon their names will not appear in any newspaper / nor will even the learned know their names / For they shall soon be cut down like the grass of the fields» (p. 83).10 Even when the psalm suspends its prophetic perspective to portray the calamities of the present, it does so only to insist on the transitoriness of these calamities:

They enlarge the concentration camps
invent new kinds of torture
new methods of ‘investigation’
They rest not in the night for making plans
plans how to overcome us
                                                            and exploit us more
but the Lord laughs at them
knowing they will shortly fall from power
The arms they manufacture will turn against them
Their political systems will be swept from the face of the earth
their political parties will no longer exist
And their technicians' plans will come to naught.(11)

(pp. 83–84)

Cries of anguish and denunciation and even the vague hope of redemption are displaced by the absolute certainty of a future in which commercialism, economic inequality, political persecution, and all maleficent applications of technology for warfare will have disappeared. The poem culminates in a clear vision of a time in the future which the poet represents as having already taken place. In this vision, «Leadership will pass unto the meek / (the ‘pacifists’)» (p. 83)12 who have replaced the dictator:

I have seen the dictator's portrait everywhere
                                                            —it spread like a flourishing tree—
and then I passed that way again
                                                            it was not there
I sought it and I found it not
I sought it and I found no portrait
nor might his name be named.(13)

(p. 84)

Even the very name of the dictator will have been banished from human memory. Thus we see that although this psalm satisfies the criterion of certainty, it focuses more on the disappearance of the old society than on guiding toward the new with specific ideals.

If the poems in the Psalms show that the genesis and first steps in the development of Cardenal's prophetic poetry result from an absolute confidence in God, Homage to the American Indians (1959–1970) shows the other source of this development: the historical lesson offered by an examination of Amerindian cultures. In Homage, the considerable knowledge acquired through the study of historical and poetic texts, both pre- and post-Columbian, orient Cardenal toward a prophetic statement different from that of the Psalms. The Psalms and Homage both proclaim the coming of social justice. But in the Psalms, this strong conviction is stated negatively, for the most part,—as social-political retribution and as the destruction of a nefarious system of values. In Homage, while not entirely abandoning the apocalyptical tendency of the Psalms, Cardenal largely exalts the values of the American Indians in order to guide us toward a new society and system of values which he is confident will come about. He thereby transcends the apocalyptical mode of the Psalms. A second difference between the Psalms and Homage shows up in the only poem of Homage that is apocalyptical—«Mayapán.» The certainty of the end of social injustice in the Psalms is completely anchored in a faith in God, whereas in «Mayapán» this certainty begins to be justified rationally through historical analysis.

«Mayapán» apart, Homage comes to be the indispensable complement to the Psalms, for it presents guidance in a constructive sense, basing it on the rational wisdom of history. Homage has acquired this constructive sense because Cardenal has discovered in the Amerindian past a form of individual being and communal living close to that of the future society he envisions. That is, civilization is destined to a future that has passed once already, a «future Arcadia [that] is not an empty dream … it already took place and new signs announce it in the midst of the hecatomb.»14 What were the characteristics of the indigenous cultures that so strongly attracted the Nicaraguan poet and led him to use them as the model of his ideal future society? Among the several answers that Homage gives, the most prominent are the supremacy of spiritual values, including aesthetics, over all material interests and the strong sense of social and economic equity. Under these conditions man is well-integrated into the society and into the universe.

The importance given to spiritual values, especially religion, rather than pragmatic ones is clearly stated in «Lost Cities,» which examines the culture of a Mayan metropolis which is a thousand years older than Tikal:

Their cities were of temples and they lived in the fields,
among milpas and palm and papaya trees.
The arch of their temples was a copy of their huts.
The roads were only for processions.
Religion was the only tie among them,
but it was a religion freely taken …

(p. 11)15

They did not work metals. Their tools were of stone,
and technologically they remained in the Stone Age.

(p. 12)

Time was sacred. The days were gods
Past and future suffused their songs.

(p. 12)

Another instance of the Amerindians' appreciation of the spiritual aspects of existence emerges in their esthetic interests. These interests are seen as manifestations of the Creator and they consist of the beauty of Amerindian songs, poetry, painting, and ritual. As King Netzahualcóyotl states in «Mexican Songs II,»

You are in these songs Giver of Life.
I give my flowers and songs to my people.

(p. 19)16

We have come to bring joy to Anahuac with paintings
The flowers of painting

(p. 20)

Moreover, given the Amerindian's strong esthetic sense, it is not surprising that an esthetic appreciation takes precedence over a commercial exploitation of the natural world:

… I, Netzahualcóyotl

(p. 18)17

Picker of cacao flowers …
Not Cacaos (the COINS
for buying and selling in markets, and not for drinking)
                    but the flower.

(p. 18)

Thus, in the Amerindian world Cardenal has discovered a mode of existence, both private and social, which harmoniously integrates man into his surroundings. In this world, song or aesthetics, prayer or religion, and act or ethics provide the basis for a conduct that shows a respect for nature, fellow human beings, and community. It is community that chiefly attracts the poet. As José Miguel Oviedo has well observed, Cardenal perceives in the Amerindian community «an historical lesson to be examined and reviewed: many of those primitive peoples found the reason for living communally which modern civilization has forgotten.»18 Cardenal sees that, in the culture of the Amerindians, communal living partakes of both spiritual and pragmatic values: on the one hand, religion, aesthetics, and ethics, on the other, economics; both are amply reflected in «The Economy of Tahuantinsuyu.» Almost in the manner of a catalogue, Cardenal enumerates in the poem the spiritual and pragmatic virtues of the Incas' communal system. (At the same time, he juxtaposes to these virtues the economic practices of our contemporary world, producing an effect of powerful contrast). For example, in linking ethics and economics, Cardenal shows how the absence of money in the Amerindian world eliminates robbery and prostitution. In addition, neither is there «Administrative Graft nor embezzlement … No Indian was ever sold / and there was chicha for everybody» («The Economy of Tahuantinsuyu,» p. 36).19 What is evident here is an equitable system of economics without poverty or hunger: «The function of the State / was to feed the people» (p. 38).20 In this society even blind people are able to be productive and are not exploited. Another law of this society is that «The land belonged to whoever worked it / and not to the landlord» (p. 38).21 That is, this society is nothing less than an «Agrarian communism / THE SOCIALIST EMPIRE OF THE INCAS» (p. 40)22 with laws for the protection of even domestic animals.

Despite the utopian idealism of the poem, Cardenal shows himself clearly aware of the defects of this ancient society: «And not everything was perfect at the ‘Inca Paradise’» (p. 40).23 But he nevertheless leaves no doubt that the virtues of the society more than compensate for its defects:

But their myths
                                        were not those of the Economists!
Religious truth
                                        and political truth
were one and the same to the people
Economics with religion

(p. 40)24

In this last line we again see that integrated world view which the Amerindians held, a view in which religious truth was complemented by economic practices. That such a world would exert so strong an attraction for Cardenal («the moneyless society we dream of» [p. 37]25 is easily understood if we remember that for him true religion does not consist of empty rituals. True religion must instead contain a pragmatic social concern and work toward the establishment of social, political, and economic justice: «… true religion … comes to the aid of widows and orphans …» (p. 327).26

If the Amerindian past offers Cardenal a reality more akin to his own values, it also instills in him, by the fact of its having been achieved, a greater degree of confidence in the reestablishment of true communal living. Nothing, however, serves to fortify Cardenal's position as much as the remarkable parallels between the decline of one Amerindian community, Mayapán, and our troubled present. In these parallels, Cardenal finds an historical lesson that, in effect, explains why our civilization is declining and what will have to take place before a new, enlightened one can emerge. Specifically, Cardenal finds in the ancient city of Mayapán that «fissure in the aesthetic and moral unity of the Mayan world.»27

An example of the opposite of the virtuous ancient Mayan cultures, Mayapán is characterized by a technological development and a vast military power through which it extends its totalitarian rule to other cities in Yucatán. The supremacy of these two interests over all others, far from contributing to Mayapán's advancement as a civilization, results in an appalling cultural poverty and an abandonment of transcendent values in favor of commercialism:

Monochrome pottery, monotonous
as at the beginning, as the Olmecs
or: as filling station billboards on a Texas highway

(p. 27)28

Mediocre sculptures in the temples
censers of bad, porous clay; and made in molds;
gods by the tens, mass production, assembly line,
                                        Henry Ford

(p. 28)

Yet, in spite of its commercial and military development, «MAYAPÁN THE WALLED CITY FELL» («Mayapán,» p. 29).29 An internal revolt against the long totalitarian and misguided rule of the Cocom dynasty initiates Mayapán's rapid decline, «like someone coming down a pyramid» (p. 30),30 and Cardenal feels, the parallels being so evident, that our capitalist civilization is also doomed to fall. In discovering a mirror of our present declining civilization in the past, Cardenal arrives at the conclusion that «history and prophecy are the same» («Mayapán,» p. 32).31 Cardenal here means simply that we can learn about the future through a study of the past. What he later realizes, as the interview with Christ makes clear, is that «history is prophecy» only insofar as it enables us to find specific directives in «the construction of a new society.»

The prophetic expression of Homage reveals a double evolution: on the one hand, the certainty evident in the Psalms is strengthened in Homage especially in «Mayapán» where the proclamation of the end of injustice has roots not only in faith but in history; on the other hand Homage initiates constructive guidance by exalting the communal values of the past and by offering them as models for the future. These communal values, Cardenal is convinced, will reemerge. However, he does not base his confidence in their return on history, but vaguely, on faith.32 The lack of historical justification for Cardenal's confidence is clearly a limitation. It results from the poet's relatively short historical reach and from the absence of any indication in the history after Mayapán of a restoration of communal values. In fact, Mayapán represents the beginning of a process of decline that Cardenal feels extends to the present.

It is not until the poetry written after Homage, such as «Nicaraguan Canto» (1970–1972) and «Oracle Over Managua» (1972–1973), that Cardenal's content achieves, according to his own definition, its purest prophetic character. Evidencing a remarkable development in their poetic quality (e.g., control of tone, ease of manner, use of jarring details, creation of sustained tension), both poems expand their historical perspective back to the most remote pre-historical times. Concomitantly, they express an attitude of absolute certainty and uplift toward the institution of a new social order. Unlike the certainty of Homage, «Mayapán» apart, the certainty in these poems is justified primarily through the «wisdom» of historical knowledge, not solely on faith in God.

The earliest manifestation of the expanded historical perspective shows itself in «Nicaraguan Canto,» a poem of strong, sudden contrasts between the calm beauty of the Nicaraguan landscape and the violent political corruption of the country. Cardenal opens the poem with a lyrical description of fauna and flora. He then goes on to present a well-documented description of those North American companies who have exploited the Nicaraguans. His condemnation is made all the more shocking by the contrasting lyrical description that precedes it. Cardenal then abruptly introduces the idea of an evolutionary process which encompasses both nature and economics:

I said iguanas lay their eggs … It is the process.
(or else the frogs) in the silence of the carboniferous
                                        made the first sound
                    sang the first love song here on earth
                    sang the first love song here beneath the moon
                                        it is the process.
The process started with the stars.
                    New relations of production: that too
is part of the process. Oppression. After oppression,

According to this process, pre-history and history portray the same evolution toward the liberation of man, toward the creation of a «New Man,» utterly free of economic exploitation: «From / the first bubble of gas, to the iguana's egg, to the New Man» (p. 20).34 In this process is also revolutionary action, like that of the Sandinista Movement:

Sandino was proud he had been born ‘from the womb of the
                                        (that of an Indian girl from Niquinohomo).
From the womb of the oppressed the Revolution will be born.
It is the process.

(p. 20)35

Revolution and evolution are thus drawn together as two aspects of the same process whose only difference finally is in the velocity of their respective changes.

A more fully developed but similar idea of a world in constant evolution toward the liberation of man is manifested in «Oracle over Managua,» a poem conceived as a meditation on the disastrous consequences of the earthquake that shook the city in 1972. It is significant that Cardenal is able to write a «meditation,» for it suggests the calm assurance of his prophetic stance. In one of his most complex and ambitious works, Cardenal effectively establishes from the beginning the notion of a millenial process in which our present is but a single insignificant historical stage. Beginning with pre-history, the speaker examines for us various layers of subsoil until he arrives at the most recent one; it is covered with «bits of Coca-Cola bottles and Goodyear tires and chamber pots,»36 all indicative of the degeneration of values and the meaninglessness of present-day consumerism. Once the evolutionary perspective has been established the poem denounces with minute, graphic detail the economic and political repressive measures of Somoza's regime. As an antithesis to repression, and integrated into the evolutionary process, Cardenal exalts the revolutionary fight for liberation. The evolutionary process itself, conceived by Cardenal as part of a dialectic, moves toward «union,» whether in the physical world or at the level of human consciousness:

All life unites
                                        unites and does not divide
                    (it integrates)

(p. 46)37

Every living substance: fusion with what is different
                    unification with the opposite.
Although death is as ancient as the cosmos
                    the antiprotons fight the protons
                    the antineutrons fight the neutrons
                    antimatter fights matter.
And now with bazookas they try
                    to stop history.
‘Verily, verily I say unto you
                    the Revolution is in the midst of you.’
It's suicidal not to try it, you used to tell your friends
in the India Coffee House.
In the midst of the general tendency to disintegration
                    there is an inverse tendency
to union. To love.

(p. 47)

The integrating tendency of the evolutionary process will finally result in the «New Man,» one with a fully collective consciousness and an interest in universal love. At the same time this development implies that the present social structures will have to change:

A new man a          new time          a new earth
                                        The heart of man and not the structures?
To change consciousness without transforming the world?

(p. 55)38

In order for the social structures to change, revolution is necessary. Cardenal justifies revolution as a means of achieving a new society:

A new society
                                        a new heaven and a new earth
also the production of free time
and with the development of production capacity
the development of the inner life
                                        a new man and a new song.

(p. 48)39

It is important to point out that this future society, conceived in patently Marxist terms, is also for Cardenal the equivalent of the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth; man, now free from economic exploitation, can develop fully his spirituality. Thus we see that Cardenal fuses the Christian hope of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth and the objective of the Marxist dialectical process in a harmonic synthesis.

According to Cardenal, class structure and capitalism represent a retrogression, a movement away from the communal society of the past. Given this view, it might seem appropriate to ask how the poet can call class structure and capitalism progress. The question does not escape Cardenal; he asks, «the division of classes a product of progress» (p. 49)?40 The answer he gives is to be found in his conception of a progress whose path is interrupted at given moments but which at length resumes its course. These interruptions are the result of certain by-products of history such as slavery and militarism which have retarded but not halted the process.

The vast historical perspective evident in «Nicaraguan Canto» and «Oracle over Managua» provides Cardenal with the distance necessary to evaluate the present with objectivity and to present it as transitory. Thus the social and economic structures of capitalism, limited to a relatively insignificant period of time, are seen as ephemeral:

If the history of humanity were 24 hours
                                                                      let's say
private property, classes, division
into rich and poor: these would be the last 10 minutes.
          INJUSTICE / the last 10 minutes.

(p. 50)41

Showing an absolute certainty in his conviction, Cardenal not only prophesies the extinction of capitalism but he transcends all apocalyptical predictions. Cardenal's greater insight into the past has allowed him to discern the very same millenial process in pre-history and history that, he feels, of necessity will establish a new and equitable social order. Consequently, at the height of his prophetic expression, he is able to raise his eyes, look beyond the present misery and destruction of his people, and point exultantly to an imminent «reconstruction»:

          The Kingdom of God is at hand
the City of Communion, brothers.
          Only the dead are reborn.
Once more there are more footprints; the pilgrimage has not ended.
At midnight a poor woman gave birth to a baby boy in an open field
          and that is hope.
God has said: ‘Behold I make all things new’
          and that is reconstruction.

(p. 68)42


  1. «The Poetry of Useful Prophecy,» Commonweal, 100:8 (26 April, 1974), 191.

  2. Christ, p. 191.

  3. Christ, p. 191.

  4. Christ, p. 191.

  5. Cardenal's comments regarding the differences between Epigrams and the poetry which followed it support my own observations on the character of his earliest collection: «The epigrams are lyric because they come from my youthful period of lyricism, but my other poetry is not lyric» (Christ, p. 191).

  6. My own translation of «Librame Señor,» which is in Salmos (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Carlos Lohlé, 1969), p. 15. Because so much is lost in any translation of Cardenal's poetry, it would be less than just not to include the Spanish version of the poems. Consequently, beginning with this passage, I will include in the Notes the original version of all translations given in the text. All citations of the Psalms in their original Spanish are from the Lohlé edition:

    Defiéndeme Señor del proceso falso!
    Defiende a los exilados y los deportados
    los acusados de espionaje y de sabotaje
    condenados a trabajos forzados
    Las armas del Señor son más terribles
    que las armas nucleares!
    Los que purgan a otros serán a su vez purgados
    Pero yo te cantaré a ti porque eres justo
    te cantaré en mis salmos
                                                                                                        en mis poemas
  7. My own translation; from «Oye Señor mi causa justa» (Lohlé, p. 26): «Nosotros no tenemos entrada a su Club / pero tú nos saciarás / cuando pase la noche …»

  8. My own translation; from «Cantaré Señor tus maravillas» (Lohlé, p. 17):

    Cantaré Señor tus maravillas
                                                                                                                  Te cantaré salmos
    Porque fueron derrotadas sus Fuerzas Armadas
                                            Los poderosos han caido del poder
  9. Ernesto Cardenal: Marilyn Monroe and Other Poems, trans. Robert Pring-Mill (London: Search Press Ltd., 1975), pp. 83–84. All subsequent references to this psalm in translation are from this edition. In Spanish, the lines read: «No te impacientes si los ves hacer muchos millones / … No envidies a los millonarios ni a las estrellas de cine» (Lohlé, p. 39).

  10. « … porque pronto sus nombres no estarán en ningún diario / y ni los eruditos conocerán sus nombres / Porque pronto serán segados como el heno de los campos» (Lohlé, p. 39).

  11. Están agrandando los campos de concentración
    están inventando nuevas torturas
    nuevos sistemas de «investigación»
    En la noche no duermen haciendo planes
    Planeando cómo aplastarnos más
                                                                                                                  cómo explotarnos más
    pero el Señor se rie de ellos
    porque ve que pronto caerán del poder
    Las armas que ellos fabrican se volverán contra ellos
    Sus sistemas politicos serán borrados de la tierra
    y ya no existirán sus partidos politicos
    De nada valdrán los planos de sus técnicos

    (Lohlé, pp. 39–40)

  12. «Los hombres mansos serán los nuevos lideres / (los ‘pacifistas’)» (Lohlé, p. 39).

  13. Yo vi el retrato del dictador en todas partes
                                                      —Se extendia como un árbol vigoroso—
    y volvi a pasar
                                                                y ya no estaba
    Lo busqué y no le hallé
    Lo busqué y ya no habia ningún retrato
    y su nombre no se podia pronunciar

    (Lohlé, p. 40)

  14. This is my own translation of a statement from José Miguel Oviedo, «Ernesto Cardenal o el descubrimiento del Nuevo Mundo,» in Ernesto Cardenal: Homenaje a los indios americanos, ed. José Miguel Oviedo (Santiago de Chile: Editorial Universitaria, S.A., 1970), pp. 14–15.

  15. Homage to the American Indians, trans. Monique and Carlos Altschul (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973). All subsequent references to this and other poems in Homage in translation are from this edition. All citations from Homage in the original Spanish are from Homenaje a los indios americanos (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Carlos Lohlé, 1972):

    Sus ciudades eran de templos, y vivian en los campos,
    entre milpas y palmeras y papayas.
    El arco de sus templos fue una copia de sus chozas.
    Las carreteras eran sólo para las procesiones.
    La religión era el único lazo de unión entre ellos,
    pero era una religión aceptada libremente
    y que no era una opresión ni una carga para ellos.

    (Lohlé, p. 16)

    No tuvieron metalurgia. Sus herramientas eran de piedra,
    y tecnológicamente permanecieron en la edad de piedra.

    (Lohlé, p. 17)

    El tiempo era sagrado. Los dias eran dioses
    Pasado y futuro están confundidos en sus cantos.

    (Lohlé, p. 17)

  16. Tú estás en estos cantos Dador de la Vida.
    Distribuyo mis flores y mis cantos a mi pueblo.

    (Lohlé, p. 23)

    Hemos venido a alegrar Anáhuac con pinturas
    Las flores de la pintura

    (Lohlé, p. 23)

  17.                                                                                                     yo, Netzahualcóyotl

    (Lohlé, p. 22)

    Cortador de las flores de cacao …
    No Cacaos (las MONEDAS
    para comprar y vender en los mercados, y no beberlas)
                                            sino la flor.

    (Lohlé, p. 22)

  18. «Ernesto Cardenal o el descubrimiento del Nuevo Mundo,» p. 16. Again, this is my translation.

  19. «Corrupción Administrativa ni desfalcos … Nunca se vendió ningún indio / Y hubo chicha para todos» (Lohlé, p. 39).

  20. «La función del Estado / era dar de comer al pueblo» (Lohlé, p. 41).

  21. «La tierra del que la trabajaba / y no del latifundista» (Lohlé, p. 41).

  22. «Un comunismo agrario / ‘EL IMPERIO SOCIALISTA DE LOS INCA’» (Lohlé, p. 42).

  23. «Y no todo fue perfecto en el ‘Paraiso Incaico’» (Lohlé, p. 42).

  24. Pero sus mitos
                                                                no de economistas!
    La verdad religiosa
                                                                                    y la verdad politica
    eran para el pueblo una misma verdad
    Una economia con religión

    (Lohlé, p. 43)

  25. «la sociedad sin dinero que soñamos» (Lohlé, p. 40).

  26. Ernesto Cardenal, In Cuba (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1974), p. 327.

  27. Oviedo, «Ernesto Cardenal o el descubrimiento del Nuevo Mundo,» p. 16. Again, this is my translation.

  28. Cerámica monocroma, monótona
    como al principio, como olmecas
    o: como anuncios de gasolineras en una carretera de Texas

    (Lohlé, p. 30)

    Mediocres las esculturas de los templos
    incensarios de mal barro, poroso; y hechos en moldes;
    dioses en serie, mass production, assembly line, Henry Ford.

    (Lohlé, p. 31).


  30. «como quien baja de una pirámide» (Lohlé, p. 33).

  31. «historia y profecia son lo mismo» (Lohlé, p. 35).

  32. Because Homage presents a cyclical view of history, the reader might at first think that Cardenal bases his idea of the reemergence of communal values on this view. But, for two reasons, this is not so. On the one hand, the cyclical view is that of the persona, the Chilam, and not Cardenal. On the other, as a Marxist, Cardenal could not hold a cyclical view of history.

  33. Ernesto Cardenal: Zero Hour and Other Documentary Poems, ed. Donald D. Walsh (New York: New Directions, 1980), p. 20. All subsequent references in translation to «Nicaraguan Canto» are from this edition. All citations from the original Spanish are from «Canto nacional» in Ernesto Cardenal: Poesia escogida (Barcelona: Barral Editores, S.A., 1975):

    Decia que desovan las iguanas … Es el proceso. Ellas
    (o las ranas) en el silencioso carbonifero
                                            emitieron el primer sonido
                                            la primera canción de amor sobre la tierra
                                            la primera canción de amor bajo la luna
                                                                                                        es el proceso
                                                      El proceso viene desde los astros
                                            Nuevas relaciones de producción: eso
    también es el proceso. Opresión. Tras la opresión, la liberación.

    (pp. 178–79)

  34. « … Desde / el primer huevo de gas, al huevo de iguana, al hombre nuevo» (Barral, «Canto nacional,» p. 179).

  35. Sandino se gloriaba de haber nacido del ‘vientre de los oprimidos’
                                                      (el de una indita de Niquinohomo)
    Del vientre de los oprimidos nacerá la Revolución.
    Es el proceso.

    (Barral, «Canto nacional,» p. 179)

  36. Ernesto Cardenal: Zero Hour and Other Documentary Poems, p. 43. All subsequent references in translation to «Oracle Over Managua» are from this edition. All citations from the original Spanish are from «Oráculo sobre Managua» in Ernesto Cardenal: Poesia escogida: «trozos de Coca Colas y llantas Goodyear y bacinillas» (p. 208).

  37. Toda vida une
                                                                une y no divide

    (Barral, «Oráculo,» p. 213)

    Toda sustancia viva: fusión con lo diferente
                                                                                              unificación con lo opuesto.
    Aunque la muerte es tan antigua como el cosmos
                                            los antiprotones combaten a los protones
                                            los antineutrones combaten a los neutrones
                                            la antimateria combate a la materia
    Y ahora pretenden con bazukas
                                                                                    detener la historia
    ‘En verdad, en verdad os digo
                                            la revolución está en medio de vosotros’
    Es suicidio no hacerla decias a los amigos
    en la Cafeteria La India.
    En medio de la tendencia general a la desintegración
                                            hay una tendencia inversa
    a la unión. Al amor.

    (Barral, «Oráculo,» pp. 213–14)

  38. Un hombre nuevo          un tiempo nuevo          una nueva tierra
                                                      ¿El corazón del hombre y no las estructuras?
    ¿Cambiar la conciencia sin transformar el mundo?

    (Barral, «Oráculo,» p. 228)

  39. Una nueva sociedad
                                                                un nuevo cielo y una nueva tierra
    también la producción de tiempo libre
    y con el desarrollo de la capacidad de producción
    el desarrollo de la vida interior
                                                                un hombre nuevo y un nuevo canto

    (Barral, «Oráculo,» p. 216)

  40. «¿La división de clases producto del progreso?»

    (Barral, «Oráculo,» p. 218)

  41. Si la historia de la humanidad fuera 24 horas digamos
    la propiedad privada, las clases, divisón
    de ricos y pobres: serian los últimos 10 minutos.
                        LA INJUSTICIA / los últimos 10 minutos.

    (Barral, «Oráculo,» p. 220)

  42.                     El Reino de Dios está cerca
    la Ciudad de la Comunión compañeros
                        Sólo los muertos resucitan
    Otra vez hay otras huellas: no ha terminado la peregrinación
    A medianoche una pobre dio a luz un niño sin techo
                        y ésa es la esperanza
    Dios ha dicho: ‘He aqui que hago nuevas todas las cosas’
                        y ésa es la reconstrucción.

    (Barral, «Oráculo,» p. 250)

Edward Elias (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: 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.

[In the following essay, Elias discusses the themes of religion and political struggle as expressed through Cardenal's focus on prophecy and Latin-American history in his poetry.]

Ernesto Cardenal, poet and priest born in Nicaragua in 1925, has used his art to speak for the liberation of politically and economically oppressed peoples of the world, particularly those of Latin America. During his entire adult life, Cardenal has been committed to social action in one form or another, for many years waging a verbal campaign against the Somoza dictatorship.

Certain significant details emerge upon considering the poetic masks and the type of discourse adopted by the Nicaraguan poet in his various works. Whether he appears as a contemporary to the Mayan chilam or as one of the common songbirds of Nicaragua in Canto Nacional, Cardenal chooses an identity that is indigenous to the people and their terrain; his poetic masks are those of the common individual or species, even though these individuals may be such that they stand out among their peers because of their specialized calling. It is their job to proclaim, to announce, to shock others into action. These prophetic voices address themselves to the present situation, using the events and details of history as needed to show their link with the here and now; by fusing various periods of history into one continuum, the present lesson is made more clear.

The visionaries who speak out in these poems use concrete images and the language of the common man so that their message will be grasped by all. The sometimes strong language of the texts, punctuated by common expressions of vulgarity or profanity, is intended to goad the listener and reader to action. The tone reveals a speaker motivated by a strong love of God and man who has a strong faith commitment. The message received in his vision of his contact with the divinity emerges in poetic terms inasmuch as such a form of expression is highly appealing to the people.1 Hispanic countries in particular have nurtured a long-standing appreciation of poetry—one that shows up in popular folklore, in the education of the young, and frequently at any social gathering.

A salient characteristic in Cardenal's various collections of poetry is his interpolation of various levels and styles of language. The literary discourse of historical documents, the paraphrased poetic language of pre-Columbian civilizations, and biblical quotations are all interwoven in a colloquial Spanish that can readily be understood by the common man. For the same reason, there is present in many texts a strong narrative characteristic. Images and references denote the concrete world of daily experience. (In Latin America, this literary technique is called “exteriorism” because the dominant referential base of the poetic text is always the exterior observable reality.) Through such expression, the poet creates a rich and varied work from which emerges, among other details, a prophetic message sounding in clear tones.

Abraham Heschel defines prophecy as an interpretation of a particular moment in history, a divine understanding of a human situation; it is an “exegesis of existence from a divine perspective.”2 Commenting upon social behavior, the Hebrew prophets proposed to conquer callousness in mankind, change the inner man, and revolutionize history. The prophet is concerned with the concrete actualities of history, not the timeless concepts of philosophy and theology.

Both Ernesto Cardenal and the Old Testament prophets intuit God's pathos or concern for the condition of humanity; they sympathize with mankind's problems. They convey this concern and vision in whatever form of expression is available; in the case of Cardenal that may be the language of the Scriptures, of the posters and billboards of the advertising world, of popular ballads, even of profanity and vulgarity. His vision of the ways of both God and man, and of the inter-relation between the two, allows him to see the ideals of Christianity exemplified in the Marxist social structure prevalent in Cuba.

In placing Cardenal in the prophetic tradition, it is not essential that his personal behavior and his biography parallel those of his predecessors but, rather, that his work manifest those characteristics that could merit the title of prophetic discourse. While the latter will become more and more evident as we progress through details of his work, some parallels between the man and his previous models will also be treated.

Ernesto Cardenal received his call from God at age thirty-two, an event to which he refers as his religious conversion. He began his religious training as a Trappist monk within an all-male community in which each member lived in isolation because of the constant observance of silence. Although Cardenal did not continue in this community, he has maintained a life of separation from the mundane in order to sustain a constant union and contact with God as well as to perceive more clearly the social reality of his beloved Latin America, without being enmeshed in it. In personal interviews, Cardenal readily acknowledges the title attributed to him of a “committed mystic”; from his commitment and understanding of the message of Christ stems his use of poetry for the purpose of liberating his fellow men.3 This poet-mystic believes that a love that emanates from encounters between men amongst themselves and with their God will save the world. Language is the basis of communication and Cardenal proclaims it loudly, largely in the form of protest and denouncement—a quality that he feels is essential for poetry in an oppressed country. The links between this contemporary prophet and his biblical brothers are evident in their permanent bond with the Godhead and in their acting out through the word their interaction with the divine source. Vocation leads to action, which in Cardenal's case takes the form of preaching revolution in a nonviolent manner.

In a country where militarism is the rule, Ernesto Cardenal has been able to maintain a privileged position, perhaps because of his clerical status and the far-teaching consequences of his message, but also because of his choice of lifestyle.4 Insofar as he has proclaimed the need for revolution in Latin America, criticized the dictatorship in Nicaragua, and spoken against militarism and domination, he has been denounced by many, sought after only by some. Like the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah, who were interpreted by some critics as being possible government agents, Cardenal has been labeled Marxist for his involvement in politics, uprisings, and pamphleteering.5

Prophecy is common to many societies and peoples in addition to the Hebrew nation. The pre-Columbian peoples of America also relied heavily on oracular predictions, and Cardenal taps this source when making a concerted effort to follow in the prophetic tradition of the Mayan civilization. It is significant to note that prophecy in Israel was an illumination in the history of a people and not an isolated event in the life of one man. Thus, there exists an uninterrupted chain of prophets that fit into a gradual development of the salvation history of the nation. Cardenal draws in part on this biblical tradition as the Hebrew prophets drew upon one another (witness the case of Baruch and Jeremiah), but also drawing on the unique prophetic heritage native to his part of Central America. Cardenal repeats many of his predictions of the ancient Mayan calendar as well as the utterances of historical revolutionary leaders of his country (such as Sandino and Rugama) who proclaimed a message of renewal akin to his own. It is in this development of a modern autochthonous American prophecy and in his contribution to the development of the prophetic chain, that much of Cardenal's uniqueness rests.

The nineteen-poem collection entitled Homage to the American Indians contains poems that are associated with the traditions of many of the Indian groups of the American continent, some to the North American groups, but the majority to the world of either the Aztec or the Maya Indians.6 In the texts that fit into the Maya tradition, the author assumes the mask of a poetic speaker living in the era of the Mayan Indian civilization. This speaker rightly has been called a new chilam, a title associated with the Mayan prophet whose predictions for each cycle of their complex calendar governed the lives of these people for centuries.7 The prophetic tradition among these residents of Mesoamerica was as strong as it was for the ancient Israelites, and it is most fitting that a poet indigenous to the land of the Maya draws on such heritage to voice his message. The poetic speaker immerses himself completely in the Mayan world view, using the Indian names for the calendar cycles, expounding on ancient prophecies in the historical books (such as the Chilam Balam), as well as relating the same to current events in the contemporary world.8 One of the basic messages in these texts is that history is cyclical and repetitive, that the good or evil fortune experienced by our ancestors will touch us in our century, that the past teaches us a lesson that must be heeded now.

“Mayapan,” one of the richest poems of Homage, attacks the Cocom family, a ruling dynasty that stayed in power 250 years.

And after the entire dynasty of the Hunaac Ceel, the Cocomos
Two hundred fifty years in power those Cocoms
Cocom, which in Maya means:
“Vine of yellow flowers, Somoza family, Mata Palo.”

The name of this ancient family and its domination and exploitation of the local citizenry is associated by textual juxtaposition with the Somoza family that ruled in Nicaragua for over thirty years. The Cocom rulers sold out the Mayas to foreigners, controlled by strong military rule, and they surrounded the city of Mayapan with walls, thus betraying the original Mayan style of peaceful life and democratic government.

Verses from “Oracles of Tikal” denounce other Central American leaders who represent centralized authoritarian power:

                                        Great rottenness
and saddened skies
Ubico, Carías, the Somozas
                                        How much are we to give to sate them?
Ubico put us to work for free on the highways.

(Homage, p. 95)

The poetic speakers of each text enumerate for us the details of cultural poverty prevalent under military rule, making clear that under such rule there is neither cultural progress nor beauty. Temple architecture was mediocre, their stone façades poorly carved; pottery was as monochrome and monotonous as that of the Olmecs, a less evolved culture; there was no jewelry for burials. The best masonry and sculpture was created for the homes of nobles and wealthy men, not for the temples. One concludes that a society under such rule changed its value system in departing from a religious-centered existence to one revolving around political and economic power.

The prophet Micah repeatedly cried out strongly against the “heads of the house of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel, who [abhorred] justice and pervert[ed] all equity” (RSV). With Isaiah and Hosea, he found himself preaching against governments that were more earthbound than God-centered. Essential to the message of all three prophets is that authority is of divine origin, kingship comes by divine election, and society has departed greatly from the Lord who is its center. Degeneration and wickedness had reached such extremes that Micah prophecied the destruction of Jerusalem.9

Isaiah argued for a period when the sword would be planted in the ground and become a plowshare; he likewise denounced political involvement and alliances with neighbors because these dealings meant changes of power that encouraged the dynamics of controller and controlled. Alliances prepared the ground for war, for the abandonment of the one true God, and for the embracing of the gods and cults of the new allies. The message of centering life around the one true God of the covenant is as evident in the biblical prophets as it is in the discourses of Cardenal's poetic speakers. The once glorious Mayan city has become but a shadow of its former glory, needing walls to protect it from invaders. Man-centered governments such as those developed by the Cocom dynasty or the Somoza family produce the sterile Mayapans of the world—denounced by ancient and contemporary prophets—cities that are doomed to destruction.

By gathering a collection of poems in praise of the original residents of the American continent, Homage takes its readers back to a period in history before the arrival of the Europeans and their consequent exploitation and domination of the natives. Cardenal's poetic speakers reveal a value system diametrically opposed to that of capitalism, giving prominence instead to the spiritual and insisting that society's improvement is contingent upon a return to these ancient ways of life. Thus, Cardenal's speakers imitate the language and style of expression of the Aztec and Mayan poets, highlighting the value placed on the bonds of friendship and humanism in Aztec civilization. The descriptions of socialist Inca governments—so God-centered that they functioned without money and almost even without any materialistic concern—offer a lesson to anyone willing to listen. By presenting an almost idyllic picture of life in pre-Columbian times, Cardenal demonstrates that Latin American man has in his past experience a model for life that has proved itself viable and practicable—a model that could well be used to solve the problems of his present turbulent society.

History is at the crux of biblical prophecy because it is therein that God reveals himself to man, establishing pacts or covenants with him and performing those saving events that maintain the bond throughout the centuries. Therefore, the biblical prophets were highly concerned with history since both it and nature are subject to God's dominion. Pre-Columbian civilizations were victims of power-hungry rulers and of the evils of militarism foretold by Hosea and Isaiah, and by their own oracles. Viewing history differently from other people because he knew full well that Yahweh directs and is involved in every event in his peoples' lives, the Old Testament prophet insisted that man interpret past, present, and future events through the eyes of a permanent contract with God. Because future events are merely the fulfillment of past promises made to the chosen nation, these prophets repeated some of the ancient promises in their predictions. For example, Hosea believed that Israel would once again be led into the wilderness and be brought through the Valley of Achor into her own land (Hos. 2:14ff.). In predicting future occurences, the prophets functioned as interpreters of older traditions as well; the biblical prophets of the eighth century B.C.E. contributed to the tradition the message that only future acts would be important for Israel's salvation.10 The prophetic message of whatever period, in a sense, is timeless inasmuch as it still applies to the developing countries of the world. This uninterrupted continuum of events, with its characteristic cyclical repetition, is maintained in the texts of Cardenal.

Those texts of Homage that deal in particular with the Aztec and Mayan tradition place a marked emphasis on the passage of years. The poem “Mayapan” states that history is prophecy, which is markedly true in the context of the Mayan civilization whose prophetic books contained detailed accounts of expectations for each cycle of their complicated calendar. By applying once-fulfilled prophecy to current situations, and by arbitrarily intermingling layers of time from the Mayan past with more recent history, the lesson is made more obvious. Reading passages of the ancient prophetic book Chilam Balam of Chumayel interpolated in the modern poetic text, one is assured that certain events will be repeated in the future. It is implied that, as the Mayan prophecies were fulfilled in their assigned historical period, so similar contemporary situations will be brought to the same end. In Homage, when the speaker prophesies: “And I therefore say that Mayapan will fall / Mayapan the walled city always falls in this katún” (p. 33), the reader concludes that, as the original Mayapan fell, in like manner all “walled cities”—bastions of capitalism, victims of military dictatorships, stiflers of art and beauty—will also fall. This is certain because

                    time is circular it repeats itself
past present future are the same
revolutions of the sun
                                                                                          revolutions of the moon
synodic revolutions of the planets
and history also revolutions
They repeat themselves[.]

(Homage, p. 32)

The mention of stela 9, that stone slab that marked the site of the ancient city of Mayapan discovered by archaeologist Griswold Morley in 1916, serves to open and close the poem (“those stelae had been concerned with the mystery of time. … Dates, backward, looking for eternity / looking for the future also,” Homage, p. 30). With others that commemorated a significant event in Mayan history, it has helped later scientists reconstruct details of the culture. In the text, the poetic speaker closes with the words “This is the stela” (Homage, p. 34), indicating that his new poetic prophecy will serve also as a sign or marker for the present and future.

In his fifty-eight-page epic, Canto nacional (Song to My Nation), Cardenal structures the various cantos or fragments that compose the whole around the song of native Nicaraguan birds who function as the poetic voices.11 It is their call and cry, represented by an onomatopeia, that prophetically denounces to the nation the evils present therein. The poet identifies himself with one of the most common species of blackbirds (the zanate), whose scientific name is Cassidix nicaragüensis, and uses it as his poetic mask; the bird is described as being a “proletariat” bird, without any adornment, who spends its time among the poor (Canto, p. 9). In addition, elements of the flora and fauna of Nicaragua are introduced on a time-line, which sets the mood for a later tracing of significant historical events. The use of a biological cycle of birth-death-new birth as a partial structuring device reveals the poetic speaker's belief in regeneration and the possibility for the renewal of humanity and society—concepts essential to the message of the entire poem.

Like Homage,Canto denounces the abuse of power, although the villain in the later poem is powerful foreign capital that exploits the human and natural resources of the country, giving it nothing in return. We read on page 19 that when a national hero named Augusto César Sandino emerged in Nicaraguan politics, part of the national territory had been pawned, foreign debt was large, financial life was subject to a bankers' syndicate in New York, and progress was at a standstill. Sandino represents the proletariat with whom the poet identifies and functions as the opposing force to the visible enemy in the poem—the investors from the North. Sandino occupies a messianic and prophetic role in Cardenal's texts, as he and those visionaries like him renew mankind, implanting the “new day” and establishing the kingdom of God. The songbirds of Canto—Cardenal amongst them—chant a call to action that is based on overthrowing the existing social structure. Enumeration of various examples of exploitation accomplishes a dual purpose: it creates in the reader-listener a sense of disgust, while demonstrating the poet-prophet's sympathetic identification with his suffering fellow countrymen. For example:

En las minas de oro de míster Spencer examinan
a los mineros con rayos X cada 6 meses
para ver si están tuberculosos.
Si hay alguna sombra, el hombre es inmediatamente
despedido. Cuando al tiempo escupe sangre
y quiere demandar a la mina, la mina lo despidió sano
la enfermedad la contrajo después, la mina
no es responsable. Y muere en una acera de Managua.
(Si es indio sumo o miskito va a su aldea
a contagiarla. Aldeas enteras han quedado despobladas.)
In Mister Spencer's gold mines they examine
the miners with X rays every six months
to see if they have tuberculosis.
If there is any shadow present, the man is immediately
dismissed. When in time he spits up blood
and wants to sue the mine, the mine dismissed him healthy
and it was later he contracted the disease, the mine
is not responsible. And he dies on a sidewalk of Managua.
(If he is a Sumo or Miskito Indian he goes to his village
and contaminates it. Entire villages have been wiped out.)

(Canto, pp. 40–41)

Not only are the nation's natural resources—human and mineral—exploited with no benefit to the Nicaraguan citizenry, but the evil is compounded by the fact that foreign powers are benefiting from the exploitation, as we read on page 43:

Hermano que andás descalzo y tenés tungsteno
Analfabeta en tu mina de antimonio.
                    La International Telephone and Telegraph
          por allí anda suelta, como el tigre.
You brother who walk barefoot and own tungsten.
Illiterate in your mine of antimony
                              International Telephone and Telegraph
roams around on the loose, like a tiger.

When the stocks of companies like International Telegraph and Telephone, United Fruit, and Standard Fruit are traded on the New York Stock Exchange, the poetic voice reminds his Indian brother, “something that you don't know, brother, has been taken from you” (Canto, p. 44).

In obvious parallel with scriptural texts, the lyric voice of the songbird talks about a God-given right to freedom for his nation because it is a “Promised Land that flows with milk and honey like a woman” (p. 31). This promised land is due for revolution by Yahweh's decree (p. 32). Canto incorporates Jeremiah 31:13, which talks about how young and old will be merry and turn their mourning into joy when Yahweh introduces a new age of well-being (p. 53). In characteristic prophetic manner, Cardenal's speaker looks back to past favors granted by Yahweh and expects that his future intervention in human affairs will take the same form. In this passage, the lyric speaker has looked back to an idyllic period in pre-Columbian times when the nation was truly a rich, unspoiled promised land; presently, by means of a revolution, this paradise can be reinstituted so that “maidens and young men” will once again rejoice.

The lengthy, graphic descriptions found in Cardenal's texts are pertinent to the prophetic function that his works fulfill. To fully understand biblical prophecy, one must be aware that God manifested himself to his spokesmen through the events of history, not in the abstract way that the prophet perceived, philosophically or theologically. The prophet had a unique ability to see God in a personal and intimate relation to the world. Abraham Heschel points out that the key concept of pathos is essential to properly understanding the total phenomenon of prophetic discourse and action. God is involved in history, touched and moved by man's condition, suffering, failures. Pathos means that God is never neutral, never beyond good and evil. The divine pathos is the union of the eternal and the temporal, the metaphysical and the historical. A marked characteristic of the prophets is their ability not to foresee the future but to have an insight into the present pathos of God.12 We must presume that God is concerned, as Cardenal's poetic voices are as well, with the suffering described in Canto and in another poem, Oracle over Managua, a poetic description of the earthquake that struck Managua in 1972.

If pathos is a characteristic of God, then in order for the prophet to be truly effective in fulfilling his calling, he must be a homo sympathetikos, a man who intuits the concern and suffering of God and can be in communion with it.13 Sympathy has the character of dialogue: because the prophet is in deep communion and harmony with the Lord, he has an understanding of his situation and pathos; in turn, this rapport permits him also to manifest his sympathy for and empathy with his fellow men. Cardenal's words acknowledging his being a committed mystic and one who aspires to live up to the demands of this state suggest his awareness and his sympathetic character—why he must cry out for rebellion and change.

References to actual conditions in Nicaragua alternate with those to an ideal world that the poetic voice only sees in his mind's eye as a “vision.” By his own admission this is a privileged awareness of a reality that he must preach:

                                                                                                                        Ah la vision
de una tierra con la explotación
                    Repartida la riqueza nacional todos por igual
el producto nacional bruto, toditos por igual.

(Canto, p. 49)

                                                                                                              Oh the vision
of a land with exploitation
          The nation's wealth distributed equally amongst all
as well as the gross national product.
                    We have not been born to be hirelings
                                        nor to be bosses
but to be brothers.

Part of the poet's vision for the future encompasses a Nicaragua without a National Guard, a land without terror or the tyranny of a dynasty. Cardenal's speaker envisions a reborn country, a renewed man, and a regenerated society: “Yo canto / un país que va a nacer” (I sing / of a country that is to be born). On pages 51–52, there is a curious juxtaposition of a reference to the “dawning of a new day” side by side with one to “new production systems.”

References to regeneration are common in both the Old and New Testament. Yet, the mention of “production systems,” an economic term, points to another system that focuses more on the externals of societal structure: Marxism. Through the voice of his prophetic birds, Cardenal argues for the establishment of a Communist society in its purest form (p. 53).

In La santidad de la revolución (The Holiness of Revolution), Cardenal presents Marx's Communist society as one in which there is neither selfishness nor injustice; he argues in favor of a Christian Marxist state identical in concept to the Christian kingdom of heaven. Cardenal goes on to say that his proposed solution is the only apt one for Latin America and for all Third World countries in geñeral. He also affirms his artistic commitment when he states that he loves poetry as a means of denouncing injustice and proclaiming that the kingdom of God is near (p. 56).

On the subject of revolution Cardenal is vehement, as he believes it is an act of love. Only a rapid and violent change will bring into effect the renewed society of which the poet dreams. It will be like that complete turn-about and change that Christ preached in his lifetime.

tenemos el níkel esperando al hombre nuevo
                    la caoba esperando al hombre nuevo
                    el ganado enrazado esperando al hombre nuevo
                    sólo hace falta el hombre nuevo.

(Canto, p. 50)

we have the nickel waiting for the new man
                    the mahogany waiting for the new man
the interbred cattle waiting for the new man
                    all we lack is the new man.

There can be no class distinctions in this new society for it does no good to travel through life divided into first- and third-class passengers. The “new man” par excellence is he who is described in Colossians 3:1–11. Much of the Nicaraguan poet's zeal for the establishment of a Marxist society stems from a 1970 visit to Cuba, an event that Cardenal describes as the most significant experience in his life after his religious conversion.14

Another substantiation of the revolutionary call in the poem is the dedication on the cover page to the Sandinista Liberation Front, that guerrilla group which battled for the ousting of the dictatorial government in Nicaragua. The lyric subject, who is seen in the form of various songbirds, identifies himself intimately with the land and people of his song. Thus we read in two instances of Canto: “Esta es la tierra de mi canto” (p. 55—This is the land of my song) and elsewhere, “De esta tierra es mi canto / Mi poesía, de este clima, / como el zanate clarinero, como el coyol” (p. 39—My song is from this land. / My poetry from this climate, / like the zanate, and the coyol).

The call to revolutionary action on the part of a committed Christian who also preaches brotherly love and peaceful coexistence is not an anomaly. The biblical prophets were extreme in their expression, not being content to simply state the facts but needing, rather, to exaggerate them in order to conquer callousness and change the inner man, thus revolutionizing history. Above all, they sought justice and righteousness. The revolution to which Cardenal alludes need not be violent, but it does need to accomplish an enormous amount of change. Only a total reconstitution of society will make the living conditions of the downtrodden peoples of the Third World truly human.

It is pertinent to distinguish between the vision that philosophers, theologians, and political scientists have concerning social justice and revolution. The language of each will be significantly different, yet their methodologies will be similar. They will consider a life situation as a problem to be speculated upon and solved, perhaps, in a laboratory setting. They may formulate syllogisms, hypotheses, and paradigms while arguing for and against a course of action. Their perceptions will necessarily be colored by their perspectives or adherence to a given ideology or methodology. Traditionally their approach is cerebral rather than visceral.

The revolutionary person may be of several types. It is possible for him to be another Christ, a man whose purpose is to reverse established structures and behavior patterns, who teaches as well as acts out his theories—though not in a violent manner. Another possibility is that the revolutionary will be more of a physical activist who lays his life down on the line of battle, yet has little to theorize about.

The poet and prophet, whether of a present or past age, are persons that are deeply involved in the events of their time; they are men of experience who see and feel life about them. They are in touch with the Divinity, his pathos, and because of the interrelation present, they are forced to act, whether by preaching and writing, or through physical involvement.

The core of Canto consists of the call to integrate Marxism and Christianity and totally abandon the present capitalistic social structure; yet, the integration of the two systems is difficult to bring about in purely philosophical terms. A large part of the artistic merit of this lengthy poem—a fact that also speaks for the unique role of the poet—is that through its imagery it fuses two ideologies; it is the poet, therefore, who is best suited to propose such a fusion, for it is he who, more than the philosopher or political scientist, can amalgamate through metaphorical language his vision of a classless society and his vision of the kingdom of God.

In order to comprehend Cardenal's use of poetic discourse for the purpose of seeking social justice, one must understand something of the biblical prophets' perception of God. As explained by Heschel, the Lord is concerned with deeds of kindness; he worries about material needs of widows, orphans, outcasts, and other ordinary things. God demands mercy and righteousness from his people, and they in turn ask the same from him. Justice and righteousness are deeply ingrained in the mind of biblical man, and the justice of the Lord extends vertically from him to his creatures as well as horizontally in the interrelationships of men among themselves. Righteousness—also interpreted as benevolence, kindness, generosity and a compassion for the oppressed—was sorely lacking in many biblical community leaders.15 The same is true for the political figures singled out in Canto. In the same manner that the biblical prophets preached to raise the consciousness of their contemporaries, the modern-day prophet speaks against social problems.

In addition to speaking in the tradition of biblical prophets, Cardenal maintains a link with historical figures of his country who fulfilled a visionary and leadership role in their time. Both Sandino and Leonel Rugama, guerrilla leaders, assume mythical proportions in the works of Cardenal. Their teachings are incorporated into the verses of Canto; although they die, the poetic speaker resurrects them triumphantly by placing them in positions of leadership when he envisions the founding of that new society.

It was never presumed that prophetic oracles were meant for one generation and no one else. Gerhard von Rad illustrates how the principle of tradition is maintained in the prophetic lines.16 The handing down of teachings from an older to a younger man was most common, as in the case of Baruch's detailed description of how Jeremiah's preaching was set to writing. After Jeremiah's rolls were destroyed by the king, Baruch relates how Jeremiah dictated his preaching once again to him so that it could be recorded. Thus we find exemplified the transition from oral proclamation to written record, as is undoubtedly the case with the words of Sandino and Rugama. The first was politically active and died while Cardenal was only a child; the second is highly idealized by Cardenal's speaker in Oracle inasmuch as he was considerably younger than Cardenal and was killed at age twenty. Neither of them were men of letters, yet they were visionaries and activists. Their lives, deaths, and commitments to a cause are immortalized in Cardenal's poem and acquire, as well, a new dimension most suited to the ongoing battle against governmental oppression.

To comprehend the exact nature of the prophetic voice found in the poetry of Ernesto Cardenal, we need to depart from the works themselves and consider terms that have been used throughout the analysis of these texts. Terms such as Kingdom of God, liberation, the new man, as well as the idea of the unique interpretation given to history in the work of the Nicaraguan poet, can best be explained in the light of developments in recent Christian theology.

To place Cardenal exclusively in the current of Marxist ideology would be inaccurate, and, therefore, I have been cautious to talk of his message in terms of a Christian Marxism. There are many common points between the two systems, particularly in their early theoretical stages. It is interesting to note that Frederick Engels, in studying the origins of the Christian religion, found that there was a striking similarity between early Christianity and the socialist movement. He found four points of contact in the two systems: both were originally a movement of oppressed people; both preached forthcoming salvation from bondage and misery; both were persecuted and discriminated against; and both forged victoriously, irresistibly ahead. It is not difficult to see the links between these characteristics and those of emerging Latin American countries.

Historically, early Christian notions of the transformation of the world and the advent of the Kingdom were quickly replaced by a spiritualized, individualized hope for celestial life; thus began a dualistic system in Christian thought. The hope of the Kingdom, instead of awakening energy to transform the world in the direction of the expected goal, worked as a deterrent for historical action. The Marxist system believed quite the opposite, thus giving value and meaning to history.

Christianity found itself embracing a theory of two worlds—one earthly and the other celestial; and two histories—one secular and the other salvific. This separation is totally inconceivable in terms of the Old Testament world view in which God's action takes place in history and as history. There is a strong political element in this history as well. Politics, power, oppression, and economic intricacies are the reality of contemporary life in Latin America. To speak in terms of the role of Christianity in Latin American society today and ignore these realities is only to perpetuate a schizophrenic outlook on life.

Religious thinkers who propose a “Liberation Theology” have rejected this dualistic approach in order to maintain the integrity of, in the words of Gustavo Gutiénez, “one single God fulfilled history.”17 The Kingdom must not be viewed as the final end in the line of historical events but as the means to the end, wherein there is suffering, pain, conflict, renewal of the inner man. It is a call that leads to action by demanding a response.

It is in the current of Liberation Theology that Ernesto Cardenal best moves, for he is its most vehement spokesman. He argues for the “liberation” or freeing of his fellow men from the shackles found in many contemporary societies—hunger, poverty, illiteracy, political oppression, economic exploitation. One can trace in his work a belief in a historical continuum in the actions of all peoples in all eras. Basing himself solidly in the Old Testament prophetic-poetic tradition, he carries on the line and adds a unique American quality while also tapping his pre-Columbian prophetic heritage. In the sense that he speaks to a new people, spiritual Semites in a new world, he has forged a new breed of prophecy for Latin America.


  1. See Kershaw N. Chadwick, Poetry and Prophecy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952).

  2. Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1962), p. xviii.

  3. Paul W. Borgeson, “Respuesta a las preguntas de los estudiantes de letras,” Revista iberoamericana 45 (1979): 636–37.

  4. This essay was completed before the Sandinista Junta forced President Somoza to leave Nicaragua on 19 July 1979. Cardenal was appointed Minister of Culture in the new government. Speaking before nearly half a million people in Managua on 4 March 1983, visiting Pope John Paul II condemned the formation of so-called “people's churches,” specifically charging five priests holding government posts as “acting outside or against the will of the bishops” and thus “questioning” the unity of the church. Filmed news coverage of the Pope's arrival in Nicaragua captured Cardenal welcoming the Holy Father and John Paul wagging a finger of disapproval at the politician poet-priest.

    Inasmuch as the prophet is defined as someone acting against an established regime, rather than as someone who has succeeded in overthrowing it, this essay has not been revised to accommodate these recent events. Cardenal's poetic prophecy is best understood as a force in opposition to the established government of Somoza. In view of Cardenal's political success, one may ask whether or not the prophet ceases to function as a prophet once the abuses he challenges are cured. Cardenal's fate of living beyond the fulfillment of his prophecies is a curious one, and quite possibly unique.

  5. These opinions of Isaiah and Jeremiah are found in the work of Winckler and Zimern (1903) and in that of H. Winckler (1895) cited by Heschel in The Prophets, p. 422.

  6. This English translation of the work by Cardenal, made by Monique and Carlos Altschul (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1974), will be referred to hereafter by the abbreviation Homage.

  7. M. Audrey Aaron, “Ernesto Cardenal, Contemporary Chilam,” Proceedings of the Pacific Northwest Council of Foreign Languages 30 (1974): 193–99. The author refers to the person of Cardenal as the speaker of the poem, thus calling him a new chilam. In line with semiotic theory, I prefer to distinguish between the speaker and the author.

  8. In Las literaturas precolombinas de México (Mexico: Editorial Pormaca, 1964), Miguel Léon-Portilla tells us that chilam means priest or master, Balam being the family name of a famous chilam who lived shortly before the arrival of Europeans in America. As a book title, it refers to a collection of eighteen books, only four of which have been translated and studied, of which the Chumayel edition is best known. These books contain information on the origins of the Quiche and Cakchiquel peoples of Guatemala, on poetry, prophecy, medicine, and the Mayan calendar.

  9. Ralph L. Roys, “The Maya Katun Prophecies of the Books of Chilam Balam, Series I,” in volume 12 of Contributions to American Anthropology and History (Washington: Carnegie Institute, 1960), pp. 1–60.

  10. Gerhard von Rad, The Message of the Prophets (London: SCM Press, 1968), p. 154.

  11. I quote from Canto nacional (Buenos Aires: Carlos Lohle, 1973); English translations are my own.

  12. Heschel, The Prophets, p. 230.

  13. This combined Latin-Greek term is introduced by Heschel on p. 230.

  14. For an account of this experience, see In Cuba, trans. Donald D. Walsh (New York: New Directions, 1974).

  15. Heschel, The Prophets, pp. 197–201.

  16. von Rad, Message, pp. 25–67.

  17. José Míguez Bonino, Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Society (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), p. 137. This is an important work in Liberation Theology studies; equally significant thinkers are Gustavo Gutiérrez, Juan Luis Segundo, Hugo Assman, and Ruben A. Alves.

Further Reading

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Smith, Janet Lynne. Annotated Bibliography of and about Ernesto Cardenal. Tempe: Center for Latin American Studies, Arizona State University, 1979, 61 p.

Smith presents a bibliography of works by and about Cardenal through 1979.


Arguello, Jose. “Cardenal's Theo-Poetry.” Christianity and Crisis 45, no. 6 (15 April 1985): 141–43.

Arguello discusses Cardenal's conception of God in relation to political struggle as expressed through his poetry.

Barrow, Geoffrey R. “Tradition and Originality in the Denunciatory Salmos of Ernesto Cardenal.” In La Chispa '87: Selected Proceedings, edited by Gilbert Paolini, pp. 15–22. New Orleans: Tulane University, 1987.

Barrow discusses the political and religious themes of Cardenal's Salmos.

Johnson, David. Review of Cosmic Canticle, by Ernesto Cardenal. National Catholic Reporter 30, no. 30 (27 May 1994): 28.

Johnson describes Cardenal's unique cosmology as expressed in the poems of Cosmic Canticle.

Valdés Jorge H. “Cardenal's Poetic Style: Cinematic Parallels.” Revista Canadienese de Estudios Hispanicos 11, no. 1 (fall 1986): 119–29.

Valdés compares Cardenal's poetic technique to the visual language of cinema.

Williams, Tamara. “Ernesto Cardenal and the New Latin American Epic.” RLA: Romance Language Annual 3 (1991): 638–41.

Williams discusses Cardenal's transformation of the traditional epic form in El estrecho dudoso.

Additional coverage of Cardenal's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 2, 32, 66; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural Authors and Poets; Hispanic Literature Criticism; Hispanic Writers; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 22; and Reference Guide to World Literature, Ed. 2.

Claudia Schaefer-Rodriguez (essay date July 1985)

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SOURCE: Schaefer-Rodriquez, Claudia. “Peace, Poetry, and Popular Culture: Ernesto Cardenal and the Nicaraguan Revolution.” Latin American Literary Review 13, no. 26 (July 1985): 7–18.

[In the following essay, Schaefer-Rodriguez analyzes Cardenal's response to the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979 as it is expressed through his poetry.]

The events occurring in Nicaragua in the decade of the 1970's, particularly the revolution which finally ousted the government of Anastasio Somoza in July of 1979, attracted the attention of many, from multiple points of view. Among the various aspects which stimulated interest was that of what the response—literary and otherwise—would be of the writer and priest Ernesto Cardenal to these changes in which he himself had participated. When most readers last left Cardenal, on the eve of the revolution, the question was left open-ended1 or speculative. The crucial task now, five years later, is to pick up the historical thread and examine what has taken place since that moment and what has been Cardenal's role.


«quién sabe
Si sólo los muertos no son
hombres de transición»
[who knows
If only the dead are not
men of transition]

Roberto Fernández Retmar

Cardenal's critical consciousness of the problems and contradictions in Nicaraguan society as having identifiable historical sources2 permitted him to view the confrontation of two worlds in the Nicaraguan revolution (First World/Third World, colonialism/independence) as a moment of human social crisis filled with both «tremendous danger and incipient possibility.»3 This dynamic «possibility» to commence a new society lay, for him, with the people (masses) of Nicaragua. With the removal from the country of the cultural and economic domination of imperialism (and the National Guard to maintain its structure), it was apparent that a constructive phase of real social alternatives could begin, as reflected in the concrete reforms proposed by the new Sandinista government: the establishment of political rights for all, the expropriation of landed estates, the distribution of natural resources, the development of a national culture, the abolition of illiteracy, the extension of electric and sanitary services to rural areas, the incorporation of women as a national force, and so on.4 The optimistic protests of Cardenal's poems had always expressed his idea of the organic relationship between the poet and the history of his country («Zero Hour,» «National Song» (dedicated to the FSLN), «The Doubtful Strait,» «Homage to the American Indians,» etc.); now, the dialogue between an individual and his surroundings could become an objective, mutually creative influence.5 Somoza's defeat (the Sandinistas' triumph) meant the reality of a «new species» (the «hombre nuevo» of the Latin American revolutions)6 being a «concrete,» not merely «abstract» potentiality7 to which Cardenal's cultural contribution would add, and in which he could find a context receptive to his participation as well as formed by it.

At this point the concrete link is established, through Cardenal, between the model peasant community on the island of Solentiname (begun by him in 1966 and destroyed by Somoza's National Guard in 1977) and the whole of the new community of social, economic, and cultural relations. As Harvey Cox defines this role: «Cardenal … is committed to more than the reintegration of the ideas of politics and poetry, the sacred and the profane, even nature and art. He is committed to nurturing an actual community where people bring these separated spheres back together, providing one small building block for the new culture … The vision he once cherished for Solentiname has now become one for Nicaragua itself.»8 To join the «separated spheres,» not separate by nature but disarticulated by man, Cardenal and his group had functioned without social classes, without privilege, and without paternalism or dogmatism, to produce the reality of a culture of equality where all could be poets and artisans and participate in discussion and dialogue.


«No hay letras, que son expresión,
hasta que no hay esencia que expresar
en ellas. Ni habrá literatura hispano-
americana hasta que no haya Hispano-
[There are no letters, which are expression,
until there is an essence to express them.
Nor will there be Spanish-American literature
until there is a Spanish-America.]

José Martí

To assume responsibility to help create and develop a new social model for Nicaragua as well as the means to attain and maintain it, to produce a social project offering to all Nicaraguans the possibility of establishing an alternative identity to that historically defined by outsiders, not merely a «gesto rebelde»9 (rebellious gesture), is the goal of Cardenal as the Minister for Cultural Affairs in the revolutionary government in Nicaragua. The bases for this social order appear to be several.

First, there must be «a consistent view of human nature.»10 That is, that there is seen to be a place for man in the cosmos (all of which is God's—see «Salmo 148» in Poesía escogida (Barcelona: Barral, 1975)); man has both an origin11 and a constant evolution; man's life is in motion and the present is related to the rest of history; man makes and defines his role in society and communicates this through social and cultural expression. This «consistency» is summed up in Cardenal's poem «Oráculo sobre Managua» [«Oracle over Managua»] in which he speaks of the essential unity and harmony of all life in (Marxist/Christian) community: «Toda vida une / une y no divide / … / Toda sustancia viva una» [All life unites / unites and does not divide / … / All living substance unites].12

In second place, there is an attempt to integrate all aspects of human personality (mystical, political, artistic, etc.), accompanied by an integration of the outer world (community, country, region, world). This goes beyond a reductionist view of society including only a subjective radius or perception to a more encompassing social vision.

Third, there is the recovery of the physical body13 via participation for all members of the new society in Nicaragua without the exclusionary privileges of class, race, or sex: women, children, Indians, Blacks, peasants, the poor, and all the minorities traditionally marginalized from «belonging» to the corporeal, physical, tangible social reality as functioning members.

These steps all lead to the fourth area, the control of cultural production. As Minister of Culture, Cardenal has organized the «Talleres de poesía» [Poetry Workshops] in the «barrios» (popular neighborhoods) and for the police and soldiers, with the idea of encouraging the people to express themselves in their own way.14 There has also been an appropriation of the «artesanías» (handicrafts) once made solely for tourists, and a reorientation of fairs and festivals to be the expression of belonging to a valuable national culture, not as compensation for a lack of genuine work in «normal» times. Both the Workshops and the fairs, as well as the proposal to establish «an indigenous university for the Miskito Indians,»15 reaffirm the cultural identity of the forgotten people in their music, arts, songs, dances, and language; in a word, Cardenal and his group seek «to oppose cultural ethnocide»16 in Nicaragua.

Lastly, the ultimate goal of the establishment of this society is to reach peace and equality (both Marxist and Christian objectives),17 «the integration of all the members of the species into a single harmonious, cooperative group»18 such as that «Organism» described by Cardenal in his poem «Apocalípsis»: «la especie no estaba compuesta de individuos / sino que era un solo organismo / compuesto de hombres en vez de células / … / y el Organismo recubría toda la redondez del pla- / neta»19 [the species was not composed of individuals / but rather it was one single organism / composed of men instead of cells / … / and the Organism covered the entire face of the earth]. This process of humanization of life and history is to oppose the destruction of nuclear war, mocking those who plan survival strategies «Who will put dark glasses on the cows?» asks Cardenal at a disarmament conference in Harvard,»20 and attempting to construct a society free from violence in which a relationship between man, culture, and nature is not destroyed.


«Tenle miedo a los poetas,
[Be afraid of the poets,

Bosco Centeno

Social development and the recovery of the dignity of national traditions have gone hand-in-hand since the beginning of the Nicaraguan revolution in 1979. The road from cultural oppression (models—for writing, painting, religion, government—imposed by others) to cultural liberation can be viewed in the defense by intellectuals such as Cardenal of the self-expression of the Nicaraguan people through popular religion, popular arts, and popular culture. In the particular case of Cardenal, he has defined his own task as poet as also being assimilated into this context of popular arts (not assuring a separation of social classes by reinforcing a separation between «art» (cultured) and «artesanía» (handicrafts, arts and crafts) as an «instrumento para comprender, reproducir y transformar el sistema social»21 [an instrument to understand, reproduce, and transform the social system], a product whose function is to create as well as reflect new and changing social relations. For Cardenal, this poetry, as well as all popular cultural products, are no longer to be considered (as they once were by other cultures) exotic objects of curiosity for the sentimental, romantic imagining of primitive creative communities found attractive by those «First Worlders» discontent with the modern mass production of capitalism in their own countries (and seeking in the Third World a pre-capitalist, pre-modern society as an escape). Instead, they are creations—literary, etc.—of a nation by and for its people, embodying a search for their own expression with language not of «private worlds» but as «constituting our social world»22 in recovered communication and conversation.

According to Cardenal, the artistic material offered by contemporary Nicaragua results necessarily in realistic poetry because there it finds a genuine context for its expression (and from which it takes its expression). His often quoted23 definition of «exteriorist» poetry fits in perfectly with what is being written in Nicaragua today, a poetry which is changing and flexible in correspondence with reality itself, not static theory: «Es toda poesía directa, que trata de la realidad exterior. Y exteriorismo … [es] la poesía de todos los pueblos primitivos»24 [It is all direct poetry which deals with external reality. And exteriorism (is) … the poetry of all primitive peoples]. Why is it the poetry of primitive peoples? The «primitive» may be taken as the Spanish Americans writing for the first time (in modern days, at least) on their own, and also as people in direct, unmediated relation to their environment (with no outside a priori rules or norms), not at a distance from lived experience. This is also explained by the inheritance of the traditions, still existing in modern Nicaragua, of the rural storytellers (social historians of the communities), oral song gatherings, and popular Catholicism among the peasants in the countryside which all continue in spite of (even more, actually, because of: by its isolating them from functioning economically and socially) capitalist development. As Walter J. Ong has written (about the scribes in the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the oral tradition), «an early poet would write down a poem by imagining himself declaiming it to an audience,»25 thereby emphasizing the collective and communicative aspects of the «primitive» poetry. In all senses, the poetry of contemporary Nicaragua—Cardenal's own as well as that produced by children or in the Workshops and popular neighborhoods—affirms itself and is not skeptical toward society or man: see, for example, Cardenal's «Visión mística de las letras FSLN» in which he writes of not losing faith in the triumph of the revolution; even God gently mocks Cardenal at the end with «hombre de poca fe/pendejo» [man of little faith/fool]. It is forward-looking in its orientation toward historical movement and progress (it does not yearn for a lost past but returns to it to understand the present), as in Cardenal's «Canto nacional al FSLN»: «Yo canto / un país que va a nacer»26 [I sing / of a country which will be born]. It is also a poetry of identifiable daily scenes (workers, farmers, mothers, children, etc.), and a poetry as praxis or practical, communicative activity which contributes to the building of the social community. There are a number of points in common which deserve mention in regard to the content and form of these words.

To begin with, there is demonstrated a growing understanding by the people within the present historical circumstances of concepts such as «imperialism» (a synonym for the United States) and «nationalism» (in regard to Central America) as they write (or learn to write, some of them; thus, the simplicity of the conversational form) of what all can comprehend:27 shared experiences in work, in the revolution, in families, cooperation in social relations, the coexistence of the military and nature, war and love, Christians and Marxists. These experiences of solidarity and participation define and present the conduct appropriate—and necessary—for the society in formation. Compare, for instance, the following three verses:

Con las mismas manos de acariciarte estoy
construyendo una escuela(28) [With the same
hands that I caress you I am / building a
Bonita vos con tu vestido a la moda
por la Avenida Central
pero más bonita sos en el campamento
con el uniforme y tu fusil(29) 
[You look pretty with your stylish dress
walking down the main street
but you look even prettier in the encampment
with your uniform and rifle]
Madre Ana aún es monja
pero en plena revolución nicaragüense
es monja reaccionaria(30)
[Mother Ann is still a nun
but in the middle of the Nicaraguan revolution
she is a reactionary nun]

Although at first they may not appear to have much in common, all three poems actually speak of aesthetics, beauty, admiration, and human love, or the lack thereof under changing circumstances. The first, by the Cuban poet Roberto Fernández Retamar after the Cuban revolution, demonstrates that the tenderness toward others does not disappear, but is actually enhanced and expanded, by the multiple aspects the same pair of hands shows. Both caresses and the making for others of a place of learning offer positive human values to the social community, and also give an individual social worth and belonging. The second poem, by the Nicaraguan Bosco Centeno, judges the beauty of the individual not by external manifestations of style but through participation in society—here, the woman in the military, in the service of the people, being even more «attractive» than if she were just a beautiful object in and of herself. The third poem is by Ernesto Cardenal himself, of particular interest because it reinforces what the other two have presented, especially Bosco Centeno's work. The lines quoted are the last three of the poem, concluding a commentary on the nun who starts out as a young woman admired by Cardenal (who is her cousin) when she, dressed in a bathing suit in the summer sun, exhibits a graceful figure. Cardenal remarks on «el buen gusto de Dios» [God's good taste] at having called her to serve the church. However, when there is the necessity, as he sees it, for social commitment in Nicaragua, she becomes a woman disconnected from the world, a proponent of institutionalized religion and not the «living» religion of the people. Her physical beauty as a young woman is a static one, without value now since beauty, for Cardenal, is tied to attitude and activity. Therefore, intrinsic beauty, for both Centeno and Cardenal, must be complemented by «social beauty,» just as in the case of the caresses by the «working hands» in the poem by Fernández Retamar. If it is true that «writing fosters abstractions that disengage knowledge from the arena where human beings struggle with one another,»31 then these poems reflect in this culture an immediacy of contact (context) within a physical, social environment which is seen in their simplicity of language (vocabulary, description, syntax; orality), use of conversation and dialogue, and inclusion of questions or exclamations (as well as repetition) that seem to engage others (here, the reader) in verbal response or recognition.

Another point in common among these poets is the expression of the unity of the «Third World» and its villages, no longer as isolated units but as part of the world. The poems present the dignity of having one's own culture, not being anyone's «backyard.» An excellent example is «No voy a decirte,» again by Bosco Centeno, written to his wife.

No voy a decirte que las estrellas
que miramos en un mismo instante
nos unen en algún lugar del infinito
o que nos encontramos al oír las canciones de amor
que escuchábamos cuando éramos novios.
nuestra unión es en …
… la compañera vende-chancho y el compañero
que vende el pan y el compañero que hace posta
en los bancos
y estamos unidos a ellos como en un circuito eléctrico
donde fluye el amor.(32)
[I am not going to tell you that the stars
that we look at the very same instant
unite us in some place in infinity
or that we find each other upon hearing the love songs
which we listened to when we were courting.
our union is in …
… our pork-selling comrade and our comrade
who sells bread and our comrade who keeps watch
in the banks
and we are united with them as in an electric circuit
where love flows.]

The unity of Nicarguan society is described, then, as one including the immediate family but also going beyond to reach the entire country, and even farther beyond to all of Central America.33 Moreover, this unity includes the communication and establishment of a sense of history of struggle, particularly from Sandino on, in the movement toward the new Nicaragua (and incorporating other struggles—past, present, and future—into one long search for liberation and independence). In one case, Cardenal writes of/to the poet and soldier Leonel Rugama, killed in the revolution but alive in its … other struggles—ideals and continuers; Roberto Vargas (now in the revolutionary army) tells of a woman friend who also died in combat but who is obviously not forgotten. Both of these, in addition to Carlos Fonseca and many more, appear in the poetry as parts of a process of history narrated by its own makers. Their voices record pride in their contributions to their own development, pride in being incorporated into Nicaragua's history for the first time. Women in the revolution, in the militia, and teaching the peasants to read34 are three of the circumstances presented. These are not always easy to deal with, but they are always seen by the poets in the light of their being part of a large historical scheme: when a man is in battle without his wife being sure of where he is or if he is still alive, he writes «nuestra pena / en este momento histórico es una satisfacción»35 [our pain / at this historical moment is a satisfaction].

The Nicaraguans are also rediscovering nature as a part of man's world, neither hostile, a paradisiacal haven (as some would have had them believe), nor merely a place to hide from oppressors. Thus, Gerardo Gadea is able to write in the same verses of tropical birds and the army sharing the same mountainous jungle space; Iván Guevara, too, speaks of the harmony between men and their environment [«Las cinco de la mañana. La selva está oscura todavía, / … / Mis compañeros comienzan a levantarse con gran entusiasmo junto con los pájaros»36 (It is five a.m. The jungle is still dark, / … / My comrades begin to get up with great enthusiasm along with the birds)]. Cardenal goes one step further by identifying certain values in common between nature and man, especially liberty: «Son las selvas del quetzal que no sabe vivir cautivo / el habitat del quetzal, y de los sandinistas»37 [These are the jungles of the quetzal that does not know how to live captive / the habitat of the quetzal, and of the Sandinistas]. Man's working with and within nature—in economics, communities, arts, and culture—affords each (man as well as nature) meaning and identity forged from this continual interaction.

Lastly, the discourse of contemporary Nicaragua concentrates on the concrete benefits earned as a result of the 1979 revolution. Improvements in health, housing, education, nutrition, and attitude toward everyday life (no fear, no Somoza National Guard) are naturally considered topics for communication since they are shared and enjoyed by all, and since, as was mentioned earlier, this poetry is fundamentally self-affirming and constructive. The benefits are to be witnessed in the happy, fearless children who now write poetry and admire nature, as opposed to those who were «martyred» in the revolution38 or suffered before then. There is also special testimony to these benefits in the agricultural reform, joining Nicaraguans to the land from which many had been alienated for centuries (from the Spanish colonization through Somoza), as described in a poem by Nubia Arcia: «veouna vieja gorda morena / y unos niños de pantalón corto; / un viejo con sombrero de palma / que siembra la tierra que les ha dado la Revolución»39 [I see a dark old woman / and some children in short pants; / an old man with a straw hat / who is planting seeds in the land that the Revolution gave them]. But perhaps the best testimony to the concrete benefits are the poetry and popular arts themselves, the consolidation of voices where before there was silence. In this development of national expression, Ernesto Cardenal and his Ministry of Popular Culture have been essential catalysts.40


  1. See my article, «A Search for Utopia on Earth: Toward an Understanding of the Literary Production of Ernesto Cardenal,» in Crítica Hispánica, Vol. IV, No. 2 (1982), pp. 171–179. For an update on Central American poetry available in English translation, refer to the excellent summary and review by John Beverley, «Sandinista Poetics,» in The Minnesota Review, NS 20, Spring 1983, pp. 127–134.

  2. These include: United States economic and military intervention, the Somoza family, the multinationals, Third World cities as paradoxes of consumption (at once tourist sites and shanty towns), etc. See Ernesto Cardenal's «Visión mística de las letras FSLN» in Plural, 2a época, Vol. XI–X, No. 130, Julio de 1982, p. 23. Also, almost all of the earlier poetry has references—direct or indirect—to the same (for example, «Managua 6:30 P.M.»).

  3. Cornel West, Review of Faith and Ideologies by Juan Luis Segundo in Commonweal, January 27, 1984, p. 53. My emphasis. It is to be noted, in addition, that Cardenal seems to show the same hope in the face of another crisis, this time on a world scale: the arms race and the threat of nuclear war. (See his «La paz mundial y la revolución de Nicaragua (Palabras pronunciadas en la Universidad de Harvard, clausurando un Congreso sobre el desarme y la paz),» Colección Popular de Literatura Nicaragüense, Documentos, No. 1 (Nicaragua: Ministerio de Cultura, 1981), without pagination).

  4. The Sandinista program is described in detail in Borge, Tomás, Carlos Fonseca, Daniel Ortega, Humberto Ortega, and Jaime Wheelock, Sandinistas Speak, ed. Bruce Marcus (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1982).

  5. Georg Lukács calls this the «realization of individual consciousness through the concrete, historical situation» (Realism in our Time: Literature and the Class Struggle, trans. John and Necke Mander (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), p. 8).

  6. See Ernesto Cardenal, «Apocalípsis,» from «Oración por Marilyn Monroe y otros poemas,» in Poemas (Barcelona: Ed. Libres de Sinera, 1971), pp. 93–99.

  7. Georg Lukács, Realism in our Time, pp. 23–24.

  8. Harvey Cox, Religion in the Secular City: Toward a Postmodern Theology (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 90.

  9. Alejandro Losada, «El surgimiento del realismo social en la literatura de América Latina,» Ideologies and Literature, Vol. III, No. 11 (Nov-Dic. 1979), p. 40.

  10. Georg Lukács, Realism in our Time, p. 26.

  11. «De una nube de polvo cósmico en rotación / … / comenzaste a sacar las espirales de las galaxias / … / y la primera molécula por el efecto del agua y la / luz se fecundó / … / y a comienzos del Cuartenario creaste el hombre» [From a cloud of cosmic dust in rotation / … / You began to form the spirals of the galaxies / … / and by means of the effect of water and light the first molecule was formed / … / and at the beginning of the Quaternary period You created man], «Salmo 103» from Poemas, pp. 59–61.

  12. Ernesto Cardenal, Canto a un país que nace (Puebla: Ed. de la Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, 1978), p. 203. Unless otherwise noted, the translations from Spanish to English are nine.

  13. Harvey Cox sees this as corresponding to the differences between the orientations of «modern» and «postmodern» theology (an interesting point, considering Cardenal's interest in the church and popular religion): «Modern theology was fascinated with the mind. It concentrated on ideas and was especially interested in the question of good and evil. Postmodern theology will concentrate on the body, on the nature of human community, and on the question of life and death.» (Religion in the Secular City, p. 209). Cardenal seems to have put this into practice in Solentiname.

  14. In «La paz mundial y la revolución de Nicaragua,» Cardenal suggests the amplitude of such workshops and the general interest in them: «Y ojalá que en otros ejércitos haya también poesía y canto como en Nicaragua. Podemos ofrecer a otros Ejércitos asesoría en materia de poesía» [I hope that in other armies there are also poetry and song as there are in Nicaragua. We can offer other Armies advice on the subject of poetry].

  15. Harvey Cox, Religion in the Secular City, p. 88.

  16. Ernesto Cardenal, «Toward a New Democracy of Culture,» statement to UNESCO in Paris, April 23, 1982, trans. Rebecca Cohn, in The Nicaragua Reader: Documents of a Revolution Under Fire (eds. Peter Rosset and John Vandermeer) (New York: Grove Press, 1983), p. 347. Instead of aesthetic models being foreign (from the United States, particularly Miami, according to Cardenal) the Nicaraguans have begun to look inside their own country and region.

  17. Helmut Fleischer defines Marx's view of history as «a form of progress leading to an increase, not only of material amenities, but also of human friendliness, with ‘permanent peace’ between men as the ‘ultimate result.’» (Marxism and History, trans. Eric Mosbacher (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), p. 75.

  18. Helmut Fleischer, Marxism and History, p. 75.

  19. Ernesto Cardenal, «Apocalípsis,» p. 99.

  20. «La paz mundial y la revolución de Nicaragua,» without pagination.

  21. Néstor García Canclini, Las culturas populares en el capitalismo (Mexico: Nueva Imagen, 1982), p. 17.

  22. Cornel West, Review, p. 56.

  23. The reason for citing this definition is often to refute his ideas: see Carlos Monsiváis («El esplendor de la poesía nicaragüense,» in Siempre, No. 1607, abril 11 de 1984, p. 41), for example, who objects to Cardenal's statement that «exteriorism» is «la única poesía que puede expresar la realidad latinoamericana» [the only poetry that can express Latin American reality].

  24. Poesía cubana de la revolución, selección, presentación y notas de Ernesto Cardenal (Mexico: Extemporáneos, 1976), p. 12. It is very interesting to note that these words appear in a preface to a collection of contemporary Cuban poetry, which it is to be supposed therefore has something in common with that of revolutionary Nicaragua. The Cuban writer of essays and poetry Roberto Fernández Retamar's own definition of «conversational poetry» parallels closely Cardenal's: «La poesía conversacional se define positivamente, e incluso yo diría que se cuida poco de definirse: se proyecta a la aventura del porvenir sin demasiado ciudado por la definición» [Conversational poetry defines itself positively, and I would even say that it takes little care to define itself: it projects itself toward the adventure of the future without too much care of its definition]. (Para una teoría de la literatura hispanoamericana (Mexico: Nuestro Tiempo, 1977), p. 156).

  25. Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World (London: Methuen, 1982), p. 95.

  26. From Canto a un país que nace, p. 199.

  27. Cardenal mentions two examples in «La paz mundial y la revolución de Nicaragua»: Porfirio Salgado who writes of soldiers greeted by children in the countryside, and Santiago López, a policeman, who remembers the closeness of his companions in battle. See a report from «The Nation» (May 7, 1983) quoted in Radical Teacher (November 1983) about the over 400,000 taught to read and write in just six months under the Nicaraguan literacy campaign. With literacy, they are also taught their own value in making social change, thereby giving reading and writing a positive value of acquisition within the society.

  28. Roberto Fernández Retamar, «Con las mismas manos,» A quien pueda interesar: Poesía, 1958–1970 (Mexico: Siglo XXI), p. 26.

  29. Bosco Centeno, «Vos,» Poesía campesina de Solentiname, selección y prólogo de Mayra Jiménez (Nicaragua: Ministerio de Cultura, 1980), p. 58.

  30. Ernesto Cardenal, «Recordando de pronto,» Plural, 2a época, Vol. XI–X, No. 130, Julio de 1982, p. 23.

  31. Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, pp. 43–44.

  32. From Poesía campesina de Solentiname, p. 64.

  33. This would correspond to the concrete proposals of the revolutionary government for Nicaragua: «X. Central American people's unity: The Sandinista people's revolution is for the true union of the Central American people in a single country» (Sandinistas Speak, p. 21). This «fraternal» feeling toward all «Third World» peoples is also seen in another section of the program: «XI. Solidarity among peoples: … [to] support the struggle of the peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America against the new and old colonialism … [as well as] the struggle of the Black People … of the United States» (Sandinistas Speak, p. 21).

  34. See Aldo Solórzano, Pedro Pablo Benavides, and Victor Manuel Gómez, respectively. Cited in Cardenal, «La paz mundial y la revolución de Nicaragua,» without pagination.

  35. Bosco Centeno, «A Esperanza mi mujer,» in Poesía campesina de Solentiname, p. 61.

  36. Iván Guevara, «Una posta al amanecer,» in Poesía campesina de Solentiname, p. 86.

  37. Ernesto Cardenal, «Canto nacional al FSLN,» Canto a un país que nace, p. 191.

  38. See Ernesto Cardenal, «La paz mundial y la revolución de Nicaragua,» without pagination.

  39. Nubia Arcia, «Hace una tarde hermosa,» in Poesía campesina de Solentiname, p. 107.

  40. Cardenal himself has recently stated his desire to leave the government position and return to his island of Our Lady of Solentiname so that he, too, may once again write more poetry («about Indians» as he says). See Bill Finnegan, «Travels with Ernesto,» New Age Journal, June 1984, pp. 38, 79.

Ernesto Cardenal and Margaret Randall (interview date summer/fall 1986)

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SOURCE: Cardenal, Ernesto, and Margaret Randall. “Talking with Ernesto Cardenal.” Fiction International 16, no. 2 (summer/fall 1986): 47–60.

[In the following interview, Cardenal discusses his literary influences, his religious conversion, and his views on Nicaraguan politics.]

Ernesto Cardenal has become a legend in his lifetime. More important, he has been a prophet in his land: the first Nicaraguan priest to join the struggle of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), back in the late sixties.

The second son of a wealthy family in the conservative city of Granada, he took part in an attempt to overthrow Somoza García, in 1954. A poet, he was more deeply influenced by Ezra Pound than by his native Darío, yet his verse is both profoundly Nicaraguan and intensely visionary, even to its specifics.

A man in need of the flesh as well as the spirit, he nonetheless responded to a clear call to the religious life, and learned from the Trappists in Kentucky, the Benedictines in Mexico and a traditionalist seminary in Colombia before founding his contemplative community (1966–77) on a remote island in Lake Nicaragua.

Today Ernesto wants nothing so much as to return to that island—Solentiname—and write the wonders of this revolution, its tenderness and pain. But the revolution needs him as its Minister of Culture, and he has considered himself a committed militant in the Sandinista vanguard since the day, in 1976, when he agreed to accept the mission of going to the Russell Tribunal in Rome, in order to denounce the terror and crimes being wrought against his country's peasant population by the son of the man he'd tried to overthrow 22 years before. He is a member of the FSLN's highest body, its Sandinista Assembly.

Ernesto has said, on more than one occasion, “I now see that my entire life, my initial commitment to God, my time with Merton in Kentucky, the years at Solentiname, the poetry, everything, was part of a single road to the revolution.” And so he will stave off his need for solitude and writing time a bit longer, while the revolution needs him to harvest poetry and painting workshops, theater groups, crafts collectives, musicians and dancers across this wounded and creative land.

And when Ernesto says his life has moved along a single road to revolution, he means as well a single road to God. God and the revolution are quite tangible in his concept of the world, and they are almost indistinguishable in the way he has chosen to live his dream. His has been a life of service, but service as the poem is service: brilliant, luminescent, visionary, of the spirit … never forgetting that the body is, or should be, one with the spirit.

Since the Solentiname days, this poet-priest has chosen his manner of dress, and it has rarely varied: ordinary blue jeans, the white cotona or simple loose-fitting shirt, common to the Nicaraguan peasant, and a black beret. Weather permitting, he has spoken before crowds of thousands—or tens of thousands—in countries throughout the world, received international awards and honorary doctorates at the most prestigious universities or gone hunting for fishing bait on his beloved island, in this same attire. Once I have seen him in militia uniform; it was back in 1981, when the first of the recent round of U.S. military maneuvers threatened Nicaragua and members of the FSLN donned the brown shirt and olive green pants as a sign of protest and readiness.

I have known Ernesto Cardenal since 1962, when—with other poets in Mexico City at that time—our basic concern was the sharing of the poem: from North to South, from South to North. I was just initiating an eight-year experience with a bilingual poetry journal, El Corno Emplumado. Ernesto had just come from his time with Thomas Merton at Gethsemani. Colombia, Solentiname and the victorious Nicaraguan revolution were all still ahead of him.

The interview, then, was important to me, not only in the context of this book, but in the context of a life. A life that has been meaningful to my own as it has been to his people and their historic decision of struggle. As accessible as the man is—almost anyone dropping by his office in what used to be the mansion occupied by Somoza's wife, and which today houses flutes and marimbas, painted birds and indigenous sculpture, may climb the short flight of stairs to the second-floor loft—the demands of the struggle have meant almost constant travel for him.

If el padre is in the country, and not beseiged by matters of State, he will stop and listen, ask questions of the visitor and share his experience of this country where “we can offer advisors to any army in the world … in matters of poetry!” If, on the other hand, he is out of the country, you might have to wait for him to return from Washington or Frankfurt, Buenos Aires or Madrid, before there's a chance for conversation. In this particular case, we had to wait for my return from Canada and his from Los Angeles before sitting down to talk about the poems he would much rather be writing.

It finally happened, though. In his simple office, after some initial talk, we began with the usual: childhood influences, the first encounter with the poem:

[Cardenal]: I wouldn't say Darío influenced me, not really. But Darío evoked the poem in me. Discovered the poet in me, perhaps. Even before I learned to read. I remember when I was very small, my father—who wasn't literary by any stretch of the imagination; he was a businessman—would read to me. He had Darío's complete works and he'd read the poems out loud. I was fascinated listening to him, without understanding a word …

[Randall]: How old were you then?

I was six. Later I remember telling people I'd invented two poems of my own. I didn't write them down; I knew them by heart. And my aunts, the older people in the household, would get me to recite them. One was about Darío's grave, in León. Probably fairly incoherent (those poems you hope no one will ever dig up!). I also remember that I used to go out into the courtyard of that childhood home of mine and string words together, words that rhymed: rosa, mariposa, hermosa, fosa (rose, butterfly, beautiful, ditch). Just rhyming. Probably influenced by Darío who had so much rhyme in his poetry, the poetry I heard from my father.

Later, when I learned to read, I remember lying on the porch of the same house, reading Darío from that complete works my father had—there were something like 20 volumes; it was the Spanish edition, the first complete Darío published—and I was fascinated once more, though I didn't understand most of the words. A great aunt of mine used to tell me she'd known Darío, there in León, but she never understood his poetry. She liked Spanish poetry, she said, and Darío had come along with a “modern” verse she never did get …

And I was going to ask you, at some point soon, how you moved from the influence of someone like Darío into your own voice: much more modern, open, conversational, exteriorista as you later termed it …

I was never really influenced by Darío. I simply discovered, in Darío, the magic of words. And I began making meaningless verse. Later, at school, when I studied with the Jesuits, I began writing poetry. I was about 9 then. And that poetry was clearly influenced by the terrible things they gave us to read, or they gave me to read, at least, at schools like those: the romantic Spanish poets, Zorría and so forth.

When we talked once before you asked me about Carlos Martínez Rivas and Pablo Antonio Cuadra.1 Pablo Antonio is my cousin, ten years older than I am. They had his first book, Poemas nicaragüenses at home, and when I learned to read, that was another book I liked going through. It was vanguardista (from the Vanguard literary movement), but it used a very real language, words from the Nicaraguan countryside, the language of Chontales, “the dead cow,” all those poems … I didn't understand it all, some of the vanguardista images were lost on me, but I liked a lot of what I found there. I remember Pablo Antonio came to stay at our house once, and I had tremendous respect for him because I knew he was a poet. And I knew Carlos Martínez Rivas from the time we were 9 or 10, at the Central America School where we both studied. We've been friends ever since.

Carlos and I started out writing together, but we were both writing very awkward verse, the kind of thing young kids wrote at that time. The real poet at our school was Pedro Joaquín Chamorro.2 He was a year ahead of us, he knew a lot more grammar, he was writing poetry with meter and all, and for us he was a master. Carlos Martínez and I really looked up to him. But later Pedro Joaquín stopped writing poetry; it was just those first years, when he was very young. Carlos Martínez made his big leap when he was around 14. At the age of 14, Carlos was already writing very original poetry, something very different from what the rest of us were able to produce. He was influenced by Neruda, but by the early Neruda, Crepusculario and so forth. He'd been to Costa Rica and had access to literature we didn't have.

At that point you didn't yet know Coronel,3 did you?

No. I met Coronel when I was 16. He was an uncle of mine. And my grandmother, who was his aunt (his mother's sister) admired him a lot. Because my grandmother was something of an intellectual. Of the Urtecho family, she was the one who most admired Coronel. Listening to her talk was how I first heard about him, and one day I went and showed him some poems I'd written. As a matter of fact, Coronel didn't believe I'd written them; he thought they were by Father Angel Martínez, who was a Jesuit teacher of Carlos Martínez' and mine, at school. Coronel said the Jesuits liked to write poems and pretend they'd been written by their students. Angel Martínez actually was an influence on me at that time. And the poems weren't bad, for a 16-year-old. Later Coronel began coming by the school, to talk to Carlos Martínez and to me. And we began writing seriously. Our major influences then were Alberti, Lorca and Neruda.

Not Vallejo?

We didn't read Vallejo till a year or so later. Vallejo hadn't been published yet. Vallejo died unknown, really, except for his close circle of friends. We were reading what was available to us at the time: Alberti's Marinero en tierra (Landed Sailor), Neruda's Veinte poemas de amor y una cancíon desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Desperation), the early work by those great poets. Later it was Coronel who introduced us to Vallejo, who had just been published in Mexico. His España, aparta de mí esta calíz (Spain, take this cup from me) was another great treasure for us.

Later there were influences from other languages; we began reading Rilke, Proust, Gide, the French poets, and poetry from the United States that Coronel gave us. He'd read us American and English poetry, translating as he went along. Afterwards he began doing serious translations, and each time he finished one he'd bring it around for us to see. And I began to feel a certain influence from that poetry of the United States.

When I finished high school I talked my parents into letting me go to Mexico to study literature. I wanted to study North American literature. Ernesto Mejía Sánchez had joined our group by that time, and our mentors were Coronel, Pablo Antonio, and Joaquín Pasos (though we saw much less of Joaquín; he was already quite ill by then). So Mejía Sánchez and I went to Mexico and we began to study English-language literature there. But we quickly saw we couldn't really understand it, with the level of English they taught, so we switched over to the department of Spanish literature. But when I finished my studies in Mexico I convinced my parents to send me to the United States to study American Literature. I went with that in mind …

Those were your Columbia University years?

Yes, 1947 through '49 I was at Columbia, in New York City. The first year was mainly just learning English, and beginning to read the poetry as well. And the poet who influenced me, in whom I discovered the most, was Ezra Pound. His Cantos. I remember that the first large edition of Cantos came out around then. And my great discovery there was that poetry could be made from anything: anecdotes, texts by other writers, letters, news items, historical chronicles. You could put anything and everything into a poem just like you could in prose. Poetry didn't have to limit itself to a certain kind of vocabulary or a certain theme. You could write poetry about agriculture, politics, history, things you remembered …

Ernesto, what was your first published book? Not the first book you wrote, necessarily, but the first you published?

I published quite late. Because when I went with the Trappists, I still hadn't published a book of poems. When I returned to Nicaragua after studying in the United States, and after a trip to Europe I made when I'd finished at Columbia, I began to write Epigramas and some long historical poems. One was about Walker's war on Nicaragua, another was called “Squire in Nicaragua” and uses things Squire told of his experiences in the country as well as a lot that Squire didn't say but I took from other authors or invented myself (Squire wrote that famous book of chronicles about Nicaragua in the nineteenth century). Then I began writing political poetry. And La hora cero. That was the last poem I wrote before going to Gethsemani, or the last poem I finished, because I wrote it over a period of time.

Epigramas, the long historical poems, and then Gethsemani, Kentucky are all from that period then?

There's a time span. I returned to Nicaragua at the age of 25, and went with the Trappists when I was 31. So there were those six years at home, when I wrote historical and political poems, and epigrams of a political nature and also about love …

The famous poems for Claudia …

Yes. When I left the Trappists, my first two books were published in Mexico: Epigramas and La hora cero. But the manuscripts were already several years old. I'd been publishing in magazines, but I couldn't publish the political epigrams, for example, even outside Nicaragua under my own name. Because under Somoza García's dictatorship, press censorship was much worse than under the other Somozas. The other Somozas were forced to let up to some extent. They allowed at least veiled attacks in La Prensa. But Somoza García wouldn't even tolerate a joke. During his first years in power he even forced the opposition papers to publish articles in his favor. A paper could be closed down indefinitely for the slightest uncomplimentary allusion to his person. La Prensa was closed down, I remember, because it published a tiny note in which they said the First Lady hadn't been able to attend a Catholic Action meeting because she was at the beach. They saw that as an attack. And that was enough to close the paper! So I had to publish my political poetry under a pseudonym, and I sent them to a number of countries …

What was your pseudonym?

“Anonymous Nicaragua.” I remember Manuel Scorza came, the Peruvian writer who was just killed in that plane crash in Madrid; he liked some of my poems and he took them with him. Neruda published them in Chile, in a magazine he was putting out, but he never knew who had written them …

Ernesto, we've talked about some of your literary influences, or the writers who awakened in you certain levels of consciousness about the poem. What about the revolution? What effect has the struggle of the Nicaraguan people, the whole revolutionary process, had on your work?

I was always obsessed by my hatred of Somoza. From the first Somoza. And I always wanted to write political poetry, attacking Somoza; it was something I felt so deeply I had to express it. But I couldn't figure out how to do that. There didn't seem to be any models for writing political poetry. I didn't want to write propaganda, tracts … I wanted it to be poetry. I wanted it to be poetic and political at the same time. The first poem I wrote that satisfied me poetically and politically is one of the epigrams: “En la tumba del guerrillero” (“At the Guerrilla's Tomb”). Years later, Carlos Mejía Godoy4 put it to music.

That's an important poem for me, not just because it's my first successful political poem, but because I wrote it when taking part in a conspiracy—a great deal has been said about this event—the April Conspiracy. It was a plan we had to take the presidential palace, capture Somoza, and take power …

That was 1954 …

Nineteen fifty-four. I was very close to one of the leaders of the plan, one of its martyrs: Adolfo Báez Bone. I'd written that poem of mine for Sandino, and the idea was that no one knew where the guerrilla was buried but the whole country was his tomb. And I was thinking of showing it to Báez Bone; I thought he'd like it. Báez Bone was an officer in the army, a tremendously charismatic figure, much loved by the people. And Somoza was afraid of him. He was a born leader. In our political group he was the contact inside the army.

This group was made up of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, Rafael Córdoba Rivas, Reinaldo Teffel, and Arturo Cruz, among others.5 When he got out of prison—for he'd served a prison term—Báez Bone became our leader. I was thinking of showing him my poem at our next meeting, but our next meeting turned out to be the one at which they told us we were going to attack the presidential palace!

That action failed. The principle leaders were captured and assassinated. They cut Pablo de Leal's tongue out. They say they castrated Báez Bone. And one of the two is supposed to have stained Tacho Somoza's shirt with his blood. That's the old Somoza's son. He was the main torturer. In any case, they were tortured to death. Others of the group were taken prisoner, others took asylum in different embassies, others went into hiding. I went into hiding.

Later mutual friends of Báez Bone's and mine said why didn't I dedicate that poem about the guerrilla's tomb to him instead of to Sandino. Sandino was a well-known figure, they said, while Báez Bone was relatively unknown. And no one knew where he had died, either, nor where he was buried. He was an unknown hero and martyr; no one knew where his body was. I gave the poem a new name: “Epitaph for Adolfo Báez Bone's Tomb.” And I began to feel I had found a way of writing political poetry. So I kept on writing political epigrams, along with the epigrams that were love poems.

One of the cantos in “Zero Hour” is about that April conspiracy. Another is about Sandino. And “Zero Hour” was going to be a much longer poem, I was going to write a lot more about Sandino, for example, when it was cut short by my religious conversion. I was going to write about all the struggles in Nicaraguan history, about the struggle against yanqui imperialism, against the succession of Somozas, it was almost endless what I had in mind.

Ernesto, I want to ask you to talk about your religious conversion. You were born and raised a Catholic, and yet you speak of your decision as a conversion. I know it's one of the really important moments in your experience, and as I've come to understand the religiosity of the Nicaraguan people as a whole, and the importance of faith in their lives, I've come to realize that your decision might be called prophetic. You knew from an early age that you were a poet, and you might have gone on to exercise one of the various professions common to poets: university professor, editor, something like that. But you decided to commit yourself to a religious life. How did that happen?

It's something I felt from the time I was a child. I used to play at saying mass. In the same way as I was affected from an early age by poetry, I also had a great religious inclination. When I was a child I used to say I was going to be a priest when I grew up. But when I began to write, seriously write, I didn't want to give that up. That was when I began to feel a certain conflict, what to do with my life. I always felt like I was doing something I shouldn't be, or that I wasn't doing exactly what I should …

Did the poetry seem incompatible with a religious life?

It wasn't just the poetry; I had to reject marriage, freedom … maybe not poetry as such, but poetry meant women to me, my great desire to love a woman, and that seemed to be my greatest obstacle to choosing a religious life. I had several relationships with women, but I always felt that if I married I'd have to give up that which seemed to me to be my true calling. God kept on searching me out, tracking me down.

Finally I decided to give in to that call. I'd read San Juan de la Cruz, where he speaks of the total rejection, giving up everything until you come to a total nothingness. And that nothingness is the encounter with God. And I got to the point where I decided to give it a try. It was a kind of suicide: emptying myself of everything, until I felt that God was filling me. Nothing else mattered then, nothing attracted me except that of which I had become enamoured: God.

Rigoberto López Pérez shot Somoza García in September of 1956.6 A few months earlier I experienced my conversion. And I wanted to enter a Trappist monastery. I'd read Thomas Merton from the time I was at Columbia—when his first books came out—and I'd kept on reading him. I'd even translated some of his poetry. And the only Trappist monastery I knew about was Gethsemani, Kentucky, where Merton was. So I wrote, asking for information about the possibility of entering a Trappist monastery somewhere. I never thought it would be in the United States. In fact, I explained in my first letter that I was from a tropical climate, and I asked about a monastery where I might be accepted. And they responded by simply sending the application forms.

So I felt God wanted me to go to Gethsemani. And I filled out the forms. I later found out that they rejected almost all their applicants. Because of Merton, the place received a lot of publicity, and they were very strict about whom they accepted. Most of the novices stayed a few days at most, and then they left. The Trappist life was a very hard one. Men came there out of romanticism, out of depression, or neurosis. One of the requirements was that you had to see a psychiatrist.

I filled out the forms, and I later found out that the abott, when he received my first letter, had told Merton: “Write that man from Nicaragua and tell him not to come.” Since they rejected almost everyone, he said: “That one, from South America, he's from another culture, another climate; he'll never make it here.” And then Merton told me that he heard a voice, absolutely clear, telling him I should be admitted. So he ignored what the abbot had told him, and he sent me the papers. Merton told me that much later, after I'd left the Trappists, when I went back once to visit him, after my ordination as a priest.

I entered the Trappist monastery without having published a book. I knew it was an anti-literary order, that Merton was an exception among the Trappists. Since the thirteenth century, when the Trappists had a great mystic writer, Saint Bernard, I knew they hadn't had another. The order believed that to be a monk in their community one shouldn't write or in any other way bring attention to oneself. The idea was to bury yourself for life.

The Trappist life was the life of a peasant. You worked in the fields. So I entered the monastery aware of the fact that I wouldn't be able to write, and one of the first things Merton told me when I arrived was that the abbot had said I must renounce my vocation as a poet. I told Merton I knew I'd have to renounce everything, and I was willing to do so. He told me he thought they were going to prohibit his writing soon, as well. “It's good to be able to accept that,” he said. He also told me it was possible that at some future date I would be allowed to write again. “For now, it's not possible. You can take notes, but you cannot write professionally. Nor think of publishing.”

I took many notes the two years I was there, and later, after I'd left, those notes became the basis for my Trappist poems. They were the record of simple experiences, what happened in a day, things that occurred to me, landscapes. So they're very simple poems, simple and objective. When I left Gethsemani my first books came out: Los epigramas,La hora cero, and a bit later, Gethsemani, Kentucky.

At Gethsemani I suffered from headaches that became worse as the time passed. They've never really left me; I've had them for 30 years now. The Trappist life is hard, as I said; it's like army life. Everything is regulated, down to the minute. You get up at two in the morning, and at 2:05 you have to be on your way to the choir. They give you five minutes to wash your face, brush your teeth. The first chants begin at 2:10, and there's severe punishment for those who are half a minute late.

That's the way it was, all day long, till you went to bed at seven. My headaches made it more and more difficult for me to participate fully. One day it was the choir I couldn't attend; the next day I couldn't work in the fields. Until another monk, who had been a doctor, said I couldn't continue there. I resisted that decision, even though I was sick, but Merton said I'd probably have to resign myself to spending my life in an infirmary. It was ridiculous, he said, because it seemed it had to do with nervous tension. And that perhaps another kind of life would enable me to get rid of those headaches. (Though I've never gotten rid of them, with any of the various lives I've had.)

Merton told me to try the Benedictines. And that's why I went to Cuernavaca. But at the same time, Merton was planning on leaving the Trappists. He wanted to found a different order, a different kind of community, and we planned on doing that together. He'd thought, at first, of the Virgin Islands. He'd seen a book with pictures of the Virgin Islands and was taken with them. It's a good thing he never went there; he would have been disappointed. There's not much virgin about those islands.

Later Merton began to think of Latin America, and particularly Nicaragua: the Río San Juan area, or the Lake. The island of Ometepe perhaps. He also thought of the Andes, but he was pretty much decided on Nicaragua. And when I had to leave he said it was providential—that's the language we used—that it was the will of God that I leave, because it would be easier for me to found the community that way. If I'd have waited to take my final vows, it would have been much more difficult.

Merton felt it was important that I become a priest. That way, if it were impossible for him to leave the Trappists, I could found the community without him. And as it turned out, he wasn't able to leave. After my ordination, I went back to visit him at Gethsemani, and that's when he told me about the inspiration he'd had years before, the clear voice telling him it was important they receive me there. And he felt, as I did, that my two years at the monastery were important. Important in terms of my formation.

You'd never worked the land until you went to Kentucky?

No. That's where I learned to work the land with my hands, drenched with sweat in those hot Kentucky Augusts, or in the rain, or the snow. That kind of experience was to keep me in good stead for Solentiname, later on. Well, the rest of the story you know: I always thought my life has been a coherent line, set forth by God, a series of experiences that may seem crazy and disconnected to many: burying myself alive in a Trappist monastery, then 12 years on an island at Solentiname (where many also thought it was a waste of time, a place unknown even inside Nicaragua), and then the revolution, my exile which meant travelling around the world doing solidarity work for my country, and finally this very bureaucratic job as Minister of Culture, with its own round of voyages since the victory.

About the time I went to Solentiname, there was a contest on the radio here, and one of the questions was “Where is Solentiname?” There was a prize for the person who phoned in with the right answer. That'll give you an idea of what an isolated place it is.

As Minister of Culture, for the most part I've had to renounce my vocation as poet as well. Yet it all seems like a single mission to me: the total silence of the Trappist novitiate, where you communicate only through sign language. The isolation of Solentiname, and the agitated activity of these trips, before and after the revolution. Everything up to now has been a preparation, helping me give myself to this cause.

Ernesto, during the time you were at Solentiname, it seems to me that your poetry reached the level of your major work: Oración por Marilyn Monroe, Oráculo sobre Managua, El canto nacional. Those are all poems from that period, aren't they?

There was an evolution. I kept on writing different kinds of poetry, narrative poems, historic and political poems, and instead of love poems to women I wrote a poetry of mystic love. And I continued to write about the Indians. I first became interested in the Indians through Merton, who greatly admired those cultures. Merton used to say that the Indians were more truly religious than the young American novices at the monastery … he said the novices didn't even have any passion. And how could you be religious without passion?

Merton was very anti-American. He was born in France and his first language was French. But then he came to the United States, and of course he was an American. But he always hated the American way of life. And it colored everything he thought and did. He thought Latin American poetry was better than U.S. poetry, while I believed the opposite: that U.S. poetry was better than our own. He used to say his own poetry was more French than American, but I don't think that's true. Everything about the United States was bad, according to Merton; perhaps that's why he wanted to found a community in Latin America. He was obsessed by Latin America, although towards the end of his life he began to change that obsession for one with the orient, Zen Buddhism and so forth.

Merton used to say that real mysticism, real wisdom, could be found in the forgotten cultures. So when I left the Trappists I began to do a lot of reading about the Indians, both of North and South America. And I wrote quite a few poems about the Indians. But I was talking about the evolution in my poetry: it began, basically, as a poetry of protest against Somoza and against yanqui imperialism. Then perhaps it was more directly against the whole capitalist system. And after my experience in Cuba, my poetry became more Marxist-oriented. And I began to study Marxism …

I remember that first trip to Cuba, and the second. How impressed you were with the struggles and achievements of the Cuban people, and the shock it caused in Managua when you came back and said you were a socialist, let alone a Marxist! Yet your experience fit right in with similar experiences other committed religious people were having throughout Latin America. And how that was reflected at the meetings in Medellín and Puebla, following the Second Vatican Council.7 But there was also a great influence of pacifism in your work in those years, Ernesto. I remember during the Mexican years, how much Gandhi meant to you …

That was Merton's influence too. Because Merton was very Gandhian, he'd read a lot of Gandhi and he eventually became involved in the great pacifist movement that took hold in the United States, against atomic war. He wrote a good many articles, he became something of a leader in that movement, against the arms race, against nuclear war. The abbot even went so far as to prohibit him writing against war! For a time he mimeographed what he was writing, and sent it out to close friends.

Ernesto, do you think your transit from a pacifist position to an acceptance of the need for armed struggle comes out of your experience in Cuba—which clearly was tremendously important to you—or simply from being a Nicaraguan and seeing the way the struggle developed in your country?

No, it was the Nicaraguan experience. What happened to everyone here. Around 1968 I had my first meeting with Tomás Borge. Later I met with Carlos Fonseca, and again with Tomás and Carlos together. Those meetings were naturally underground, and we had long long discussions, in which violence was always an issue. From the beginning I agreed with everything they said, with the program they outlined, the way they wanted to change society, everything. But I thought the method should be the one Gandhi used: nonviolence.

In any case, I told them, as a priest I cannot take part in armed struggle. That was our discussion, from the beginning. I was totally frank and open with them, and they were extremely tolerant with me. Very patient, I'd say. Because they knew I was wrong, but they never tried to force me. We just kept on talking, and gaining each other's confidence. I even lent Carlos a biography of Gandhi, a book I read a great deal at Solentiname: the Fisher biography. And when he returned it he told me he had learned to admire Gandhi greatly. But that he was more than ever convinced that armed struggle was the only way. Because in India, even after Gandhi's struggle, the people were still miserable. Whereas in China, a different kind of struggle had brought freedom for the people.

I considered myself a member of the FSLN from the time I accepted my first mission: going to the Russell Tribunal, in Rome, in 1976. The organization sent me to denounce the beastly crimes being committed against the peasantry here. When the war ended, I thought I would be able to go back to live on the island. After all those years of struggle, so much travelling and exile, underground and agitation, I dreamed of returning to Solentiname, rebuilding the community and writing the chronicle of this revolution. But the revolution had other plans for me.

It was Father D'Escoto8 who called me in Costa Rica, to ask if I'd accept a cabinet post as Minister of Culture. I said I didn't much like the idea, but that if it was an order, I'd accept. He asked me again: “Do you accept?” and again I said if it was an order I'd have to. “But do you accept?” he insisted. And I finally said “yes.”

Some of the seeds planted at Solentiname have been the basis for much of the work the Ministry of Culture has promoted: the poetry workshops, primitive painting, crafts. Back in the sixties and seventies, when you were in the community, did you ever think you'd be able to extend those experiences throughout the country?

I didn't even imagine the poetry workshops would work at Solentiname. I didn't think that peasants, with such a low cultural level, could really understand anything but the simplest verse. It was Mayra Jiménez, a poet from Costa Rica, who came to the community at one point, who initiated the workshop experience. She had done something like that with children in her own country. I didn't even come to the workshop she started at Solentiname until it had been going for a while. And she invited me to read some of my poems. I saw that many of the peasants were writing really fine verse, as well as learning how to understand and criticize that of others.

As the community evolved, we started with the painting, and the crafts. The experience through the Ministry of Culture has been extraordinary. In so many areas. Right now, for instance: the Piñata, or fair of Nicaraguan handicrafts and goods. Or the Corn Fair, in the spring. So many activities born of the people's traditions and creativity. You ask me to sum up what I feel the influence of our revolution has been on Nicaraguan culture: it's released that culture, given it its freedom. And this is something that just keeps on growing; it's infinite!


  1. Carlos Martínez Rivas and Pablo Antonio Cuadra are two of the great Nicaraguan poets living today. Cuadra is perhaps the only important Nicaraguan poet not with the revolution. He is one of the editors of La Prensa.

  2. Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, important among the bourgeois opposition to all Somozas, edited La Prensa. He was murdered by Tacho Somoza on January 10, 1978.

  3. José Coronel Urtecho, one of Nicaragua's most important poets, some 20 years older than Cardenal and a life-long mentor

  4. Carlos Mejía Godoy is a Nicaraguan composer and singer whose music—traditional, folk and protest—has accompanied his people's struggle over the past decade. “The Peasant Mass” as well as the FSLN anthem are his.

  5. Rafael Córdoba Rivas, a member of the Conservative Party, is today a member of Nicaragua's governing Junta. Reinaldo Teffel, prominent member of the Christian movement, is president of the Nicaraguan Institute of Welfare and Social Security. Arturo Cruz, ex-member of the Junta, was one of Nicaragua's ambassadors to the United States. He now works with the counterrevolutionary movement against Nicaragua.

  6. Rigoberto López Pérez was a young patriot (and poet) who coordinated and executed a successful plot against the dictator's life. On September 21, 1956, Rigoberto arrived at a party at the “Worker's House” in León, and shot Somoza García at close range. He was immediately murdered by the bodyguards, and a terrible repression—claiming dozens of lives—descended on the country.

  7. Father Miguel D'Escoto, a Maryknoll priest, is Foreign Minister in the Nicaraguan government of National Reconstruction.

  8. Pope John XXIII's Second Vatican Council, initiated, interestingly enough, the same year (1961) that the FSLN was being founded in Nicaragua, gave rise to important meetings of Latin American bishops (Medellín, Colombia in 1968, and Puebla, Mexico in 1979). The two major breakthroughs for the Catholic Church, to come out of these events, were 1) accepting the Church as something inside history, and 2) assuming, as Christians, a “preferential option for the poor.” Both brought Christians and revolutionaries closer together than they had ever been.

Reginald Gibbons (essay date spring 1987)

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SOURCE: Gibbons, Reginald. “Political Poetry and the Example of Ernesto Cardenal.” Critical Inquiry 13, no. 3 (spring 1987): 648–71.

[In the following essay, Gibbons critically examines Cardenal's expression of his political views through his 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:

De pronto suena en la noche una sirena
de alarma, larga, larga,
el aullido lugúbre de la sirena
de incendio o de la ambulancia blanca de la muerte,
como el grito de la cegua en la noche,
que se acerca y se acerca sobre las calles
y las casas y sube, sube, y baja
y crece, crece, baja y se aleja
creciendo y bajando. No es incendio ni muerte:
                                                                                                    Es Somoza que pasa.(1)
Suddenly in the night there's a siren
of alarm, long, long
the gloomy howling of the siren
of a fire engine or the white ambulance of death,
like the cry of a mourner in the night,
that comes nearer and nearer over the streets
and houses and rises, rises, and falls
and grows louder, louder, falls and goes away
rising and falling. It's neither fire nor death:
                                                                                                    It's Somoza going by.

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 given this word by Seamus Heaney to mean manipulation of poetic resources; there is also this poet's “technique,” which in Heaney's sense means a “definition of his stance toward life.”2 Cardenal's characteristic poetic stance has been admired because he addresses the political and social pressures that shape—and often distort, damage, or destroy—life and feeling. This is apparent even in the earliest poems Cardenal has chosen to preserve. “Raleigh,” for example, is a dramatic meditation from 19493 in which the treasure-hunting explorer marvels at the expanse and wealth of the American continents and out of sheer pleasure recounts some of the triumphs and hardships of his travels. Although his alertness and wonder make him sympathetic, this Raleigh's vision of the New World as a limitless source of wealth is forerunner to the economic exploitation of the land and people.

One might ask, What are the political and social circumstances which, rather than distorting and damaging life and feeling, nurture and preserve them? Perhaps one might answer that, paradoxically, destructive conditions of life have many times proven insufficiently powerful to prevent the creation of poetry. And some poetry has even arisen in reaction to the destructive: such conditions produce resistance, which, if it cannot heal the spirit, can lend it strength. One might answer further that it is not Cardenal's or any artist's responsibility to establish what circumstance will form a fruitful matrix for art, but only to work as honestly and as hard as political, social, and artistic circumstances will permit.

Poetry, perhaps of all arts, is least demanding of physical materials: mere scraps of paper and a pencil, or nothing at all but a good memory, may suffice for its creation. Its medium is the currency of our thinking and feeling, language; and its creation is individual, solitary, and takes place in response to, or despite, every known social and political situation. States may seek to suppress it by making publication difficult or impossible and by attacking its creators, the poets. But no state has found a way to expedite the writing of great poetry or to improve the quality of poetry generally.

However, one sees Cardenal seeking at times, especially in his most recent works, to praise conditions and possibilities which he regards as favorable to life and to art, and which he locates in the promises and principles, if not always the achievements, of the Sandinista government. Most such poems are less convincing than those which speak not for any form of social organization but for other persons in their suffering or happiness, or which represent a critical intelligence and speak against the destructive.

Indeed, in Cardenal's work as a whole there are two recurring contradictions which are never resolved convincingly, as far as I can tell. The first is between on the one hand poetic experiment and on the other hand a desire to write as accessibly as possible; that is, a contradiction between the poet answering his own expressive needs or the political needs of the audience (as he conceives them). The second is between on the one hand poems of anger and hope which speak against (against injustice, suffering, materialism, oppression both historical and contemporary, and so on) and which enjoy the advantages of a stance of independence, critical thinking, and resistance, and on the other hand poems which speak for (for compassion, for justice, for delight, and—or but?—for revolution, then for the Sandinista victory) and which may adopt a voice of consensus or even obligatory ideals. Both of these patterns of contradiction are also congruent with the modern dilemma of the artist-intellectual: “the unresolved conflict at the heart of the Romantic-democratic concept of art” is a “dual commitment both to ‘high’ literature (as the expression of transcendent personal genius) and to a literature that represents ‘the people’ at large,” in the succinct wording of Sacvan Bercovitch, writing of the classic (North) American writers.4

A common though blandly favorable reaction to Cardenal's poetry outside Latin America goes like this: “His poems deserve attention both for the ideas expressed (whether one agrees with them or not) and for their intrinsic poetic merit.”5 We are often so asked to divide poetry into two constituent parts, its technical virtues and its expression of belief, and to suspend or qualify our judgment of the latter. But is the division desirable, necessary, useful, or reliable as a representation of how we read, experience, and evaluate poems? How do the two elements function? What part of poetic meaning is constituted by belief? How is that meaning created and conveyed, how far is it subject to evaluation apart from the poem, and how generally may the poem be evaluated if it expresses belief?

These questions go beyond the broad notion of the inherently “subversive” nature of art, as in Marcuse's formulations. All art may indeed stand in a subversive or at least critical relationship to established institutions, to ideology, to “common sense,” conventional wisdom, and habits of feeling. (I will return to this idea below, in discussing the rhetoric of poetry.) But that antagonistic relationship is flexible enough to permit artworks to decorate corporate buildings or to please tyrants. Equally problematic is the intention of authors whose essentially subversive works (such as surrealist poems) prove too difficult to be understood by those whom they would either attack or liberate. And when art, including poetry, professes belief or takes a perceptibly political stance toward life or allies itself explicitly with certain historical figures, movements, or causes, there can also be surprising contradictions. If Pound and Cardenal are, for instance, completely opposed politically, they nonetheless share not only a poetic technique but also the (related?) assumptions that the structure of society and of institutions, if changed, could improve the spiritual and material conditions of man, and that poetry may participate in the attempt to change what exists. How may the devices and powers of narrowly read literary works so participate? One answer derives from Kenneth Burke: literature may function as a kind of “symbolic action” which confronts that which cannot be effectively confronted by “real” action, either categorically (such as death) or effectively (such as a war). (Symbolic action joins in spirit other forms of action that confront mutable realities such as the social and political organization of the human community.) This symbolic action has the power to satisfy our impulse to act, to move (as in political “movements”), our desire to be moved (as in “[e]motion”), and our need for solace and joy, which we seek even in “emblems of adversity.” By no means does this amount to a mere “acting out,” which would be a kind of blindness to reality; it is instead a clearer seeing of the world, an elucidation of reality by artistic means.

An example is the poem quoted at the head of this essay. This early work of Cardenal's uses the devices of poetry, including the enacted rhythms of perception, the chimes of similar sounding phonemes (especially assonance on the vowels e-a and a-a), and the dramatic possibilities of syntax to create first a perceptible sense-impression and then to reveal the source and thus the meaning of that sense-impression. Especially significant is the assonance on e-a, which links the words suena (“it sounds”), sirena (the siren), cegua (the “mourner”—a deliciously complicated word, of which more in a moment), acerca (“it comes near”), calle (“street”), and aleja (“it goes away”).

Cegua is a Central American regionalism, a word indigenous to the world Cardenal is describing. It derives from the Aztec cihautl, “woman,” and means a woman weeping, or even a hired mourner; but it's also a kind of apparition, a village bogey with the body of a woman and the head of a horse, which screams in the night and is popularly believed to be a ghost.6 The cegua's presence in folklore is pre-Columbian, so with this word Cardenal establishes the cry in the night as an ancient protest, heard by the humblest persons (to whose imagination and lives the cegua mostly speaks). The e-a assonance is the cegua; the assonantal words enact its approach and withdrawal through the streets. Cardenal plays on contradiction at the end of the poem, when he writes that the sound is not in fact that of a fire truck or an ambulance rushing to some emergency with which a mourner might be associated. The siren comes from Somoza's convoy of police, yet the ghost-soul in torment cries out at the passing of the tyrant, as if at fire and death. The tyrant is not the fact of fire and death but the ever-present threat. The cegua is not only his announcement of his passing but also the curse laid on him by the common people through the image of this supernatural mourner.

The terrible sound moves, as Somoza does, and the unmoving listener who hears it escapes simply because Somoza goes by without stopping. Is the deftness of the manipulation of expectation and surprise simply an ornament to the poetic contention that Somoza is an active, destructive force, against whom the passive citizen can do nothing except bear bitter witness? Or is this oscillation between opposites or containment of them something essential to the poem, and even to poetry generally?

The poem is “political” in that by means of its allusion and devices it attacks the dictator of Nicaragua. In terms proposed by Thomas McGrath, this would appear to be more of a “tactical” revolutionary poem, aimed at local and specific circumstances, than a “strategic” poem, whose effect is to “expand” the consciousness of the reader:

One […] kind of poetry […] might be called tactical, about some immediate thing: a strike, let's say; some immediate event. The poet should give it as much clarity and strength as he can give it without falling into political slogans, clichés, and so on. I also thought we needed another kind of poetry that is not keyed necessarily to immediate events, a poetry in which the writer trusts himself enough to write about whatever comes along, with the assumption that what he is doing will be, in the long run, useful, consciousness raising or enriching. A strategic poetry, let's say. There have been a lot of tactical poems directed to particular things, and those poems now are good in a certain sort of way, but the events they were about have moved out from under them. Somebody asked Engels, “What happened to all the revolutionary poetry of 1848?” He replied: “It died with the political prejudices of the time.” That is bound to be the fate of a lot of tactical poetry. […] On the other hand, we take a poem like Neruda's Canto General, a marvelous big poem, but it's not there to help in some immediate kind of situation; it's a strategic poem. But anyone who reads it will have his consciousness expanded by the reading of it. … The ideal thing of course is to bring the tactical and the strategic together so that they would appear in this massive poem of pure lucidity, full of flying tigers and dedicated to the removal of man-eating spinning wheels from the heads of our native capitalists—absolute lucidity and purest, most marvelous bullshit. That's the poem I would like to have, because there's a place where those two are the same. That's in the archetypal heavens of course.7

The value of Cardenal's best work, even when it is most specific to Nicaraguan life, is that it is—in McGrath's terms—strategic as well. For does one have to know who Somoza is for the poem to make sense? Doesn't an inference of his nature suffice? One cannot substitute the name of a humane benefactor—Mother Teresa, Hippocrates—without introducing an absurd contradiction into the poem; but it is possible to substitute the name of any historical or literary figure identified with state terror, or any political figure identified by some audience, somewhere, as tyrannical and violent, without changing the poem's meaning, only its focus.

Nonetheless, the poem's strongest gesture is in its naming of Somoza, and if a substitution of names reveals a deeper value, still the act of naming—ancient and consecrated to poetry—is crucial. Here the naming is not, as in some poems, a blessing, but a curse. And the poem is political not only in delivering the curse that is Somoza's name but also in its demonstration, within the terms of the descriptive diction, of a political relationship between the one who listens passively, powerless and vulnerable, and the one who raises sounds of fright and threats of harm. Both Somoza and the listener are “political” agents in their participation in Nicaraguan society. But the powerless agent—namer, witness, and giver of detail—has only the language and his poem, which by virtue of its artistic effectiveness is emotionally empowering, with which to “act” (symbolically), while the agent of power acts but has no voice of his own (in the poem), only the accompanying mournful cry of the cegua, which is at once the sound of his own destructiveness and the wail of those whom he harms. In life, Somoza's voice rules persons; in poems, Cardenal's can hope to rule only time (as poets have always hoped their poems would outlive themselves and their subjects).

When, with his fellow poet José Coronel Urtecho, Cardenal formulated his new poetics, which was intended in part to make a kind of political comment aesthetically possible in poetry, he gave it the name exteriorismo and offered a rationale for density of detail, use of documents, and free form. Aesthetically, “exteriorism” was influenced not only by Pound's introduction of materials formerly foreign to poetry but also by his advice to the imagists to avoid subjectivity in their work and to prefer a precise description of the thing outside the self. One of several explanations:

Exteriorismo is a poetry created with images of the exterior world, the world we see and sense, and that is, in general, the specific world of poetry. Exteriorismo is objective poetry: narrative and anecdote, made with elements of real life and with concrete things, with proper names and precise details and exact data, statistics, facts, and quotations. … In contrast, interiorist poetry is a subjectivist poetry made only with abstract or symbolic words: rose, skin, ash, lips, absence, bitterness, dream, touch, foam, desire, shade, time, blood, stone, tears, night.8

But beyond this aesthetic influence and preference, exteriorism seems also shaped by unmistakable political considerations. In the context of long-suppressed civil liberties and gross economic exploitation of the peasantry, exteriorism looks like an attempt to find a poetic principle that would disallow the kind of language that was characteristic of, or acquiescent to, political and commercial powers. The acquiescence of poetic interiority and ethereality to arbitrary state power or capitalist exploitation would be forestalled if a poem contained the true names of things and the textures of perceived reality. No one who is unfamiliar with the clichés of bad poetry in Spanish can appreciate how bitter is the gesture of Cardenal's list of despised “subjectivist” words.

While it is unfair to expect manifestos to be reasonable, there are two objections to this one. First, if subjectivist words are indeed a poetic liability (as, in our poetry, the repetitive later work of W. S. Merwin seems to demonstrate with a similarly reduced symbolic vocabulary), it was nonetheless with such a brief poetic word list that Paul Celan created powerful—but not at all “exteriorist”—responses to the historical reality of the German concentration camps and the murder of so many Jews. A prescription for poetic diction cannot guarantee the truth of poetry, even if the example of Cardenal shows how one poet freed himself from an oppressive poetic context with just such a prescription (which excluded a few things and, more important, included many things). Second, as Czeslaw Milosz has written, “Not every poet who speaks of real things necessarily gives them the tangibility indispensable to their existence in a work of art. He may as well make them unreal.”9 I take him to mean that the mere naming of things is insufficient to suggest their reality to the reader, and such a failing has little to recommend it over its opposite poetic failing, mystification. But however valid these two objections may be generally, Cardenal's exteriorist poetics nonetheless empowered him to write a kind of poetry, and a poetry of distinct successes, not seen before in Spanish. The exuberance and plenitude of descriptive detail even in the early “Raleigh,” and the American materials and occasions of this and other poems, attest to this. If these same two objections have more weight against Cardenal's later poems, that is another issue in a poetic career inextricably rooted in his changing political circumstances in Nicaragua, to which I will return.

The influence of both the ventriloquistic and autobiographical passages in Pound's Cantos is also apparent in Cardenal's early “La vuelta a América” or “León,” although Pound's poems are denser and more far-ranging in their allusions. The irony of Cardenal's use of Pound's poetics—the leftist poet profiting from the reactionary's poetic achievements and discoveries—shows that those devices have no inherent relation to any particular political position but in larger terms simply accommodate the presence of political and historical materials in poetry. McGrath has warned against unthinkingly equating traditional poetic forms with reactionary political belief and has pointed out that “most of the inventors [of free verse] were political reactionaries, even Fascists. Why should they smash up the traditional forms?” (Indeed—why should they? The topic is complex. The communist Hugh MacDiarmid, for example, used both traditional forms and meter, and free verse.) McGrath suggests unexceptionably that free verse “has often been used to bring new materials, attitudes and feelings into poetry. In this century, it always flourishes when poets interest themselves in social-political matters, when they take sides, even tentatively or unknowingly, in the class struggle.”10 McGrath doesn't specify on what side, and one thinks not only of Pound but also of Williams Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Aimé Césaire, and others in this context.

In keeping with this more general connection between free verse and political materials, and even before his political position is as clear as it will later be, Cardenal employs poetic detail in his early work simply to suggest the complex and unhappy effect of the first Europeans on the native cultures of America. His judgment of them as individuals is not at all sweeping; in “Los filibusteros” (“The Freebooters”) he writes:

Hubo rufianes, ladrones, jugadores, pistoleros.
También hubo honrados y caballeros y valientes.

[P. 27]

There were rogues, thieves, gamblers, gunmen.
There were also decent men, gentlemen, and brave men.

So these early poems are “political” in the sense of being concerned generally with a moral judgment of social and political relations and therefore with the historical record of conquest and governance in America. For, as Kenneth Burke puts it in an early essay, “The Nature of Art Under Capitalism,” both “pure” art and “propaganda” arise partly out of the relationship between “work-patterns and ethical patterns.”11 That is, all poetic response is in some way tied to the ways in which the people around the poet live, work, and die. But, despite our being able to invoke Burke's symbolic action and McGrath's terms “tactical” and “strategic,” the artistic accomplishment of a poem may well seem insufficient to a poet whose daily life brings him the sight of peasants debilitated, impoverished, and even murdered by their own government. Some poets and readers will always feel that in terms of its concrete effect on life, the poem is arguably of less value than bread would be, even though Milosz says that the experience of Poland shows that when bread is scarce, poetry becomes most valuable. Cardenal's exteriorism, as a linguistic gesture, seems to be an attempt to bring the power of naming—as when he cursed Somoza in the poem quoted above—to bear on everything that could be named in the life around him, and his poetic faith in the power of naming is striking, one might even say touching, in the face of hopelessness. But exteriorism was an artistic solution to an artistic problem, not a political solution to anything.

After the successful revolution, Cardenal can be seen to move from the anecdotal and narrative textures of some of the exteriorist poems, juxtaposed against each other and against other kinds of quotation and poetic material, toward something simpler with, if anything, a renewed presence of names and naming, but more like homily that includes exemplary incidents or facts. The short postrevolutionary poems, while they sometimes have a lyric intensity missing from Cardenal's exteriorist poems, can also seem pieces of a larger work that he has not accomplished, perhaps hasn't wanted to accomplish. He prefers the tactical to the strategic after the revolution, one might say. Under the surface of many of the later poems is a felt, implicit obligation to make use of poetry as an inspiriting, uplifting kind of exhortation and for praise of revolutionary accomplishment.

Cardenal's case is less unusual in Latin American terms than in North American ones. The Latin American tradition of education and art differs from our own, first in grouping the artist with the relatively small caste of intellectuals, and second in expecting the intellectual (and artist) to be sensible of a social obligation to the rest of society. Latin American intellectuals and artists tend to be more involved in political activity than their North American counterparts: when governments are sufficiently acceptable to them, writers have often served them, and when governments are unacceptable to persons with humane values, writers have tended to oppose them not only with words but also with acts. When Cardenal writes in a spirit of solidarity with the revolutionaries against Somoza or the impoverished peasants or later the Sandinista government, he is keeping faith with the intellectuals' social responsibility as he has inherited it. Is he likely to be charged with breaking faith with a responsibility more familiar and more highly touted among North American writers—to independence from all constraints, from all responsibilities but those felt as personal? He might answer that the responsibilities he feels are indeed, to him, the stuff of conscience. Is the objection then to conscience itself, when conscience brings not only consciousness of “wrong,” but also responsibilities of “right”? After all, in his major early work, Hora O (1960), we see, as the poem itself says of Sandino, “poeta convertido en soldado por necesidad (a poet converted by necessity into a soldier)” (p. 77). In the social context in which Cardenal has lived and written, preserving a strictly “personal” independence might be regarded not as a responsibility but as an intellectually irresponsible withdrawal from social and political life.

Cardenal's position as the first minister of culture of Nicaragua, dating from his appointment by the Sandinista government in 1979, is a circumstance that one cannot help pondering when reading his most recent work. After all, his poems closely identify him with the contemporary history of Nicaragua. The trajectory of his work moves from outrage and lament over suffering and injustice to a sense of triumph and an active encouragement of those who rebelled against Somoza, overthrew him and his army, and took control of the nation's government. With these views many North American literary intellectuals have no complaints. Ernesto Cardenal has done the right thing, has been politically correct—this is the viewpoint of the North American left (and, of course, of others whose stand is political because it arises out of moral repugnance at the inhumane dictatorship which the Sandinistas overthrew).

It is far more common in Latin America than in North America for a writer to join a political party or cause; this is the accepted, indeed expected, course of political conscience. If a party wins power, it may be just as common for those who have joined or supported it to find themselves in the position of having to choose to work for the new government or to be considered an enemy for having declined to serve. I do not know either the nature of the Sandinista government's invitation to Cardenal or his feelings about accepting it. But if his present position is no surprise, it is probably a reflection not only of conviction but also of political necessity. For this reason I am not sure Cardenal can be considered an architect of the political regime which eventually was established, insofar as it is not ideal. The practical necessities and compromises of political power will crush the scrupulosity of intellectual and artistic inquiry and experiment, even where these have had the apparent advantage in their formation of a consciousness of social responsibility. And even if ministers of culture had much power, the historical record shows few such officials who could bring their artistic scruples to the exercise of their personal power. But we so seldom see a serious artist in a position of state power that we may forget the inevitable conflicts of conscience that must face any intellectual whose public being is not outside power and devoted to critique but subservient to a power group and at least partly conscripted for the presentation and protection of that power.

Speaking in Chicago in 1985, Cardenal ridiculed as a perversion of the humanistic tradition the bizarre appendix on “Literary Resources” in the contra pamphlet circulated by the CIA. His justifiable scorn for this absurd little essay and its author follows from the assumption that poetry by definition can have no hand in violence against the innocent or in violation of humane ideals such as the sanctity of life or the desirability of education or medical care. Yet because of Cardenal's own conversion from poet to soldier—and understandably—there come moments even in his poems when some of these values are abandoned. If a revolution is to win a military victory it must usually succeed in killing and capturing a sufficient number of the ruling forces. Revolutionaries weigh the violence they must commit against the violence suffered by those on whose behalf they fight. Others weigh the justice of that cause. Poets may side with revolutionaries, or against them, or neither; but their weighing of the same moral dilemma remains a “symbolic” act, in that poems, even when they move readers, do not carry arms. If it is true, as has been said, that Che Guevara carried poems of Pablo Neruda in his pack, it is also uncertain whether poems are sought in such circumstances because they encourage, or console.

It is no surprise when a great and political poem like Neruda's “Alturas de Macchu Picchu” prizes life over death, but a political (and especially a revolutionary) poem must also begin to say whose life. When Pound bitterly laments in poems the waste of life in World War I, the “enemy” is not Germany—no more than it is England—but a deadly failure that the political leadership of both nations share. In Cardenal's earlier work the lives of the powerless, the vulnerable, and the persecuted are movingly memorialized; perhaps, in such fierce work, it is impossible not to prize their lives above the lives of their tormentors or oppressors. In his postrevolutionary work the compassion narrows further. If it was true that there were no “innocent” victims on the side of Somoza, and that one cannot invite the murderous oppressor into one's own house, there is nonetheless something disappointing in the poet who makes such frequent reference to a Christian commune based on love, but who, in “Preguntas frente al lago” (“Questions Beside the Lake”), sounds not wise but strained when he writes that “God is something that is in everyone, / in you, in me, everywhere.”12 The exteriorist poetic cannot justify or redeem some of Cardenal's later poems, nor convince the reader to admire them solely for their value as sentiment or statement.

Another recent poem recounts the young Sandino's fury at seeing a trainload of American soldiers come to occupy Nicaragua for the benefit of American investment:

y el chavalo se puso furioso
                    y dijo que deseaba colgarlos a todos de los palos.
Lo interesante de este cuento es que este chavalo
                    después pudo realizar lo que deseaba.(13)
and the boy became enraged
                    and said he wanted to hang them all from the trees.
The interesting thing about this story is that this boy
                    later was able to do what he wanted.

Again, one doesn't by any means expect to see a forgiving hand offered to the contras and ex-Somocistas who are still committing crimes of violence; one wonders only if the prophet of democratic, humane ideals can sustain his vision when he must speak for a regime—any regime—rather than against one. The lives of “men and women who find themselves in history's path” tend to be so much expendable currency to those who rule, and even to those who would rule. Cardenal's deep—and convincing—allegiance was to those who are ruled. In his much earlier poem “Apocalipsis” (“Apocalypse,” published 1973) he rewrites the Revelation of Saint John and includes these lines:

y el ángel me dijo: esas cabezas que le ves a la Bestia son dictadores
y sus cuernos son líderes revolucionarios que aún no son dictadores
pero lo serán después
y lucharán contra el Cordero

[P. 114]

and the angel said to me: those heads you see on the Beast are dictators
and its horns are revolutionary leaders who are not yet dictators
but will be afterward
and will fight against the Lamb

This frightening prophecy only confirms, to my mind, the humane sensibility and values in Cardenal's work. It does not alter my own understanding that the revolution against Somoza for which he hoped and which he supported did indeed rescue many people from violent or impoverished death, and has led to a life at least marginally better—especially regarding education and medical care—for many, perhaps most of the citizens of Nicaragua. But these early lines seem dangerously ironic in the present political context.

Cardenal's comments in Chicago sought to establish an intimate, essential link between poetry and the Sandinista revolution. Yet the U.S.-sponsored counterrevolution of the contras against the Sandinista government, which has put the former revolutionaries in the position of defending an established order, had inevitably driven him to a position we often call in English “artistic compromise.” Now, in Spanish the word “compromised” does not have a pejorative connotation but means the same as the French engagé—committed to a belief and to a participation in the possibilities for action that follow from that belief. Comprometido connotes not “I will yield my interests and in part accept yours” or “I have cheapened my character” but “I am committed to what I have promised, in solidarity with you.” Does this merely rationalize, or does it justify, not only Cardenal's lament for the deaths and deprivations suffered under Somoza but also his desire to find glory as much as tragic loss in revolutionary death?

Among poems that present us with the issue of the “political,” then, there are those which express identifiable party, ideological, or historical positions (the tactical poetry of a revolutionary). There are others that happen rather to represent human life in such a way that inevitably some of the social and political contexts of feeling and action are depicted, pondered, or enacted by the poet (the strategic poetry of a socially conscious writer). There may also be implied politics in a poem caught willy-nilly in a powerful sociopolitical context. Even the poem intended to be “pure” (a species deriving from Mallarmé and Valéry, and one whose value was much debated in Spain in the first half of this century) may come to seem political or reveal its political meaning (and its strategic value) in the context of repressive state power. The state, in permitting, perhaps undermines some art and, in attacking, foregrounds in art the humane values it would destroy (as with Mandelstam or Lorca). Less apparently political art may be attacked as forcefully as overtly oppositional works because its expressive power can be just as memorable, and because it too threatens to bear witness far into the future against the state.14

I think what distinguishes the strategic sort of poetry is that it resists ideology in favor of an insistence on the intrinsic value of life and the political value of life lived freely. Such poetry often shows an encompassing compassion. These very values can of course be claimed by an ideology—and as Burke notes, “the ideal act of propaganda consists in imaginatively identifying your cause with values that are unquestioned.”15 But the political practice of ideology will inevitably belie the rhetoric. (For example, Cardenal has said that there is no poetry of the contras, nor could there be; but even if there were, it would be bound up with the likes of Ronald Reagan's absurd claim of virtue for the contras when he calls them “freedom fighters” while at the same time condemning black revolutionaries who have far greater cause to rebel against the South African government.) The values that can truly claim the widest adherence, and which repressive states will strive actively to eradicate, or with bureaucratic structures will wear down, or with the manipulation of language and image will subvert and discredit, are those which in essence make a plea for peace, freedom from danger, mutual respect and compassion between persons, and an orderly social organization that forbids arbitrary power and fosters justice. Thus artistic works expressive of these values must unavoidably offer witness to the relationship between individual and state; to memory, as against forgetting (the cardinal point of Milosz's conception of poetry); and, quite simply, to life as against death.

I believe there is an identifiable rhetoric of poetry—a poetics, general across several historical periods, languages, and cultures (at least in the West), which is subtly and complexly entangled with these values. It is a rhetoric of observable techniques common to many poets—perhaps all of which belong to a general intention to write in such a way as simply to please the memory that recalls the poem. Perhaps the pleasure to memory of the wrought thing, the poem, partly accounts for the admiration and preservation even of poetry whose ostensible subject is pitiable or unpleasant. This does not mean subject is secondary or irrelevant; on the contrary, this shows that the poet's manipulation of poetic devices and resources (Heaney's “craft”) tends to please the senses and to evoke one's admiration for the poet's gift, while the poet's “stance toward life” (Heaney's “technique”) gratifies the spirit and emphasizes one's overcoming, with the poet, the distances between men. Thus Heaney says one can find poets of wobbly craft who nonetheless have a strong technique, like Patrick Kavanagh, but the most common failing is the poet of some craft who is lacking a technique, a stance toward life. Technique implicates the poet's materials, subjects, and occasions: Homer's craft becomes a source of pleasure and the vehicle of ancient lore, while Homer's technique makes one reread the poems to feel again our astonishment at them.

Obviously, poems of the sort that present what Terrence Des Pres calls “the concrete relations of men and women who find themselves in history's path” tend no less than any others to utilize this rhetoric, and we often call these poems “political” only in the most general sense of the word.16 But to see this is nonetheless to catch a glimpse of the politics indeed inherent in all use of language. In English, the poetic rhetoric seems generally to privilege acute discriminations and vividness of detail, memorable freshness of diction, and strength of syntax. No better description of it exists than Coleridge's in chapter 14 of his Biographia Literaria, which implies the power of poetry to contravene the habits of perception, feeling, and thought and thus to confront us with a more profound sort of truth than we are used to, as well as giving us pleasure in the art. This quality of newness (“defamiliarizing,” in the critical vocabulary) is what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”:

My heart rouses
                                        thinking to bring you news
                                                                                          of something
that concerns you
                                        and concerns many men. Look at
                                                                                          what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
                                        despised poems.
                                                                                          It is difficult
to get the news from poems
                                        yet men die miserably every day
                                                                                for lack
of what is found there.(17)

The values inherent in such a poetic rhetoric would inevitably contend on some level with all bureaucratic and state powers. Is it for this reason that tyrants prefer music to poetry for their aesthetic pleasure? Music draws one, sometimes dizzily, into the self, as one responds to what Suzanne Langer called music's formal “morphology of feeling”; but poetry is unavoidably an utterance that presumes a connection between the one who writes and the one who, when reading, experiences not only a kind of dynamics of feeling but also the recognition of the referents outside the poem and of the concrete being of others. Totalizing powers, such as those of governments and bureaucracies, must be blind to the feelings and suffering of others in order to function; they fail to respond to individuals except as antagonists whom they would distract, coopt, suppress, or destroy. The rhetoric of poetry, in this context, is inherently critical; and its essence is a kind of quicksilver gleaming that cannot be eradicated.

Perhaps the poetic rhetoric I have described is natural to all literary works of enduring value; it collects, constellates, presents, transforms, and otherwise alters the names and descriptions of things, acts, and mental states in such a way as to produce in us a responsiveness to the descriptive detail and to the minutest functions and powers of language. To take an outwardly unlikely example, even such a programmatically generalized work as Samuel Johnson's Rasselas—where in chapter 10 Imlac offers a famous definition of a poetic rhetoric quite opposite to the one I have just sketched—presents us nonetheless with a literary text to which we respond as to none other: we apprehend not only the descriptive specificities of the text and the unique substance and embodiment of Johnson's thinking but also the admired and inimitable rhythms and textures of Johnson's sentences. Thus the poetic rhetoric of details and oppositions, in congruence with the moral values with which I have associated it, suggests that the nature of literary works is to resist tendencies in the reader to totalize, summarize, paraphrase, or abstract, just as the nature of those values is to stand against the effort of states and bureaucracies to oppress individual citizens, to generalize and quantify them, and thus to convert them from unique individuals to manipulable groups. Poetry's nature is to prize its own contravention of the political or social norm, even in a period when the poet considers himself an exponent of the norm, for the great poem defies above all the mediocrity of the other poems that form its literary context.

Even though individual poetic temperament may often be more important than any other factor in the poet's craft, some interesting generalities about individuality itself can be seen. In much eastern European poetry, the idea of privacy seems a defiance of state powers of surveillance, an insistence that individual powerlessness imposed by the state will not succeed in eradicating identity. The laconicism and antitraditionalism of such poetry are a kind of refusal of any tone of voice that might be interpreted as august, formal, “stately.” What is wanted by the poet is the right to a thoroughly private life. This value, expressed in a poem, is political. In poetry written under parliamentary governments the idea of individuality seems often to be a defiance of market manipulation and an insistence on the irreducible identity constituted by genuine feelings. Yet what this poet wants is the ability to speak for others (beyond those found in the publishing “marketplace” as the relatively few buyers and readers of books of poems), to associate with others on terms of feeling rather than on grounds of economic or other statistical status (what the staffs of American commercial magazines call “the demographics”). The categorizing of the individual by either state power or advertising analysts is not more accurate, and no less false, than a précis of a novel or a paraphrase of a poem, for these always fall into more general categories of types. (My having to summarize in this discussion some of Cardenal's works and certain positions, opinions, and attitudes in those works is unfortunately also false, although imposed necessarily by the limited space of an essay.) To pursue this parallel: in some sense, paraphrase and literary taxonomy are census—and we might recall that after a census, the ancients felt a need to bathe, to cleanse themselves in order to restore their identities.

Now, compared to English, the Spanish language has less of the sort of concrete texture that I have been saying was a defining aspect of poetic rhetoric; by this I mean simply that Spanish has a smaller number of words for the naming of things, and that these tend to fall into less various levels of diction. Is it merely a coincidence that when less precision is wanted in English, diction can become latinate and periphrastic, as in bureaucratic prose that aims at an authoritative and procedural, even ceremonial tone? Borges thought English a superior medium for poetry to Spanish, for reasons related to the poetic rhetoric I have characterized above. In formulating “exteriorism,” Cardenal was reacting artistically against an apparently narrow tonal range in Spanish, so that poetry could speak against social and political circumstances which the old poetic diction had been inadequate either to resist or criticize. In order to attack more forcefully the “subjectivity” of accepted poetic diction, he exaggerated it somewhat; in truth it can indeed be physically evocative in Antonio Machado, even if etherealized in Juan Ramón Jiménez. But Cardenal found his preferred poetic models in Pound and other North American poets. I think the artistic defense of this poetic posture is that, in requiring poetry to refer to the tangible and historical world in a literal as well as a symbolic way, it draws attention to the occasions of poems as well as their subjects; Cardenal requires that there be an apprehensible occasion outside the poet, not solely an interior “poetic” subject like love or longing or death. Bad poems, in this view, are simply too vague and misty, and ask of the reader a familiar rather than a fresh response of feeling and thought. This would imply that poems bearing traces of ideology (of any sort) would also tend to echo propagandistic points of view (wrong not because they are already established but because they falsify with slogans and simplifications). The rhetoric of politics may prize either action or passivity, depending on the nature of the structure of government, and in either case a familiarity of statement, a mere reference; the rhetoric of poetry prizes the vital re-experiencing of feelings and thoughts, and vision—in both senses, and vividly. The rhetoric of politics prizes persuasion; that of poetry prizes perception (the sight of what is visible) and insight (the understanding of what is hidden). Of course this does not rule out political content in poems, but it does discount those poems bearing a heavy load of the ideological.

How one means to use the word “ideology” is crucial. The conflict is very wide—between the rhetoric of poetry and, on the other side, the highly developed modern rhetoric and media of persuasion, cultural and political amnesia, and the falsification of information by those who control its preservation and dissemination. Before the successful revolution of the Sandinistas against Somoza in 1979, Cardenal frequently used the word “propaganda” in the customary pejorative sense to mean precisely the language of state power and advertisements, as for instance in his first psalm:

Bienaventurado el hombre que no sigue las consignas del Partido
ni asiste a sus mítines
ni se sienta en la mesa con los gangsters
ni con los Generales en el Consejo de Guerra
Bienaventurado el hombre que no espía a su hermano
ni delata a su compañero de colegio
Bienaventurado el hombre que no lee los anuncios comerciales
ni escucha sus radios
ni cree en sus slogans
          Será como un árbol plantado junto a una fuente

[P. 161]

Blessed is the man who does not follow the orders of the Party
nor attend its meetings
nor sit at the table with gangsters
nor with Generals in councils of war
Blessed is the man who does not spy on his brother
nor inform on his school-mate
Blessed is the man who does not read advertisements
nor listen to their radios
nor believe in their slogans
                    He will be like a tree planted beside a fountain

Paradoxically, this moral high ground remains to some extent a luxury of the powerless, who in challenging ruling powers exercise a critical function that is more congruent with the rhetoric of poetry, with the artist's “criticism” of life itself. A successful revolution brings with it meetings and slogans, although these are certainly the most innocent of the sins denounced in this first psalm. As I have already noted, Cardenal's poetry falls perhaps unsurprisingly into two groups; there is a troubling difference between poems condemning injustice, mostly written before Somoza's fall, and poems praising the new political and social order, written afterward. Take Yeats as a counterexample: one can go so far as to ignore the contours of his (reactionary) politics and note simply that as an individual who actively sought to intervene in the political history of his nation, he remained relatively powerless because he was in the opposition. Therefore his two critical functions, as poet and as opposition political figure, were in a crucial way not at odds with each other, and he did not experience the torsions of the poetic impulse felt by Cardenal, who went from being a hunted conspirator against the Somoza regime to being the minister of culture of Nicaragua.

Earlier, I suggested a congruence between art's critical nature and a “speaking against.” Harold Rosenberg's analysis of the relationship between the artist's engagement with politics and the use by political power of artistic method led him to hold that the artist is the most valuable critic of propaganda, for “as an expert in the fabrication of appearances and realities, he has the training needed to penetrate the fabrications of politics.” Some of Cardenal's prerevolutionary poetry, aimed against the manipulation of politics and political information by Somoza, demonstrates this critical impulse. Such artistic expertise is needed, according to Rosenberg, because

politicians have become fiction makers, competitors and collaborators of fiction writers. One recalls, for instance, that mystery-story writers were invited to participate in think tanks on national military strategy [just as, I would add, more recently some science fiction writers have had a hand in advocating the so-called Star Wars Strategic Defense Initiative, in opposition to the expertise of some genuine scientists]. … A former assistant secretary of state declared on a radio program in which I participated that propaganda can no longer be successfully carried on by waiting for events to happen, and then interpreting them to support one's policies. It is necessary, said he, to create the events that verify the soundness of the policies one advocates.

Rosenberg held in the same essay that art could have almost no impact on politics, but that “the impulse to intervene in political life hovers like a ghost over the art of our century, perhaps because of the crisscrossing of fact and illusion which art and politics share.”18

But as one can infer from Milosz's The Witness of Poetry, the impulse to bear witness is a kind of indirect intervention—a small act, at the very least, in the larger discourse of which politics forms a sometimes dominant part. It is in the realm of politics, too, that the only decisive answer to this indirect intervention may be given, either as persecution or state approval, neither of which should be wanted. The task of criticism, then, in addition to pondering artistic intervention in political life, should be to weigh political intervention in imaginative life, to which political poetry is in part a response. With regard to poems, criticism should consider not only expressed belief or conviction or political position but also the expressive significance of the poem's formal qualities and the formal value, in the overall structure of the poem, of the expressed belief or conviction.

And no one should suppose that an opposition between poetry and a state that uses literary devices to manipulate information and opinion leaves poetry altogether unharmed. The “competition” of opinions and of versions of information, like that of products, extends—as a circumstance of commercial life and also as an ideology dear to the industrialized, parliamentary states—into the very production and distribution of books of poems. The effect of this incursion is destructive because in the frenzies and failures of publicity it promotes not a genuine sorting out of artistic value but a race between public images and literary fashions. Inevitably, competition in this sense affects in a dubious manner the dissemination of artistic works in society, by whatever means (including all the phenomena related to the writing and reading of poetry: readings, workshops, writers' conferences, and so forth).

Therefore, even if poetry can usefully preserve humane values which stand against the inhumane, which show men and women suffering in the path of history, this political engagement of the art is not free from a reverse damage which the marketplace and the pervasive manipulated language of politics work on all language. The fundamental contradiction of poetry's engagement with politics is that if, especially when it's “political,” poetry tries to intervene in history, then in all its forms poetry is subject to the intervention of politics and economic relations—both in terms of language and in terms of the very conditions of life (and sometimes death) of the poet. So in some sense writers generally work against “history”; for if, as Des Pres writes, “history has often shown us the long-term victory of truth,”19 we might also concur with him in noting, less cheerfully, that history (that is, the surviving record) has also—and often—concealed the long-term victories of falsehood.

The critic is not immune to this sometimes unwitting falsification. It is the victor and his beneficiaries, however removed, who enforce the context of historical interpretation, which includes even poetry. Many examples testify to the susceptibility of evaluation and canon formation to political distortion. The phrase “evaluation of political poetry” can only suggest the phrase “political evaluation of poetry.” We can play a game with adjectives revealing how difficult it is to untie the knots already tightly pulled at the heart of the evaluation of poetry. If one can speak of the “evaluation of a political poem,” one might also substitute for “political” such words as “historical,” “psychological,” “philosophical,” or “religious” without suggesting anything out of the ordinary in the history of literary criticism. But if one takes the altered phrase, “the political evaluation of poetry,” and makes the same substitutions for “political,” a whole range of different sorts of criticism presents itself, not many of them practiced with distinction. To place any adjective in front of “evaluation” is to play the victor, to abdicate a larger and more significant responsibility in favor of a smaller and less significant one (albeit more immediately useful to the concerns of various intellectual fields of inquiry), and to enforce an unresponsive, partial context of evaluation on the work evaluated. Our task should be, instead, to read the poetry for the sake of investigating every aspect of its participation in the life of the people in whose society it was created (even if that is our own); then to ask what it brings to those (even ourselves, in our most conscious moments) not overly distanced from that society and that poem by history or by greater or smaller cultural heritage, or by our individual formation as readers; then to ask what it brings to those who are indeed at such a distance. In such contexts of expectation, what was once tactical may turn strategic—the poem written in response to a given historical and political circumstance may finally reveal its resonance to wider human situations and command our admiration, evoke our pleasure, and compel us to preserve it.

Cardenal has written political poetry of both a general and a partisan kind, and some of the poems (mostly, but not entirely, written before the revolution) are enduring work, while others seem flawed by simplification and service to a political position enforcing idealization. (This is a practical judgment, an evaluation—the result of my reading his work through—which I must assert for lack of sufficient space to demonstrate.) Is it possible to go further and to open a generally valid theoretical avenue to the problem of evaluation of “political poetry”? I do not believe so.

The individual reader's judgment and evaluation are much shaped by experience and temperament. This acknowledgment may come less readily from critics, who tend to prefer theoretical consistency, than from writers, who are often and unavoidably engaged in informal evaluation and make little pretense to being “objective” about it. Their own artistic needs compel them to evaluate the work of others so as to determine whether and how to make use of it. Cardenal did this with the works of Pound and other English-language poets and took from them what he needed—but not Pound's politics, or his entire aesthetic, and certainly not his technique (his stance toward life).

Barbara Herrnstein Smith has noted how thoroughly the question of evaluation has been neglected by academic criticism for decades, and she has expounded an impressive theoretical examination of evaluation.20 Her essay leads me to two points. First, neglect of evaluation is itself an ideological and evaluative act which, in removing the question of evaluation from ostensible concerns while continuing unavoidably to participate in a myriad of implicitly evaluative acts, is partly responsible not for “the decline of the humanities” but for the general decline of regard for the humanities (even among some engaged in humanistic study). When literary criticism shows no overt concern for the evaluation of individual works but only for abstract goals like “critical thinking” or “humanities,” it contributes to the opinion held all too widely that there is little value in the humanities, only a teachable method. Thus the scientistic longings of criticism, when they do achieve some result, end merely in a self-destructive explosion.

Second, it is not possible to construct any theoretical model of evaluation because the terms “theoretical” and “evaluation” are at odds. Can there be a “theoretical,” that is, often “hypothetical,” evaluation, except as a kind of mental role playing? Evaluation is an act of mind that may issue in conviction as well as proceed from it—a specific act of a specific individual, who if he or she evaluates a literary work solely in terms of a theoretical position may violate his or her own identity as a person, for we pursue evaluation—as Smith notes—with a larger portion of our being than that which contemplates theoretical possibilities, and rightly so. In Christopher Lasch's terms, we might say that we cannot evaluate solely as voices of reason, but do so also as voices of conscience and imagination.21 To do otherwise is to narrow the critical act of evaluation to a partial act of analysis, as I attempted to demonstrate with my lists of adjectives for the phrase “the ——— evaluation of poetry.”

Thus evaluation is always, in larger terms, the incorporation into criticism of the assessment and judgment of beliefs. But whereas a technical analysis or theoretical disquisition requires, for interest's sake, almost no prior or anticipated consensus except around the notion that criticism should be interesting to read, evaluation and judgment do require prior or anticipated consensus on the standards or values by which poetry, or any human endeavor, is to be judged as good, fruitful, acceptable, mediocre, bad, destructive, or whatever.

To substantiate a claim with regard to value, one can argue from verities perceived as eternal, as from religion, or from those perceived to survive over time, as from tradition, or from those perceived to lie in scientifically validated evidence, as from the natural world. The first method tends to seek its justification in the divine, the second in the people, the third in principles deduced to be inherent in the human creature because inherent in the physical universe. There is no great clarity here because from any one of these one can also argue to another—if there are apparently universal principles governing the nature of life on this planet, I can infer a divine order. If there is, as in Kenneth Burke's view, a “constellation” of human values such as courage, love, freedom, which are demonstrably present in cultures widely separated in time and space, I can infer from this tradition some universal and eternal aspects of human nature. And so on.

Sociological and Marxist thinking have insisted on the “socially constructed” nature of every value. Although based on the incontrovertible evidence that most human experience and all values held in common by human beings are affected by historical circumstance, finally this seems to lie just beyond the point of truth. (It would be hard to prove that the experiences of the rush of adrenaline when one is in danger, of the wearying heaviness of grief, of the ecstasy of orgasm, are socially constructed in any appreciable way.) Essentialist and politically reactionary thinking has insisted on the firm, inalterable, and flawed core of human nature, and, although based on incontrovertible evidence that across huge barriers of history, culture, and race, certain central human experiences find their unmistakable echoes in others, this too of course lies beyond the point of truth. (It would be hard to prove that the particular choices of one's active response to physical aggression, one's outward behavior at the death of one's child, or one's notions of romantic love, are not socially constructed almost in their entirety.)

So if a poem is called “political” and presents itself to our eyes as a tangle of poetic craft (which we judge by one conventional set of standards) and poetic technique, or “stance toward life,” or “belief” (which we judge by another, subtly related set of standards), our response is diagnostic not only of the nature of the poem but also of the nature of our assumptions about art and politics. Most valuable among these, perhaps, is the assumption that works of art and human actions may be—should be—judged against one another, some to be preferred and some abhorred. Because evaluation is the act of an individual mind at a given moment, to evaluate Cardenal's political poetry is to evaluate individual poems against other individual poems, and to do so in the realm of both conviction and pleasure, both solace and connoisseurship, as well as that of literary history. Persons will disagree on the priority assigned to human values and will disagree on poems: I believe that some of Cardenal's poems are enduring works, and perhaps more important than that, I see his poetry as a sphere in which we are called as individuals to react not only to a poet's perceptions but also to feeling, conviction, and belief as they may be related to us in our own lives. Work like Cardenal's forces us to make ourselves as conscious as we can of the implicit assumptions affecting our evaluative decisions. Poetry, with its peculiar rhetoric, calls us thus to respond to an intense and vivid presentation of the human condition, and Cardenal's poetry is a particularly compelling instance of this. When criticism denies or ignores this call, it turns against its own subject.


  1. Ernesto Cardenal, Poesía de uso (Antología 1949–1978) (Buenos Aires, 1979), p. 59; all further references to this volume will be included in the text.

  2. Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1969–1978 (New York, 1980), p. 47.

  3. The date is from Joaquín Martín Sosa, “Breve guía (para uso) de lectores,” preface to Poesía de uso, p. 9.

  4. Sacvan Bercovitch, “The Problem of Ideology in [North] American Literary History,” Critical Inquiry 12 (Summer 1986): 650. In proposing that answers lie in the posing of the questions, the solution in the very problem of ideology, or rather in “problematizing” aspects of literary study which were previously neglected, like ideology, Bercovitch happens to participate in the ascendant literary-critical ideology of our time.

  5. Robert Pring-Mill, introduction to Cardenal, Apocalypse and Other Poems, ed. Pring-Mill and Donald D. Walsh, trans. Thomas Merton et al. (New York, 1977), p. ix.

  6. On the authority of Francisco J. Santamaría, Diccionario general de americanismos (México, D.F., 1942), vol. 1, and other sources.

  7. Thomas McGrath, “The Frontiers of Language,” reprinted in North Dakota Quarterly 50 (Fall 1982): 28–29.

  8. Quoted by Mark Zimmerman in “Ernesto Cardenal after the Revolution,” introduction to Cardenal, Flights of Victory, ed. and trans. Zimmerman (Maryknoll, N.Y., 1985), p. x.

  9. Czeslaw Milosz, The Witness of Poetry (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), p. 71.

  10. McGrath, “Notes, Personal and Theoretical on ‘Free’ and ‘Traditional’ Form,” Poetry East 20/21 (1986): 18, 20.

  11. Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, 3d ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1973), p. 314.

  12. Cardenal, Flights of Victory, p. 92.

  13. Ibid., p. 96.

  14. “Purity” is a much larger topic than can be addressed here. Some might argue that all “pure” poetry, or poetry intended to be “pure,” masks implicitly conservative politics, but I find that attitude simplistic. However, it is of course true that even poetry long judged to be nonpolitical, like Emily Dickinson's, conceals social and political content, whether of the sort hidden in “I like to see it lap the miles” representing the intrusion of industry and mechanization into a pastoral landscape, or that hidden in “Because I could not stop for death” representing crises of domestic, male/female politics. Yet another topic related to political poetry, but one that must be postponed to another, lesser occasion, would be poems of deliberate collusion with state power.

  15. Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form, p. 87 n.

  16. Terrence Des Pres, “Poetry and Politics,” TriQuarterly 65 (Winter 1986): 17–18.

  17. William Carlos Williams, Pictures from Breughel and Other Poems (New York, 1962), pp. 161–62.

  18. Harold Rosenberg, “Art and Political Consciousness,” Art and Other Serious Matters (Chicago, 1985), pp. 293, 281, 282, 284.

  19. Des Pres, “Equipment for Living,” TriQuarterly 65 (Winter 1986): 91.

  20. See Barbara Herrnstein Smith, “Contingencies of Value,” in Canons, ed. Robert von Hallberg (Chicago, 1984), pp. 5–40.

  21. See Christopher Lasch, “A Typology of Intellectuals: I. The Feminist Subject,” Salmagundi 70/71 (Spring/Summer 1986): 27–32. My reading of this issue, titled “Intellectuals,” was a rich occasion for my thinking about political poetry and Cardenal, and I am indebted to the contributors and to the editor of the magazine, Robert Boyers.

Ernesto Cardenal and Michael T. Martin (interview date spring 1989)

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SOURCE: Cardenal, Ernesto, and Michael T. Martin. “On Culture, Politics, and the State in Nicaragua: An Interview with Padre Ernesto Cardenal, Minister of Culture.” Latin American Perspectives 16, no. 2 (spring 1989): 124–33.

[In the following interview, Cardenal discusses his role as minister of culture in Nicaraguan politics and his opinions on popular culture.]

In this modern day it's a vulgarity to call yourself a modern man or woman if you are not a revolutionary.

[June Beer, in LaDuke, 1986: 39]

Before the triumph on July 19, 1979, of the popular Sandinista revolution, cultural expressions of social criticism and protest developed as a concomitant and then a central mode of resistance in the armed liberation struggle against the 45-year dictatorship and the four hundred years of underdevelopment in Nicaragua. During Sandino's war (1926–1934) of national resistance to imperial aggression, popular mythology was used “as a tool of resistance and rebellion by functioning as a unifying element in communication between the guerrillas and the peasant” (Mayrhofer, 1987/1988: 27). Among writers and poets in the 1930s, an avant-garde movement, “La Vanguardia,” was formed. Ideologically reactionary, its members from Granada's aristocracy attacked bourgeois values and, like the futurists in Italy, courted fascism and glorified the past (Martin, 1987/1988: 85) while idolizing Sandino as a nationalist hero.

Following Sandino's assassination, the Vanguardistas ironically embraced his assassin, Somoza, as the new protagonist and dictator, his corrupt and culturally bankrupt background notwithstanding. However, several members of this movement, most notably Manolo Cuadro, later supported the anti-Somoza resistance and became socialists.

During the 1960s, after the execution of Anastasio Somoza García (1956) by the poet Rigoberto López Pérez, two parallel literary and visual arts opposition groups emerged. The “Frente Ventana” and the “Praxis” group founded by the painters Alejandro Arostegui, César Izquierdo, and the writer Amaru Barahona. The Praxis painters manifested their rebellion against the dominant genres (portraiture and religious paintings and later German expressionism) and public taste. Stylistically their works were influenced by cubism and surrealism, and thematically by human suffering caused by an unjust society (Mayrhofer, 1987/1988: 27). Though elitist in their membership, by the early 1970s Praxis artists introduced in their “visual language” elements of popular culture: pre-Columbian symbols and contemporary mythology and folklore that affirmed the nation's historical past and cultural identity. And, as Ingrid Mayrhofer (1987/1988: 28) suggests, “contrary to Vanguardia's paternalistic idealization of the Indian and peasant as a symbol of a heroic past and purity, Praxis present[ed] a profound understanding and sincere attitude towards the need for social change, with particular focus on urban problems and rural backwardness.”

Though established artistic forms in Nicaragua were still inextricably linked to the national bourgeoisie and adopted European and U.S. models, by the 1960s (and 1970s), with the founding of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) in 1961 by Carlos Fonseca, Silvio Mayorga, and Tomás Borge, and the dictatorship's repression of students, intellectuals, and artists, social criticism (especially painting and poetry) assumed a new importance as an organizing tool of the resistance. Here the relation between art and politics was especially pronounced. For example, pintas (political graffiti) contained the symbols of Sandino's struggle and ridiculed the dictatorship. The island community of Solentiname “primitive” painters is another case in point. Founded by the poet/priest Ernesto Cardenal, this community was organized around the study of liberation theology, and, with the help of Praxis member Roger Pérez de la Rocha, developed a style of “naive” painting. Also, members of Solentiname participated directly in the armed struggle and attack in 1977 against the San Carlos garrison, while other painters in the “Grada” group collaborated with the FSLN (Mayrhofer, 1987/1988: 29).

Theater also contributed, though sporadically, until the 1970s, to the “culture of resistance” in Nicaragua. Along with the Vanguardia movement of the 1930s, a few dramatic productions appeared, most notably José Coronel Urtecho's Chinfonia Bourgesia (Martin, 1987/1988: 85–86). However, by the late 1950s through the 1970s, theater increasingly became responsive to indigenous cultural forms, even though under the Somozas, theater (and culture in general) was still largely imported from abroad.

In the 1970s, theater along with the other cultural arts was used as a means of social criticism and agitation. Alan Bolt and others formed the company Nixtayolero.

I know now that we didn't have a clear idea about what kind of theatre we should do. It was more something like an emotional reaction and, at the same time, the beginning of a search into the use of the stage. We knew that politics and theatre were not separate, but we did not know how to do it.

[Martin, 1987/1988: 86]

This development heralded a contextual shift in a theater that now addressed a largely heretofore ignored audience and that incorporated the ethnic idioms and local cultural forms expressed in the rural countryside.


In the aftermath of the Sandinista triumph in 1979, the state, through the establishment of the Ministry of Culture and other institutional apparatuses, assumed the role of articulating cultural practice, and of promoting the development of a national culture through the broad participation of the people. In this regard the Ministry of Culture established the Centros de Cultura Popular to promote the arts in the six regions and three special zone areas (on the Atlantic coast), suggesting that a tendency toward decentralization was emerging, especially in the cultural sphere of everyday life. No doubt a major reason for this policy of regional autonomy is linked to the economic cost associated with the war and its severe drain on the national economy. Further evidence of this tendency to decentralize and, concomitantly, to link cultural and economic production is the unique rural-based community theater movement—Movimiento de Teatro Communitario. Functioning as both theater and farm, these cooperatives, Nixtayolero and Teyocoyani, are “intended to be both self-sufficient in food production, and economically self-supporting through the sale of cash crops like coffee and beef” (Martin, 1987/1988: 88). Financed by the ministries of culture and agriculture, these cooperatives employ local peasants, teach them new farming methods, and draw on their personal stories and local traditions as the raw material for the theatrical productions.

Equally significant have been the provisions under “Titulo VII, Educación y Cultura” in the first constitution since the Sandinista government was elected in 1984. Included in the constitution are articles on the cultural rights of the Atlantic coast region; artists' right to absolute creative freedom and copyright protection; and the protection of the nation's patrimony, including the visual arts that are now being produced in the country (Mayrhofer, 1987/1988: 30).

The Ministry of Culture also supports and promotes exhibitions abroad and in the country in collaboration with unions, local painters, and the Asociación Sandinista de Trabajadores Culturales (ASTC)—the first union of professional artists in Nicaragua.


Literary, theatrical, and visual forms of cultural production have always been the foundation of an as yet to be determined national popular culture in Nicaragua. These art forms are now manifest in a revolutionary process that they have historically shaped and are increasingly a part of everyday life. As the people and cultural workers participate in ever-greater numbers in this social transformation, the problems and means to create a national popular culture will unfold in the practice of the new society.

What follows is an interview I conducted in Nicaragua with Padre Ernesto Cardenal, minister of culture of the Nicaraguan government. The interview was held in Managua on January 29, 1988, and concerns the relation between culture, politics, and the state in Nicaragua. Of special interest in this interview is Cardenal's contention that the culture of the prerevolutionary period has not been altered in the practice of the revolution. More importantly, he argues that imperialism is only an economic and political phenomenon and is not manifest in the cultural sphere of social relations.



[Martin]: Would you discuss the relation between the cultural arts and the state during the Somozas' dictatorship?

[Cardenal]: In Nicaragua there was an important and good cultural tradition even during Somocism, above all in literature, a great poetry, and also in music and in painting, but it was an elite culture—we were few. … With the revolution, culture is now of all the people. There has been a democratization of culture and that's the difference.

What was the “political culture” and [what were] the possibilities for social criticism under the Somozas?

Almost all of the intellectuals, the writers, the artists were against the dictatorship and some also fought in the struggle and some died. Many others were in exile and in jails where they were tortured, and that contributed greatly to the change of consciousness of the whole population, which is what this revolution meant.

Has the revolutionary process transformed that discourse?

It hasn't changed. I was explaining that there was also a good cultural tradition [during the dictatorship]. The difference was that it didn't reach the people. There was no diffusion of culture. There were almost no publications. The artists were conspired against by the dictatorship when they weren't being persecuted. These same artists now continue being in the revolution, supporting the revolution along with other younger artists who have appeared, and who, along the same lines, continue the painting, music, and the literature that existed before the revolution. The change is that the revolution has disseminated culture among the people, and before it wasn't disseminated.

Where is the place of cultural production now in Nicaraguan society and is it integrated into everyday life?

This is an important change that the revolution has produced. Culture is now—as I was saying—the patrimony of all the people; the people have spontaneously created their “casas de cultura” and the vast proportion of the activities conducted there: music, theater, handicrafts, dance, and poetry. For example, many poetry workshops have been created by workers and peasants and by soldiers and police who write good modern poetry. Their poetry is influenced by Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and by Chinese, Japanese, Greek, and Latin poetry. Also many peasant and worker theatrical groups have been created. And handicrafts and folklore that previously had almost disappeared in the country due to lack of government promotion now have had a great rebirth.

What are the central themes expressed in this art? Have they historical significance drawing on the colonial and precolonial periods?

It can't be said that there is a common denominator in the artistic themes of all that is written and all that is done in theater or music or dance or song. They cover similarly indigenous themes such as our Spanish or mestiza colonial tradition or the current contemporary situation, the recent history of our sufferings under the dictatorship, or the history further in the past [pre-Columbian]. There are as many international themes as national ones. There is a great variety concerning the thematics in the arts and literature.

How are the various ethnic groups integrated in these cultural forms and society?

Above all by encouraging these kinds of cultures and by preserving and promoting their identity. The literacy campaign was conducted in four languages in addition to the Spanish language. It was conducted in two indigenous languages—that of the Suma and Miskito Indians, and also in English for the black English-speaking population on the Atlantic coast. And education is conducted bilingually with these people, in their language and in Spanish. Their dance—all their artistic traditions are promoted—their oral culture as well as music, folklore, and handicrafts that they have in great abundance, have now been widely spread throughout the rest of the country, especially here [on the Pacific side] in this other part of Nicaragua, where, before, their culture was practically unknown, ignored, and scorned. It has also become widely known abroad.

What channels does your ministry provide for their expression?

Different kinds. For example, the casas de cultura are very important in the different regions, as much so on the Atlantic side as here in the Pacific. As are the publications: books, magazines, and literary supplements in the newspapers. Radio and television are also influential in the diffusion of culture. And there are theatrical performances and the visits of many artistic groups from abroad and the tours of many groups from Nicaragua abroad.

How does the government—your ministry—support artists and promote the development of a popular culture?

It depends. There are some that need help and others who don't. The painters earn a lot of money selling their works. They have become rich during their lives. And in music there are some who are indeed popular and have enough records, enough of an audience here in Nicaragua and abroad, and who receive royalties from their compositions. There are other musicians, in orchestral and chamber music, or professors in the School of Music, who are poorly paid, and we help them insofar as we can, given our poverty. The dance artists generally need some subsidies too. And the circus.

Most of the writers have some other job besides writing. Here, like in most parts of the world, no one can earn a living from what he writes except certain very celebrated authors. Almost everyone has another job in the government or in private enterprise, in television, or in radio, or in publishing firms, etc.

However, there are some writers who, because of age or infirmity or because of other special conditions, can't make a living and who are important writers who do receive a government subsidy.

How does the government address oppositional and counter-revolutionary forms of social criticism, that is, those forms that are of the prerevolutionary period and those manifest in the practice of revolution?

None of that exists here. There doesn't exist a difference between the culture of the past and that of the revolution. I have explained that the culture we have is the same one that was [before the revolution], with the [only] difference being that before [the revolution] it was a minority culture and now it has been extended to all the people. We never speak of a “bourgeois” culture. We don't believe that it exists; [we believe] that if culture is good, if a work of art is good, it's good. And it's revolutionary, even though it may have been produced within the bourgeoisie and even though the author of that work of art may have been a representative of the bourgeoisie. Neither do we believe that art is revolutionary because of the fact that it addresses revolutionary social and political themes. Art can be good or bad independent of the theme it addresses.

What determines what foreign media are allowed entry into the country for mass consumption? For example, we observed that the television channels 2 and 6 air U.S. Hollywood-produced entertainment shows.

We never speak of cultural imperialism or imperialist culture. For us, imperialism is nothing more than economic and military. It is not cultural. Nicaragua is influenced by the great North American culture. And for that reason we in the Ministry of Culture have promoted the great yankee poetry. For example, from Whitman and Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams, Eliot, Pound, Carl Sandburg, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, up to the very latest.

And it is the same with music. In the United States, the distinctive music and pictorial culture that the United States has produced is an example to the whole world. The same applies in regard to the great North American novel. None of this has to do with imperialism. None of this is connected to the White House, to the State Department, or to the CIA. There doesn't exist a single writer or artist in the United States within the present [U.S.] government nor within past governments either. The last North American writer who had a connection with the government of the United States was Walt Whitman, who worked as a secretary in the White House. And that was when Abraham Lincoln was president.

Do you make a distinction between art and the politics of art in the Nicaraguan context?

For us, our cultural policy is to promote excellence—exclusively, with full creative freedom and respect for artistic freedom. That was also assured by the Constitution and by the request of the Ministry of Culture. In respecting creative freedom, we are only interested in the excellence of literary and artistic creation. And under this falls all types of art from all parts of the world, from different regimes, from different countries, from different cultures.

Has the practice of the revolution given birth to a new cultural and artistic aesthetic?

No. Nothing new has come into existence in that sense. In painting, for example, there are all types of inclinations. There are abstract painters, realist painters, surrealist painters, and hyperrealists. One could say that the only kind of art not cultivated here is Socialist realism. And not because it is prohibited, but because they [the artists] don't like it, and because it naturally isn't imposed upon them. The same thing occurs in literature. We have different inclinations, even clashing among ourselves, often creating literary polemics in the newspapers of the revolution. There are some who cultivate hermetic, oneiric, surrealist poetry, based purely on metaphors, completely subjective, and there are others—myself among them, for example—who prefer a poetry that is more accessible to the people, with an understandable message on current themes or of interest to the public that is connected to our reality. But all types of literary inclinations from one extreme to the other are cultivated here. The same may be said of all the other arts, and of music as well. There is political music, protest music, “social song,” and also there is other, romantic music; and there's another much preferred by the youth—whatever the latest fashion is.

What is the role of the artist in the struggle for a people's art?

That of giving the people a quality artistic product. We believe, or I would say, anyway, I believe, in the phrase of Karl Marx that it is a crime to give the people something materially inferior to perfection. So then, it is essential to try to give the best in artistic material and that the people understand it in those terms. Not to create an inferior art so that all can understand, but rather to lift the people up to the heights of art. We don't want a society that only has social, economic, and political development without it being accompanied by a spiritual and cultural development as well.

What are the country's resources that your ministry draws on to advance this process?

In regard to the budget, that of the Ministry of Culture is one of the lowest. But in reality, it is a small ministry and its needs can't be compared to those of health or education, which are very large ministries. However, in all of the state organizations there is also a budget for culture. The Ministry of Culture doesn't do it all. Much is also invested in culture and in resources for culture in the associations of writers and artists, and also, as I indicated, in the different organizations of the state. The police and army also have literary contests and artistic groups of music, dance, and theater at every level throughout the entire country.

You are both a renowned poet and an accomplished sculptor. Would you discuss your work in relation to being an artist, senior government official, and citizen of Nicaragua?

It has been a conflict and even a sacrifice to have to be in this job—in the Ministry of Culture—having to sacrifice my artistic creativity. Many times I have asked to be relieved from this responsibility. At last I have obtained permission to not attend to so many of the duties of the Ministry of Culture in order to be able to pay more attention to those of my creativity. But I cannot have my time completely free to do what I would like.

What shapes and gives meaning to your sculpture and who has influenced your style?

I have to think about that to respond. It's instinctive. It's style that, since the beginning, since I began with sculpture, some 30, 40, more than 40 years ago, has remained the same: an equilibrium between realism and abstraction, a middle position, we could say, of those two. And what has influenced the style of my work is partly indigenous. Also from other primitive cultures, from Africa, Oceania, and in large part certain modern sculptors like Arp and Brancusi, as well as those who haven't influenced me so much as they have been, let us say, twin brothers of mine, because I began with these styles before discovering them, and in discovering them I have found a spiritual brotherhood.

Works Cited

LaDuke, Betty 1986 “June Beer, Nicaraguan Artist.” Sage 3 (Fall): 35–39.

Lobel, Jules 1987 “The New Nicaraguan Constitution: Uniting Participatory and Representative Democracy.” Monthly Review 39 (December): 1–17.

Martin, Randy 1987/1988 “Nicaragua: Theatre and State without Walls.” Social Text 6 (Winter): 83–94.

Mayrhofer, Ingrid 1987/1988 “Nicaragua: Art before the Revolution.” Border/Lines 9/10 (Fall/Winter): 26–30.

Terry DeHay (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: DeHay, Terry. “The Kingdom of God on Earth: Ernesto Cardenal's Salmos.” In Postcolonial Literature and the Biblical Call for Justice, edited by Susan VanZanten Gallagher, pp. 48–59. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.

[In the following essay, DeHay assesses Cardenal's synthesis of Christianity and Marxism as expressed in the poetry in Salmos.]

The Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal, a Catholic priest and a political and social activist, served as minister of culture in Nicaragua's Sandinista government after the success of the revolution in 1979. His life and poetry reflect his commitment both to active political reform and to religious contemplation. His poetic search to resolve the apparent opposition between his Catholicism and his Marxism is clearly traced in the language and imagery of his work, which emphasizes the convergence of ideals he sees in the two systems of thought. In accordance with liberation theology, Cardenal believes that Christianity must take a stand to alleviate the suffering and oppression in the world. The clearest poetic statement of his version of liberation theology is in his Salmos, a group of poems he wrote while studying in Colombia in the early 1960s.

Cardenal was born in Granada, Nicaragua, in 1925. After studying literature first in Managua and then Mexico City, he spent two years, from 1947 to 1949, as a student at Columbia University in New York City. There he discovered North American poetry and was especially influenced by Ezra Pound. He returned to Nicaragua in 1950, working with the Nicaraguan poet José Coronel Urtecho in translating and compiling an anthology of North American poetry. His involvement in the politics of his country also became concrete at this time, and he participated actively in the “April Rebellion” against Anastasio Somoza in 1954. His early poems, such as Zero Hour (1956), already reflect his interest in the history and political turmoil in Central America, and his concern with the political intervention of the United States.

In May, 1957, to the surprise of some, Cardenal entered the Trappist monastery at Gethsemane, Kentucky. While at the monastery, he worked closely with Thomas Merton, the noted priest, philosopher, and poet, and together they planned the establishment of a religious and contemplative community. Cardenal left the monastery in 1959 for personal and health reasons, and continued his studies with the Benedictines in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and at the Seminary of La Ceja near Medellín, Colombia. In 1965, at the age of forty, he was ordained as a priest in Managua.

At that time he and some companions founded, on the island of Solentiname in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, the Christian community that he had first envisioned at Gethsemane. The objective of Cardenal and his companions was to construct the ideal community, without classes or private property (Martínez Andrade 25). Here Cardenal compiled El evangelio en Solentiname, a reexamination of the Scriptures by the workers and peasants living in and around the community of Solentiname. This commentary on biblical teachings and how they relate to the lives of the people was as much an investigation of the problems facing Nicaragua under Somoza as it was an attempt to achieve a closer understanding of the Christian faith (Urdanivia Bertarelli 149). In fact, many of the inhabitants of Solentiname at this time began to take an active part in the struggle against the government.

Cardenal's poetry also became increasingly political, directly addressing the injustice in Nicaragua and supporting resistance to Somoza's regime. In 1970, Cardenal visited Cuba as a judge in a poetry competition sponsored by Casa de las Américas. His firsthand experiences in socialist Cuba (described in his book En Cuba [1972]) led to his conversion to Marxism, directly influencing the poems written after this visit. Cardenal has referred to the poems written at this time, in particular “Oráculo sobre Managua” and Canto nacional, as “Christian-Marxist” (Martínez Andrade 26).

Many members of Solentiname also began to translate their religious convictions into political commitments, becoming active in the FSLN (Frente Sandinista de la Liberación National) and extending their desire for an ideal community into a larger context. The political power of the religious community of Solentiname and the threat of the increasingly international influence of Cardenal's writing were demonstrated when, in 1977, Somoza's National Guard bombed the island, completely destroying the community. At this point Cardenal went into exile in Costa Rica, actively supporting the FSLN until its victory in 1979.

Tocar el cielo, first published in 1981, is a collection of poems written between 1974 and 1980, illustrated with paintings from Solentiname and photographs of Nicaragua. Dedicated to the struggle of the Sandinistas against the government of Somoza, it is what Urdanivia Bertarelli calls “a hymn in praise of the Sandinista revolution and of hope in the reconstruction of Nicaragua as a free country” (149). Many of the poems in the collection reflect Cardenal's growing conviction of the relationship between the love of God and a just society, which he came to understand as the goals of Marxism. He writes in a poem called “Epístola a José Coronel Urtecho”:

They can be good, according to Marx. Some capitalists
have good hearts. For this reason: the goal is not to change the heart,
          but rather the system.
Private property—that euphemism.
                    Thieves, it is not rhetoric.
It is not a figure of speech.
Charity in the Bible is “sedagah” [justice](1)

In 1979, after the triumph of the revolution, Cardenal returned to serve as the minister of culture for the new government. In response to concern that the Sandinista government was anti-Catholic, Cardenal has pointed out that the revolution put a priest in the office of minister of culture (La democratización 28).

Cardenal's vision of the world appears to presume the existence of a totality of which Catholicism and Marxism are both manifestations. Like many other writers and thinkers, he senses a connection between the historical patterns of the Bible and those of Marxism. He does not see these patterns as conflicting, nor does he seem to see the need for transplanting one system of beliefs for another. Rather, in his poetry he discovers or creates points of convergence. As John Beverley points out in his book Del ‘Lazarillo’ al sandinismo, “Cardenal is at the same time a mystic and a communist. His principal preoccupation (which he shares with Liberation Theology) is to create a synthesis of Christian eschatology with a Marxist sense of dialectic contradiction and transformation of history and nature” (136).

Liberation theology reinterprets the Bible and the basic concepts of Christianity in terms of the direct struggle of the people against aggression. The 1968 Medellín proclamation demonstrates the relevance of Vatican II to the political and social realities of Latin America. At Medellín the bishops declared “that the people were oppressed by the ‘institutionalized violence’ of internal and external colonial structures which, ‘seeking unbounded profits, ferment an economic dictatorship and the international imperialism of money’” (Randall 19). These statements gave official sanction to the active involvement of Catholics in political affairs. For the people of Latin America, who are generally very religious, this reinterpretation has an enormous impact. It reconciles the ideological gap between their religious beliefs and the very concrete need for political and social change. As Beverley points out, the hierarchical structure of traditional Christian belief reinforces the political and economic stratification that leads to the oppression of large segments of the population: “God—the world below is weighted forever with the violence of the relationship master-slave” (Del ‘Lazarillo’ 133). Liberation theology rereads the Bible, restructuring the hierarchical relationship between God and the world so that God is fighting alongside men and women to bring an end to oppression. A primitive painter from Solentiname describes this relationship as he represents it in his painting of the crucifix: “I paint Christ as one of us, a man, that is to say a compañero guerillero who comes out of the mountains and is taken by the enemy” (Cardenal, La democratización 21). In other words, Christ sacrifices himself in the struggle for the liberation of the people. The painting thus described has been reproduced in a number of publications, including Cardenal's Tocar el cielo.

Not all proponents of liberation theology or Christian revolutionaries are Marxists. For Ernesto Cardenal, however, there is a clear connection between the two; he asserts, in fact, that he had two conversions in his life, the first to Catholicism and the second to Marxism. He sees an extremely close relationship between the two systems of thought, so close that the study of Christ led him to Marxism and to a commitment to revolution: “I became politicized with the contemplative life. Meditation, exploration, mysticism is what gave me a political radicalization. I arrived at revolution through the gospel. It was not because of reading Marx but because of Christ. It is possible to say that the gospel made me a marxist” (qtd. Forcano 7). Again according to Beverley, Cardenal's reading of the Bible focuses on understanding its message in terms of the teachings of Marxism. As Cardenal states: “The Bible as much as Marxism gives us the assurance to work toward the perfect universe. If not, the universe would not make sense; if not, the Cuban Revolution would not make sense, and we know well that it does. However, to achieve completely what Lenin referred to as the assault on the heavens, it may take, in my opinion, as much time as that which has transpired from Homo Habilis to us” (qtd. Beverley, Del ‘Lazarillo’ 106). For Cardenal, the biblical version of history and the Marxist version of history are not separate or opposing concepts. Instead, they are each evidence of the existence of the inevitable progression of history toward a perfect society, “the Kingdom of God on Earth” (Canto nacional 53). He does not need to replace the material of Christianity with that of Marxism, but only to cleanse Christian doctrine from centuries of distortion so that the similarities of the two doctrines become evident, and they can work together to bring about a just society. To this end, the rhetoric of Marxism and that of Christianity are frequently juxtaposed in his poetry. In “La economía de Tahuantinsuyu,” a poem from Homenaje a los Indios Americanos, Cardenal uses poetic devices to illustrate this relationship between religion and politics:

Religious truth
                                                            and political truth
were for the people the same truth

(Nueva 150)

First illustrating the two truths' separation through the line division, the poet then unites them in the minds of the people. For Cardenal, a symptom of a corrupt society is the lack of a comprehensive moral base with religious and political values on the same plane. As a priest and a revolutionary, Cardenal serves as an example of the possible fusion of these traditionally dialectical forces, a fusion he portrays in his poetry. He strongly emphasizes that in the ideal society (such as that of Tahuantinsuyu, the Quecha name for the Incan emperor) politics and religion are one; in modern society they are in opposition.

In his Salmos, Cardenal uses a past poetic model that assumes a direct relationship between the Christian God and the historical world of the speaker. Beginning with the basic form and content of the biblical Psalms, Cardenal reinterprets them from a contemporary perspective to reflect the modern struggle for liberation in Latin America, emphasizing the strength and commitment of the people. The Psalms Cardenal chooses as models generally come from the category referred to by Robert Alter as “Psalms of supplication,” which he describes as “a poetic cry of distress to the lord [sic] in time of critical need,” distinct from the Psalms of praise (Literary 247–48). Walter Brueggemann makes a further distinction, dividing the Psalms into three categories: “psalms of orientation,” which evoke the fundamental goodness, coherence, and dependability of God's world; “psalms of disorientation,” which express anger and frustration with the world; and “psalms of new orientation,” which emphasize the hope implicit in change (19). The focus of Cardenal's Salmos is clearly on the disorientation, the anger and frustration in a world marked by “disequilibrium, incoherence, and unrelieved asymmetry” (Brueggemann 51).

Cardenal uses the vision of the world implied by the Psalms of disorientation—that of men and women as oppressed beings in a world dominated by a powerful few, “los impuros” (the impure)—as a historical reinforcement for the actual situation in Latin America.2 Into the referential field established by the biblical model, Cardenal places contemporary language and concrete images to create a modern context for the biblical vision—“I do not worship movie stars”—and a context defined by the political situation in Latin America: “liberate me from the dictator / and from the gangsters' mafia / Their machine guns are summoned against us.”3 In this way, he adds a twentieth-century political interpretation to the spiritual conflict expressed in the Psalms. The supplicant in the original text asks repeatedly for protection from the evil in the world. For Cardenal, this evil is clearly defined as the dictators and all those who exploit the people. In a highly original simile, he describes God's presence as “a Line of Defense / like an air raid shelter” (Salmo 30). God's protection is essential, and Cardenal infuses it with a material meaning, directly asking God to take an active, political stand against oppression: “Declare, Lord, war on those who declare war on us / Because you are our ally” (Salmo 34).

The Salmos belong to the type of poetry that Cardenal refers to as “exteriorist poetry,” an expression first used by José Colonel Urtecho, another twentieth-century Nicaraguan poet. It is defined by Cardenal as “objective, narrative, and anecdotal poetry, made with the elements of real life and with concrete things, with proper names, and precise details and exact dates and figures and deeds and statements” (Poesía viii). In other words, he writes a poetry that refers directly to the concrete world in which people live. That poetry should communicate is essential to Cardenal; he states, “for me poetry is above all prophecy in the biblical sense of guidance” (Poesía viii). Because of his vision of the world and his commitment to change, Cardenal's poetry is highly political and carries a direct statement of his beliefs. As a result, his work has been criticized as overly political and occasional, compromising “pure poetry.” Cardenal counters this accusation by asserting that all great poetry, including the Bible, is exteriorist, confronting the real world and real human needs: “It is as ancient as Homer and biblical poetry (in reality, it is that which has constituted the great poetry of all times)” (Poesía vii–viii).

In his Salmos, Cardenal basically glosses only the first few lines of the original text; the changes he makes define the emphasis of his thought. In “Salmo 5,” for example, his first two lines—“Listen to my words, oh Lord / Hear my sighs”—echo fairly directly the original text: “Give ear to my words, O Lord, / consider my sighing.” In the third line, however, he diverges significantly from the original text. Cardenal's speaker states, “Listen to my protest” the original text reads, “Listen to my cry for help.” This change indicates a major shift from the biblical speaker as supplicant to the more exhortative speaker in the Salmos. Cardenal emphasizes the “clamor,” which in this context represents his call for action. He rejects the more meditative aspects of the Psalms, emphasizing the demand that God assume an active stance alongside men and women against oppression. The direct references he makes to the original text also reflect this imperative:

          Rise up in my favor
                                                            My God
                                                            in my defense!

In this sense the biblical model plays a major role, serving as a contrast to underscore Cardenal's message. Although the poems stand independently, their relationship to the original text enhances their meaning.

This enhancement is especially clear in the way Cardenal reinterprets the relationship between the speaker and the hearer. In the biblical text there is an “I” addressing a “thou,” or “God.” Although the third-person pronoun enters the discourse when the speaker asks protection from “them,” the emphasis is on the dialogue between the speaker and his God. This is not true in Cardenal's Salmos. The poetic situation, the dialogue between the “I” and “thou,” serves basically as a means of defining and criticizing “them.” In “Salmo 57,” for example, Cardenal exploits the dichotomy between the pious “I” and the impious “them,” using irony to define the situation he sees in today's world, with an emphasis on the power and corruption of “them”: “The liberty of which they speak is the freedom of capital / Their ‘free world’ is free exploitation / Their law is of guns and their order that of the gorilla.” This shift away from “I” also places a stronger emphasis on the relationship between “them” and God. If God fails to assist the oppressed, represented by the speaker, then he has chosen sides against the oppressed. In Cardenal's Salmos, God cannot stand apart or above, but must accept his responsibility. In fact, the speaker in “Salmo 43” is not simply asking for protection; he concludes the poem with a demand that God accept responsibility and take action: “Wake up / and help us! / For your own prestige!” (“Salmo 43”). Although the corresponding biblical Psalm 44 has the same theme of the apparent desertion of God in the face of enemies, it ends with a much humbler note: “Rise up, come to our help. / Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.”

The speaker of Cardenal's Salmos also differs from that of the biblical text in that he merges into a larger whole. The biblical Psalms are traditionally thought to have had more than one author and to have been attributed to David at a later date. As king, David becomes the spokesperson for a collective Israel. Cardenal reverses this process to an extent, emphasizing the significance of the poet as the voice of the people. In addition, in accentuating the attitude of supplication and disorientation, Cardenal shifts the more personal tone of the Psalms to a general, political one: “We are the displaced / We are the refugees who do not have papers” (“Salmo 43”).

Pronoun shifts from the biblical source to the revisioned text underscore this process. In many of Cardenal's Salmos, a collective but carefully defined “we” replaces the first-person pronoun of the correlative text. “Salmo 15,” for example, like the corresponding Psalm 16, begins and ends with the first-person pronoun; however, unlike Psalm 16, the “I” becomes a “we” in the series of stanzas that make up the body of the poem, identifying the speaker with a larger voice. “Salmo 34” also alternates between the singular and plural pronouns, in contrast with the corresponding Psalm 35, this time stating directly that the “I” is the poet who speaks for the whole: “I will sing of you in my poems / all my life.” Because “we” appears more frequently in Cardenal's poems than in their biblical correlatives, the “I” becomes a spokesperson for a group, for all oppressed people. The speaker, in this case the prophet-poet, is the link between God and the people, between religion and politics: “But, I will be able to speak of you to my brothers / I will praise you in the gathering of our people” (“Salmo 21”). He speaks both for and to God, relaying God's message to the people and delivering their cry for help. For Cardenal, this is a major role of the poet: to create an articulation and unification of purpose.

In doing this, Cardenal's Salmos both describe an existing situation and communicate a hope. Although the conditions he describes in Salmos and his other poetry are devastating, the message is one of hope and survival. In “Salmo 21” (“Why have you abandoned me?”), the speaker describes a multiplicity of horrors from a first-person perspective in the present tense:

They have brought me naked to the gas chamber
and divided up my clothes and shoes between them
I cry out begging for morphine and no one hears me. …
I cry in the police station
on the porch of the garrison
                                        in the torture chamber

In spite of the atrocities of the present, the speaker ends with a description of an ideal, inevitable future: “Our people will celebrate a great fiesta / The new people who are going to be born.” As though to underscore this hope, the redemption that God promises to the righteous is equated in the Salmos with liberation: to be redeemed is to be free from oppression. “Salmo 18” refers to “Señor / my Liberator,” while the corresponding Psalm reads “my / Redeemer” (Ps. 19:14). Again in “Salmo 129,” Cardenal writes, “But the Lord is the Liberation / the Liberty of Israel,” reinterpreting the original “and with him is great power to redeem. / It is he who will redeem Israel / from all its iniquities” (Ps. 130:7–8). The speaker requests, even demands, redemption not from his own sins, but liberation from the sins of others.

As in “Salmo 21,” the general feeling of the Salmos is that the people will inevitably triumph over oppression. In fact, God is defined in relation to the people's struggle: “We will celebrate the anniversary of the Revolution in great plazas / The God who exists is that of the proletariat” (“Salmo 57”). There is no other possibility within this religious-political context; any other god is a false god. And in the context of the Salmos, God becomes part of history, no longer separate or independent of the actions of people in history. Rather God receives definition and validation in terms of a relationship with human beings. The abstract, transcendent principles of the Christian God only become “real” and valuable in their historical application, in the way they directly affect people's lives. This concept clearly coincides with the revision of the traditional Christian hierarchy proposed by many liberation theologians, placing God alongside human beings in the struggle to end oppression.

This use of the poetic space to juxtapose political and religious points of view is very evident in Cardenal's longer poems as well. In Canto nacional, published in 1973 and dedicated to the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, Cardenal uses the correspondence he sees between Christianity and Marxism to establish a connection between religion and politics: “A land promised by the Revolution / with things in common / ‘as before the fall of our First Parents’” (32). The last line in this text, along with the reference to “the promised land,” defines the Nicaraguan revolution, and any revolution which works toward the liberation of the repressed, in the context of the prophecy of the Bible, as an act of redemption (liberation), indicating a return to a better time, to a prelapsarian Eden. In this context, communism is the possibility of creating an earthly Eden: “Communism or the Kingdom of God on earth, which is the same” (“Canto 53”). Cardenal's vision of liberation theology is a blending of religion and politics, an identifying of themes central to both systems of belief. On one level, he uses the relationship between an already established system, Christianity, to demonstrate the legitimacy of another less established one. At the same time, however, on another level Cardenal questions the values of the already accepted religious system, restructuring them in accordance with his own concept of a universally acceptable or “legitimate” value system. The correspondence of Christianity and Marxism is established in relation to a universal system of values, or totality, and both are redefined in its terms. The poetry that presents these redefined concepts is itself a taking apart, literally of line and texts, and figuratively of history and time. This poetic deconstruction of existing ways of interpreting the world opens up these systems of beliefs, revealing equivalences and disrupting any claim of universality for one particular political or religious ideology.

Raymond Williams, in Marxism and Literature, defines three different aspects of culture that create “internal dynamic relations” within any system. The most obviously identifiable is the hegemonic, or dominant. But along with the dominant, the “residual” and “emergent” function as part of the dynamic process that is culture. The residual, according to Williams, “has been effectively formed in the past, but it is still active in the cultural process, not only and often not at all as an element of the past, but as an effective element of the present. Thus certain experiences, meanings, and values which cannot be expressed or substantially verified in terms of the dominant culture, are nevertheless lived and practiced on the basis of the residue—cultural as well as social—of some previous social and cultural institution or formation” (122). Williams also distinguishes between the residual that has been incorporated into the hegemony and that which presents an alternative or opposition to the dominant aspects of culture. Williams's example of organized religion presents a convenient analogy to the relationship of liberation theology and the traditional Catholic Church. He states that organized religion, although basically residual, has been effectively incorporated into the hegemony. At the same time, oppositional elements remain active. In terms of liberation theology, these oppositional forces emerge in the vision of the early Christians as revolutionaries, as opposed to the more static, hierarchical belief system that has been incorporated into the dominant culture and tends to support and reproduce the status quo.

The emergent aspects of culture are “new meanings and values, new practices, new relationships and kinds of relationships” that are continually being created (Williams 123). The emergent very often defines itself in opposition to the hegemony as well, although it runs a greater risk of incorporation into the hegemonic culture. The example of the emergent given by Williams is the development of the working class that accompanied the Industrial Revolution in nineteenth-century England. Clearly this new class was incorporated by the hegemony into the dominant ideology and reinterpreted in terms of the dominant values and social patterns. As Williams points out, the incorporation of emergent cultural processes is difficult to detect and combat because it often appears as “recognition, acknowledgement, and thus a form of acceptance” (125).

In terms of Williams's distinctions, we can understand Cardenal's poetic synthesis as a means of identifying the present dominant capitalist system as negative, and both the residual and emergent as important alternatives to that system. He is clearly interested in the residual aspects of organized religion that have not been incorporated into the hegemonic culture, especially in terms of liberation theology. Looking to the Old Testament God of the Psalms, Cardenal's poetry revives the God who directly punishes the evil, the oppressor, and comes to the aid of the poor:

          Rise up Lord
                    do not forget the exploited
Because they believe that they are unpunished
Thou seest it
                    Because thou seest our prisons
The persecuted rely on thee
and the orphaned child entrusts to thee
          the little orphans of our assassinated
Burn Lord their secret service
and their Councils of War
that their military force cannot be found
Because thou art he who governs for eternal centuries
and hears the prayers of the humble

(Salmo 9)

Cardenal uses the basic structure of the Salmos, the speaker's direct address to his God, to reexamine and to revise the relationship of God and the people, to restructure the vertical separation of heaven and earth so important to the Church within the dominant culture. The God of Cardenal's Salmos is an opponent to the existing system of exploitation, rather than a supporter of the status quo, as God is traditionally defined in terms of the dominant aspects of culture.

Marxism, in turn, can be seen as an emergent political system, especially in the process that many Latin American Marxists have articulated as the creation of the “nuevo hombre/mujer,” or the new man/woman. As Cardenal repeatedly emphasizes, the goal of the revolution is to restructure the existing system and to create a new one in which all men and women live free and equal. At the same time, he states in “Por una Cultura de la Paz,” “a socialist economy is an economy with religion. I am not interested in an economic liberation of man without the liberation of the whole man” (qtd. White 65–66). Here again, liberation is equivalent to redemption.

The process of Cardenal's poetry does not contrast the two alternatives of Christianity and Marxism, but rather focuses on their similarities. In fact, the identification of the residual elements of culture with the emergent, the poetic juxtaposition of Christian imagery and Marxist images, may be Cardenal's method of protecting them from appropriation by the dominant culture. By revealing the similarities between Christian and Marxist thought, he is able to emphasize what he wishes from each system, creating in their synthesis a new way of understanding and shaping the world. The emergent and the residual have in Cardenal's poetry the same goal: “the kingdom of God on earth.” For Cardenal, they are not separate, but rather have similar roots in the universal struggle to attain the Kingdom of God on Earth: “I believe in the kingdom of Heaven. But I believe that this kingdom will be established on earth because Christ taught us to pray for the Kingdom to come to us—not for us to go to it” (White 65).


  1. Tocar 46. This and all subsequent translations from Spanish to English are my own.

  2. For a more detailed discussion of Cardenal's use of the Psalms as a historical reinforcement, see Ojeda.

  3. References to Cardenal's Salmos will be made in the text by the number of the poem, in this case “Salmo 16.” All translations here are my own. An English translation of the Salmos—The Psalms of Struggle and Liberation—was published in 1971 (McAnay). Translations of individual Salmos have also appeared in various publications.

Juan Carlos Galeano (review date summer 1997)

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SOURCE: Galeano, Juan Carlos. Review of The Doubtful Strait, by Ernesto Cardenal. Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 21, no. 2 (summer 1997): 512–15.

[In the following review, Galeano describes The Doubtful Strait as an epic poem of Latin America's early colonial history that offers a moral lesson regarding contemporary social struggles.]

The English speaking public, especially Americans, have been informed through TV and newspapers of the political events in Nicaragua and its neighbors without knowing much about the countries' past, particularly about the first years of the Spanish presence in Central America. Cardenal, a Nicaraguan poet, now translated into English by Lyons, gives voice to those distant times. Like chroniclers of the early days, in this epic poem Cardenal has gathered stories to shape into his own version of the events.

The title, The Doubtful Strait, which is suggestive even today, refers to the erroneous belief of the first Spaniards that a strait existed in Nicaragua which connected the Atlantic and the Pacific. But the San Juan river, which they believed to empty out into the Pacific, carried them no farther than Lake Nicaragua, which they called the Freshwater Sea: “Pero el Estrecho era de tierra, / no era de agua” ‘But it was a Strait of land / it was not of water’ (4–5). Such a fallacy, of course, was no different from that of El Dorado or of the existence of Amazon women, which Spanish explorers perpetuated. Cardenal's emotive text calls to mind the Bible and Pound's Cantos in its poetic technique. From his work, due to its closeness to history with its intertextual make-up and through the suggestive nature the poet gives it, we could say the poem expresses the concerns common to social poetry of the twentieth century. The poem, in its intent to pull together an epoch of Latin American history, belongs to the same vein as Pablo Neruda's Canto General.

The texts of Columbus, Bernal Díaz, Cortés, and others, speaking from the past, blend into diverse narrative voices tied to Cardenal's principal narrative voice to show the forces and motives which changed the course of life for the indigenous people of the New World. In one of the cantos, Cardenal inserts the voice of Columbus with his vision of beauty and virginal wilderness of the new continent: “‘El país es bello … / Escogen para gobernadores los más sabios … / De la isla Antilla hasta la de Cipango / se cuentan veinte y seis espacios. / Los templos y palacios están cubiertos de oro.’” ‘“The country is beautiful … / They choose the wisest as rulers … / From the island of Antilla to the island of Cipango / the intervals number twenty-six. / The temples and palaces are faced with gold”’ (2–3). Obviously, the fascination that Columbus had for the new territory is influenced by Marco Polo's descriptions of the kings and castles in Cathay. This vision is mixed with the one of an earthly paradise. This is nothing more than marvel and invention on the part of the Europeans. Such an ideal world of unity is quickly subverted by the greed of the conquistadors like Hernán Cortés, Pedro de Alvarado, Pedrarias: “El Muy Magnífico Señor Pedrarias Dávila / Furor Domini!!! / fue el primer ‘promotor del progreso’ en Nicaragua / y el primer Dictador / introdujo los chanchos en Nicaragua, sí es cierto … / (pero ganado de él) / y el primer ‘promotor del comercio’ en Nicaragua / (de indios y negros) / a Panamá y al Perú.” ‘The most Magnificent Pedrarias Dávila / Furor Domini!!! / was the first “promoter of progress” in Nicaragua / and the first Dictator / he introduced pigs into Nicaragua, yes it's true … / (but his own livestock) / and the first “promoter of business” in Nicaragua / (of Indians and negroes) / to Panama and to Peru’ (56–57).

Because the riches of the first civilizations to be conquered and their captive Indians were not enough, the Spanish pushed themselves to the limit—some to their death. And not everything is prosperity for them, the voice of the omniscient narrator tells us. At one point, we see the governor Don Pedro de Alvarado asking his majesty the king permission to go discover the lands and islands of the spices. And his majesty gives him permission: “Su Majestad regalaba a Don Pedro de Alvarado / cualquier islas en el mar del Sur de la Nueva España / ‘e TODAS las que halláredes hacia el Poniente della’” ‘His Majesty was giving to Don Pedro de Alvarado / whatever islands in the South Sea of New Spain / “and All those you may finde West of there”’ (88–89). On another occasion we see him going into debt to build ships, dragging his men and his Guatemalan Indians through hardships in the cold climes of the Andes only to find that another Spaniard has arrived before him: “Hasta que llegaron al gran camino de los Incas / y vieron el rastro de los castellanos … / La tierra era de Pizarro!” ‘Until they reached the great highway of the Incas / and saw the trail of the Castillians … / The land was Pizarro's!’ (90–91). In these misfortunes that beset the Spaniards we realize that America is not the paradise that Columbus had invented; we see the other side of the coin, the suffering and defeat shown in the land itself: “El Volcán de Quito les arrojaba cenizas desde lejos” ‘From afar the Quito volcano rained ash on them’ (88–89). It is obvious how far they would go for fame, power, and wealth. We see the defeated face of the Europeans.

Cardenal is like the Spanish soldier Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who writes in the sixteenth century to contradict the chronicler López de Gómara, who only reports the victories of Cortés over the Aztecs. Cardenal also writes to contradict the history of grandeur and glory that the conquistadors have taught to the defeated. The poetic truth of the myth permeates throughout the text. Perhaps following the models of the Old Testament, the protean nature of Cardenal's voice colors each event with omen and prophecy. For example, when the governor of Guatemala dies, the volcano punishes the city incessantly and a flood arises, as if wanting to cleanse all sins and instate a new order. It is not difficult to think of the metaphor applied to the present epoch: it's as if the poet were telling us that if injustices continue in Central America, something terrible is going to happen there again.

History is seen through the eyes of the present because the abuse of the past has continued up until today. Thus the presence of the colonial governor of Nicaragua Rodrigo de Contreras and his family is somewhat a prefiguration of the dictator Somoza: “LOS PUEBLOS QUE POSEEN RODRIGO DE CONTRERAS E SU MUJER E HIJOS SON: … / (Véase COLLECTION SOMOZA)” ‘THE TOWNS WHICH ARE OWNED BY RODRIGO DE CONTRERAS AND HIS WIFE AND SONS ARE: … / (Cf. SOMOZA COLLECTION’) (154–55). The poetic nature of the text, which pretends to inform us about the past, condemns the political situation of the present: the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza and of his family in our immediate past.

In spite of the terrible deeds of the conquering enterprise, the figure of Bartolomé de las Casas stands out as an exception. Cardenal shows us how this friar from Seville denounces before the king the atrocities committed against the Indians and decides to put into practice his theories of attracting the Indians “with words and persuasions” and doing away with coercive methods. But las Casas is not a perfect man, and this is what Cardenal seems to suggest to us when he tells us that las Casas accompanies his persuasion with “tijeras, cuchillos, espejuelos / y otras cosas de Castilla.” ‘scissors, knives, lenses / and other things from Castille’ (118–19). Although the character of las Casas is presented as somewhat positive, Cardenal makes him human. Far from employing any manicheanism, the poet permits the reader his own judgment: the suspicion that if the conquistadors came for the gold, the priests came to monopolize the souls.

This text, written at the beginning of the sixties under the advice of Cardenal's mentor and friend José Coronel Urtecho, retains its poetic force in Lyons' successful English translation. The reader unfamiliar with the topography of literature of the discovery and of the colonial times is grateful for Tamara Williams' concise introduction and glossary of names and places which guide us through the reading like compasses. In this poem Cardenal is like a prophet capable of seeing the past and the future to tell us the truth about Nicaragua and Central America. This committed poem, also of high aesthetic caliber, leaves us a moral lesson for the present.


Cardenal, Ernesto


Cardenal, Ernesto (Vol. 31)