Ernesto Cardenal Cardenal, Ernesto (Vol. 31) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ernesto Cardenal 1925–

Nicaraguan poet, translator, and nonfiction writer.

Cardenal writes most of his poetry in a montage style that unites revolutionary political ideology with Roman Catholic theology. Like other modern revolutionary poets, most notably Pablo Neruda, Cardenal focuses his writing on oppression in society and attempts to motivate his readers to bring about social change. Critics often note that Cardenal has been strongly influenced by the poetry of Ezra Pound. Cardenal's juxtaposition of disparate images, his contrast between lyrical and prosaic passages of poetry, and his emphasis on the relationship between socioeconomics and spirituality are devices employed by Pound in his most important work, the Cantos. Cardenal's technical skill and the sociopolitical relevance of his work have led one reviewer to praise him as "probably the most stimulating Latin American poet to have emerged since 1950."

In the 1950s Cardenal became deeply involved in the revolutionary politics of Nicaragua and joined forces with those opposed to the dictatorship of the United States-backed Somoza regime. Converting to Catholicism in 1956, he became a novice at Gethsemeni, a Trappist abbey in Kentucky, where he studied under the well-known religious scholar and poet, Thomas Merton. Cardenal completed his studies in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1965. He later cofounded Solentiname, a religious commune on an island in Lake Nicaragua, where he preached mertonian nonviolence. In 1970, however, Cardenal changed his stance on violence and decreed that militancy would be necessary to achieve the Christian goals of peace and brotherhood desired by the anti-Somozan majority. After the downfall of the Somoza regime in 1979, Cardenal was appointed Minister of Culture for the new government of Nicaragua.

Cardenal's first major work, "La hora 0" (1956; "Zero Hour"), was collected along with seven related poems and published as Zero Hour and Other Documentary Poems (1980), a poetic history of events leading to the Nicaraguan revolution in 1979. The use of factual information, crosscutting, and contrast in these poems contribute to a style not unlike that used by documentary filmmakers. Cardenal creates a multilevel narrative in his long poem "El estrecho dudoso" (1966) by using similar techniques. On the surface, "El estrecho dudoso" relates a history of destruction in Central America; through comparisons and juxtaposed images, however, the poem becomes a commentary on contemporary political and cultural exploitation. Cardenal's concern with the decline of spiritual values is also evident in his collection Homenaje a los indios americanos (1969; Homage to the American Indians), in which the psychic wholeness of extinct Indian civilizations is contrasted with modern imperialism, and in Oracion por Marilyn Monroe, y otros poemas (1965; Marilyn Monroe and Other Poems), in which commercialization is seen to have replaced emotional spontaneity.

Some critics have denounced Cardenal's poetry as propagandistic and didactic. Many find his Marxist treatises incompatible with his Catholic beliefs. However, most agree that Cardenal avoids mere agitprop through his strong command of poetic technique and his controlled, fact-oriented approach to potentially melodramatic situations.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52 and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 2.)

Jack Riemer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Psalter for those who live in the last third of the twentieth century has to be more than a collection of pretty hymns. It has to be a collection of cries that help to express our anguish, our embarrassment at being human, and our sense of awe at both the glory and the grimness of human life.

Ernesto Cardenal is a Nicaraguan poet who understands what the Psalms are and what they mean to this generation…. [His] rendition of the Psalms [Psalms of Struggle] is not the work of a contemplative but of a man who is deeply involved in the affairs of this world. It is the work of one who knows the meaning of words like police brutality, concentration camps, mafia and terror, and who knows these words not only from books but from his own personal experience.

The reader's first reaction to these renditions of the Psalms is surprise. We are not used to finding words like "dictators" or "gangsters" or "crooked politicians" used as translations instead of "wicked" or "scoffers" or "ungodly men." But if you live with these phrases long enough you begin to realize that they come very close in tone and spirit to the original. You begin to remember that the Psalmists were shepherds and farmers, not ministers, and that they spoke simple Hebrew, not King James or Victorian English as we sometimes tend to think.

There are two kinds of Psalms in this collection that will live long in the consciousness of the...

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Robert D. Welch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

An excellent free verse translation presents … [Cardenal's] poems of lost American Indian civilizations [Homage to the American Indians]. The poetry is clear, lean, and proselike, making effective use of alliteration, repetition, and allusion. Its sharp imagery focuses upon vanished Indian worlds …, contemporary destructive forces …, and our need for contact with the wellsprings of Indian vitality…. Cardenal's eloquent, evocative poetry is fit homage to the rich heritage left us by the American Indians which, he hopes, may lead to the spiritual rebirth of mankind.

Robert D. Welch, in a review of "Homage to the American Indians," in Library Journal, Vol. 99, No. 1, January 1, 1974, p. 59.

Anne Freemantle

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Cardenal] is both naive and subtle in his notes on Cuba [In Cuba]. It is as if St. Francis of Assisi were jotting things down, and St. Francis Borgia were editing the jottings. He praises the Cubans … and is impressed because everyone gets the same rations, just as in wartime England, or in China until the food situation eased in the 1960's. He repeats three or four times that over 100,000 people voluntarily gave blood for disaster victims in Peru (in the U.S. press, only Castro's gift of a pint was mentioned—by Time). But he also reports, on good authority, that there are 7,000 political prisoners in the Havana jail. (pp. 14, 16)

He puts down what people say exactly….

He is wonderfully clear-sighted: "While we are getting less religious, you are getting more so," he tells Paz Espejo, and she replies, "The greatest danger of the revolution is theocracy."…

Cardenal concludes that "now, and in Latin America, to practice religion is to make revolution." He seems convinced that Fidel Castro, with his Greek profile, is completely sincere. The whole book is permeated with the posthumous glow of Che Guevara, who for so many millions is the Christ figure of our time. Poet, priest, perhaps polemicist, Fr. Ernesto Cardenal has certainly written by far the most interesting account yet to appear of contemporary Cuba. (p. 16)

Anne Freemantle, "Poetry, Revolution, and Theology," in America, Vol. 132, No. 1, January 11, 1975, pp. 14, 16.

Gordon Brotherston

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Cardenal's] first major work, Hora 0 (Zero Hour), and Epigrams, emerge from the 'tropical nights of Central America', an atmosphere thick with dictators, misery and injustice. His anger and his reasons for it are comparable with Neruda's in Canto general. But his satire has, precisely, an epigrammatic quality and relies less on exposed feelings than on an exposing intelligence, as in his lines on the dictator of Nicaragua: 'Somoza unveils the statue of Somoza in the Somoza Stadium'. Similarly, instead of launching into invective, he documents his subject with the appearance of painstaking accuracy. The detail of occurrence in his hands acquires an absurd yet undeniable certainty…. (p. 174)

Cardenal learned to focus on his subject … largely through his deep knowledge of poetry in English, especially Pound's. The detailed and exterior language of the Cantos is unmistakable in Hora 0, down to such precise techniques as quoting from magazines like Time. (In fact his critics have complained that his verse reads like a translation from English.) (p. 175)

Cardenal's great strength is to have allowed 'facts' of the exterior world to speak for themselves while preserving a firm centre from which to arrange them. In these more recent works the first person is in fact not often formally expressed, is sooner implicit, and powerfully so, in the whole configuration of the poem…. [In his...

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F. Whitney Jones

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Homage to the American Indian] celebrates the spiritual strengths of the American Indian and confesses the spiritual weaknesses of modern America. In a torrent of images and phrases ripped out of context, Cardenal juxtaposes fragments of ancient American life with fragments of modern American life. His technique is that of the documentary film maker who juxtaposes two opposing points of view in such a way that the viewer is encouraged to choose one, in Cardenal's case the ancient American. (pp. 85-6)

Cardenal's view of modern America is limited and, more seriously, dated. It is set in the late sixties, and it is a view created by the media. It is so much a product of the media that most of us can no longer respond to it, and Cardenal's allusions to such recent events tend to fall flat.

His view of ancient America is more generous, perhaps too generous. Whereas he limits his view of recent history to the war in Vietnam, technology, and film fantasies …, he tends to cover all aspects of life in ancient America. What is most bothersome is his all-encompassing view of the American Indian,… which tends to leave a very blurred impression of a rich and extraordinarily diverse culture.

What Cardenal is really paying homage to is not the several million people who lived on the North American continent before the white European arrived, but to a way of life which celebrates peace above war and spiritual strength above personal wealth. One has a strong sense in reading Cardenal that he is using the American Indian as a vehicle to celebrate those values which are most important to him as a well-educated Trappist monk who has dedicated himself to a life of spiritual retreat.

As didactic poetry, Cardenal's verse is really quite effective. There is an energy in his fragmented syntax which gives force to the poet's sense of moral outrage…. Homage to the American Indian is strong, energetic, and complex verse by a poet of significant talent. (p. 86)

F. Whitney Jones, in a review of "Homage to the American Indian," in The Southern Humanities Review, Vol. X, No. 1, Winter, 1976, pp. 85-6.

Gregory Rabassa

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Cuba has been called reportage for want of exact definition. It is more than that. It is the compendium of Cardenal's far-ranging impressions during visits to the island in 1970 and 1971. If we must define things by genre, the closest we can come to is the form practiced in Brazil called the crônica (chronicle), which is freer than the essay and broader than journalism, the form used, indeed, by so many of the first Europeans who came to the New World and wrote down their impressions. The Cuban José Lezama Lima has used a variant of this same form as fiction in his novel Paradiso, thus remaining true to his title, which is drawn from Columbus' chronicles and only indirectly from Dante. The book is also a kind of auxiliary anthology as Cardenal includes several poems by Cuban writers, most of which are Englished here for the first time.

Just as the old chronicles followed the bent of the events and people described, so does this book take on the shape of Ernesto Cardenal's own interests and inquiries and we find that there is indeed a shape to it and quite natural a one at that, unencumbered by the demands of literary formulas or journalistic columns. One is first reminded of that other remarkable compendium, The Three Marias: New Portuguese Letters, but here the single presence makes it all more vivid and the only fiction is the one inherent in fragile words themselves as we go our Odyssean way of lying to Athena. (pp. 127-28)

Gregory Rabassa, "The Gospel of Marx According to Omolú and According to Jesus," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 4, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1976, pp. 122-29.∗

Isabel Fraire

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Upon reading [Ernesto Cardenal's poetry] and being hit on the head by the striking and continuous similarities to Pound's poetry in so much of Cardenal's work, you do not get the impression that he is a young poet feeling his way, learning through imitation; these are not the first, promising efforts of a budding genius. You do not get the impression that he is going on to something else, to "find his own voice," etc. No. This is it. This is his own voice, and these poems are no fumbling, no lucky, naïve, "early work." They are memorable poems; rounded, masterful, mature work. This is it, all right. This is Ernesto Cardenal.

There seems to be a problem here.

Ernesto Cardenal...

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James J. Alstrum

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Ernesto Cardenal's] long narrative poem, El estrecho dudoso (1966), has not been adequately studied to date as an artistic whole. Like Pablo Neruda … in Canto General (1950), Cardenal employs the epic form in his poem to effectively criticize the socio-political realities of Nicaragua prior to the overthrow of the Somoza regime while recreating the traditional history of the colonization of Central America by viewing it as a search for social justice as much as an attempt to find an inland channel through which passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean could be achieved. Some critics have seen this account in verse of the first century of Spanish colonization as an indirect attack on the military...

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Robert Pring-Mill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

All Cardenal's poetry "debunks," "corroborates," and "mediates" reality. His esthetic principles are clearly ethical, and most of his poems are more than just "vaguely" religious. (p. ix)

[All] eight texts of Zero Hour and Other Documentary Poems set out to "document" reality (and so redeem it) in a … dialectically visual way: picturing things, peoples, and events in the light of a clear-cut sociopolitical commitment; selecting, shaping, and imposing interpretative patterns on the world, with liberal use of such filmic "editing" techniques as crosscutting, accelerated montage, or flash frames; and pursuing "the redemption of physical reality" by bringing us "back into communication" with its...

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Jascha Kessler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Preface to a volume of poems by Ernesto Cardenal, entitled Zero Hour and Other Documentary Poems, says bluntly about the poet that he "is a Catholic Priest and a Marxist poet, and he sees no conflict between these two loyalties." And the poems in this volume, long works that read in English like amalgams of Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, Pablo Neruda and Allen Ginsberg, amply demonstrate the fusion in his mind of these two institutions, the Church of Rome and the Leninist dogmas of atheistic dialectical materialism, two mirror opposites in philosophy as well as in the real world. Or, if not opposites, then contraries, as William Blake would have put it. Of course, appearances may be misleading: the Catholic...

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Phoebe Pettingell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The poems of Ernesto Cardenal collected in Zero Hour … will interest many readers in the United States less as poetry than as political commentary. These verses … describe events leading up to the revolution in Nicaragua and the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in 1979…. [Despite Cardenal's] adherence to the "theology of liberation," he accepts the late Mao Zedong's view that "revolutionary art without artistic value has no revolutionary value." Indeed, how Cardenal attempts to reconcile the demands of poetic creation with revolutionary activity constitutes much of the dramatic tension of Zero Hour….

In the title poem, Cardenal fashions a terse commentary on the brutalities...

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Harold Jaffe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Except for [Cardenal's] earliest verses which were modeled on Ruben Dario and Neruda, Whitman and Pound are his principal forbears. As with Whitman, there is less compression than extension in Cardenal's most successful poems. The effects usually depend on increment to uncover depth; and the poem is meant to be public, an open window bearing the naked heart. From Pound (whom he translated, and whose influence he has acknowledged), Cardenal derived his method of incorporating disparate matter into a patchwork fabric while avoiding slack. And from Pound he learned to vitalize the rhetorical flourish with lean precise imagery.

Cardenal's moral nature (to revive the useful nineteenth century phrase) more...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cardenal patterned his later work after the texts of Ezra Pound, flawed champion of the "documentary" poem. Behind Pound stood Dante, whose cries against encroaching merchant capitalism expressed the spirit of old radical Christianity. Pound hated the modern order but tripped on his fondness for rigid societies (ancient China, fascist Italy) where, he imagined, poets earned special favor. Cardenal has freed himself from this last artistic vanity…. Without illusions about some Golden Age …, he has recalled the virtues of agrarian communism, brought them forward as proof of Latin America's past and its potential. The poet of liberation theology returns the narrative to its ancient purpose—history, myth, and ritual...

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