Ernesto Cardenal was instrumental in the rebirth of Nicaragua’s identity as “a nation of poets,” as it became known after Rubén Darío immortalized the poet-nation at the beginning of the twentieth century. Cardenal’s life is as fascinating as his poetry. Controversy over the literary and political value of his work resulted from his attempts to reconcile the many roles he had played, from monk to priest to governmental official to promoter of literacy and the arts. His political ideology seemed inconsistent as he switched public roles. From a bourgeois family background, he espoused Marxism and militancy, then Christianity and nonviolent resistance. This dichotomy is evident in his work, but these ideological conflicts enhance rather than detract from his poetic corpus.
Consistent in his belief that art is linked to politics, his poetry actively supported the revolution that in 1979 overthrew the regime begun by dictator Anastasio Somoza García. After a functional social democracy was established in Cardenal’s homeland, he served as an unofficial yet visible cultural ambassador. He was instrumental in the organization of community-based literacy and poetry workshops that have earned national as well as international success.
The poet has also been praised as an artist. His sculpture won recognition in the United States as well as in Central America and Mexico. A stone sculpture of Christ dominates the courtyard of the Trappist monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky, where he served as a novitiate from 1957 to 1959.
Cardenal has been honored with several awards for his literary achievements as well as for his public service. In 1972, he received the Christopher Book Award for The Psalms of Struggle and Liberation. In 1980, he received the Premio de La Paz grant, sponsored by Libreros de la República Federal de Alemania. He has received state-sponsored honors and honorary doctorates from several European nations. Cardenal was nominated for the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature and received the Pablo Neruda Ibero-American Poetry Prize in 2009.