Nicolás Guillén Essay - Critical Essays

Guillén, Nicolás


Nicolás Guillén 1902–1989

(Full name Nicolás Cristobal Guillén y Batista) Cuban poet, journalist, and editor.

Guillén is known as one of Cuba's finest poets and as an important figure in contemporary West Indian literature. Named National Poet of Cuba by Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in 1961, Guillén, who was committed to Marxist ideology and the Cuban Revolution, chronicled the turbulent social and political history of his native land. He is also credited as one of the first poets to affirm and celebrate the black Cuban experience and is noted for introducing the son, an African-Cuban dance rhythm, to literary audiences. Guillén's poetry has been translated into more than thirty languages, and he has been nominated numerous times for the Nobel Prize for literature.

Biographical Information

Guillén, a mulatto from the Cuban provincial middle class, was born in Camagüey to Nicolás Guillén y Urra and Argelia Batista y Arrieta, both of whom were descendants of Africans and Spaniards. Guillén's father, a journalist and Liberal senator, was assassinated in a political skirmish in 1917. According to Vera M. Kutzinski, after his father's death, "the young Guillén became increasingly interested in poetry and journalism," and his poems were first published in the journal Camagüey Gráfico in 1919. Guillén graduated from high school in 1920 and then attended the University of Havana, where he planned to study law. Guillén left school after a year, however, and founded the literary magazine Lis with his brother Francisco while also writing for various Cuban newspapers and magazines. In 1937, Guillén joined the Communist Party, campaigning for various political offices throughout the 1940s. He became president of the Cuban National Union of Writers and Artists in 1961, a position he held for twentyfive years. His honors include the Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet Union in 1954 and the Cuban Order of José Marti in 1981. Guillén died after a long illness in 1989. He was given a state fianeral with military honors.

Major Works of Poetry

The majority of Guillén's poems are informed by his African and Spanish heritage, often combining the colloquialisms and rhythms of Havana's black districts with the formal structure and language of traditional Spanish verse to address the injustices of imperialism, capitalism, and

racism. In his first acclaimed volume of poetry, Motives de son (1930), Guillén utilized the rhythmic patterns of the son to evoke the energetic flavor of black life in and around Havana. Guillén expanded his focus in his next volume, Sóngoro cosongo (1931), to include poems depicting the lives of all Cubans, with emphasis on the importance of mulatto culture in Cuban history. Following the demise of the corrupt government headed by Gerardo Machado in 1933 and the increasing industrial and political presence of the United States in Cuba, Guillén began to write poetry with overtly political implications. In West Indies, Ltd. (1934), a collection of somber poems imbued with anxiety and frustration, he decried the social and economic conditions of the Caribbean poor. Guillén attacked imperialism through his recurring description of the region as a vast, profitable factory exploited by foreign nations. The poet's commitment to social change grew when he traveled to Spain in 1937 to cover the Spanish Civil War for Mediodía magazine and subsequently participated in the antifascist Second International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture. That year he joined the Cuban Communist Party and produced an extended narrative poem chronicling the Spanish Civil War, España: Poema en cuatro angustias y una esperanza (1937). In 1937, Guillén also published Cantos para soldados y sortes para turistas, a volume of poetry denouncing the escalating military presence in Cuban society. He employed biting satire in poems that contrast the darkness and squalor of Cuba's ghettos with the garish atmosphere of downtown tourist establishments. Guillén spent much of the 1940s and 1950s in exile in Europe and South America during the height of the Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar regime in Cuba. His works of this period reflect his opposition to Batista's repressive politics and denounce racial segregation in the United States. The poems in La paloma de vuelo popular (1958), favor revolution, praising the activities of such political figures as Castro and Che Guevara. Guillén returned to Cuba following the Cuban Revolution and Batista's expulsion in 1959, and in 1964 he published Tengo [Tengo]. In this volume, Guillén celebrated the triumph of the revolution and the abolition of racial and economic discrimination. In El gran zoo (1967; (¡Patria ο Muerte! The Great Zoo and Other Poems), Guillén drew from the bestiary tradition of such writers as Aesop, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Pablo Neruda to present people, places, and institutions as animals in order to metaphorically address social issues. La rueda dentada (1972), in which Guillén created new forms and adapted old ones to the changing social and political situation in Cuba, emphasizes social responsibility and addresses subjects not treated in the years before the revolution. El diario que a diario (1972) combines poetry and journalism to ironically and satirically examine what Guillén considered the injustice, immorality, and absurdity of Cuban colonial society before the Cuban Revolution.

Critical Reception

Many commentators have distinguished between Guillén's early poesía negroide, or Afro-Cuban influenced poems, and the political poems he produced after converting to communism. However, because of Guillén's broad range of subject matter and his use of various poetic forms throughout his career, critics have found his work difficult to classify. As Richard Jackson noted, "Some critics have focused on Guillén as an exponent of Afro-Cuban poetry while others have viewed him as a poet having little to do with Africa. Some perceive a black aesthetic in his poetry; others say he is the most Spanish of Cuban poets. Some see him as a poet who stopped writing black poetry; others declare that he never wrote black poetry at all." Although early critics tended to label Guillén a black or political poet and related his poetry almost exclusively to political life in Cuba, contemporary scholars have begun to focus on Guillén's artistry and aesthetic concerns, commenting on a wide range of folkloric, satirical, elegiac, and lyrical elements in his poetry. Despite controversy concerning Guillén's treatment of racial themes and his status as a political poet, many scholars have found coherence in his oeuvre, consistently praising his focus on oppression and injustice, his mastery of diverse poetic forms, his celebration of black Cuban culture and identity, and his belief that poetry has the power to influence society and lead to constructive change.

Principal Works


Motivos de son 1930

Sóngoro cosongo: Poemas mulatos 1931

West Indies, Ltd. 1934

Cantos para soldados y sones para turistas 1937

Eligias 1937

España: Poema en cuatro angustias y una esperanza 1937

Cuba Libre: Poems by Nicolás Guillén 1948

Elegía a Jacques Roumain en el cielo de Haiti 1948

Versos negros 1950

Elegía a Jesus Menéndez 1951

Elegía cubana 1952

La paloma de vuelo popular: Elegías 1958

Buenos días, Fidel 1959

¿Puedos? 1960

Antología Mayor 1964

Poemas de amor 1964

Tengo [Tengo] 1964

Che Comandante 1967

El gran zoo [¡Patria ο Muerte! The Great Zoo and Other Poems by Nicolás Guillén] 1967

Cuatro canciones para el Che 1969

El diario que a diario 1972

La rueda dentada 1972

Man-Making Words: Selected Poems of Nicolás Guillén 1972

Obra Poética, 1920-1972 1974

El corazon con que vivo 1975

Poemas manuables 1975

Summa poética 1976

Por el mar de las Antillas anda un barco de papel 1977

Música de cámara 1979

Páginas veultas: Memorias 1982

Sol de domingo 1982

Other Major Works

Prosa de prisa: crónicas (prose) 1962

Prosa de prisa: 1929-1972 (prose) 1975-76

El libro de las décimas (prose) 1980


Nicolás Guillén with Ciro Bianchi Ross (interview date 1972)

SOURCE: "Nicolás Guillén's 70th Birthday Conversation with Ciro Bianchi Ross," in The Poetry of Nicolás Guillén, New Beacon Books, 1976, pp. 58-80.

[In the following excerpt from a 1972 interview, originally published in Cuba Internacional, Guillén discusses his Cuban childhood, his thoughts on negritude, Cuban politics, and major themes in his work.]

[Ciro Bianchi Ross]:
How do you judge the literary formation that you received in your childhood? Which things in that childhood are you interested in highlighting now?
[Nicolás Guillén]:
No, I couldn't...

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Helene J. Farber de Aguilar (review date 1973)

SOURCE: "Poetry from Latin America: 'The Most Important Harvest of the Times,'" in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring/Summer, 1973, pp. 175-86.

[In the following excerpt, Farber de Aguilar favorably reviews Guillén: Man-making Words, praising the artistry and intelligence of Guillén's political poems.]

It is unfortunate that [in Guillén: Man-making Words, Guillén's translators, Robert Márquez and David Arthur McMurray], have chosen to label him so quickly as "implacably anti-bourgeois." He is implacably anti-bourgeois; but the epithet is misleading, since about ninety percent of his colleagues, most of them lesser artists,...

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Richard L. Jackson (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "The Turning Point: The Blackening of Nicolás Guillén and the Impact of his Motivos de son," in Black Writers in Latin America, University of New Mexico Press, 1979, pp. 80-92.

[In the following essay, Jackson discusses Guillén's rejection of the white literary aesthetic and his development of a black sensibility in his works of the late 1920s and early 1930s, focusing on the volumes Motivos de son, Sóngoro cosongo, and West Indies, Ltd. Jackson maintains that Guillén "represents the major turning point for literary blackness in Latin America. "]

Nicolás Guillén, … had his "white" stage, but … has lived long enough to pass...

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Stephanie Davis-Lett (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Literary Games in the Works of Nicolás Guillén," in Perspectives on Contemporary Literature, Vol. 6, 1980, pp. 135-42.

[In the essay below, Davis-Lett examines Guillén 's use of literary games, specifically, mockery of traditional poetry in his works.]

Nicolás Guillén is most recognized for his Afro-Cuban poetry written during the 1930's and for his social poetry written since then. But while he has achieved fame as a black social poet, he unfortunately has not been recognized as one of the greatest humorists in Latin American literature. Since much of his humor results from a sense of play or poetic games, no true appreciation of Guillén the humorist...

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Dellita L. Martin (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "West African and Hispanic Elements in Nicolás Guillén's 'La canción del bongó'," in SAB: South Atlantic Bulletin, Vol. XLV, No. 1, January, 1980, pp. 47-53.

[In the following essay, Martin examines elements of West African and Hispanic folk music forms in the poem "La canción del bongó. "]

"La canción del bongó," originally published in Guillén's Sóngoro Cosongo (1931), is a poem that succinctly illustrates the fusion of the West African and Hispanic oral traditions. This is so because it is a romance which functions like a son. Moreover, the image of the son, which infuses this poema mulato, is projected as a...

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Lorna V. Williams (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "The Revolutionary Alternative," in Self and Society in the Poetry of Nicolás Guillén, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982, pp. 115-38.

[In the following essay, Williams discusses Guillén's treatment of the Cuban Revolution in his poetry. Williams notes that although Guillén's poems reveal his commitment to the socialist cause, they also raise doubts about the revolution's extremism and Cuba's political isolation.]

That the Cuban Revolution did not seek merely to transform the material conditions of man is well known. Ernesto (Che) Guevara's pronouncements on the need to create a "new man," as well as the debate regarding moral and material incentives...

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Keith Ellis (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "The Poetry," in Cuba's Nicolás Guillén: Poetry and Ideology, University of Toronto Press, 1983, pp. 147-61.

[In the following excerpt, Ellis examines poems in Tengo, Guillén's first book after the Cuban Revolution.]

La paloma de vuelo popular was published on 28 December 1958. The flight of [Cuban President Zaldivar Y] Batista from Cuba in the early hours of 1 January 1959 marked the triumph of Fidel Castro's rebel army. Guillén returned to Cuba on 23 January 1959 and was given a welcome the size and warmth of which suggested that he was popularly regarded as one of the heroes of the revolutionary struggle. He immediately undertook a variety...

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Jean A. Purchas-Tulloch (essay date 1985-86)

SOURCE: "The Yoruban-Cuban Aesthetic, Nicolas Guillen's Poetic Expressions: A Paradigm," in Current Bibliography on African Affairs, Vol. 18, No. 4, 1985-86, pp. 301-7.

[In the essay below, Purchas-Tulloch examines African folkloric, musical, and religious elements in Guillén's poetry.]

The transplantation of the African slave to the Americas, and more specifically, Cuba, was to result in the offshoot of a folklore tradition prolific in African elements, forming an amalgam with the Cuban. Nicolás Guillén's Afro-Cuban grounding stems from this transplantation, and his work has been singled out here as a tribute to his fifty plus years of dedication to this field. His...

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Gustavo Pérez-Firmat (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Nicolás Guillén between the son and the Sonnet," in Callaloo, Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 318-28.

[In the essay below, Pérez-Firmat discusses Guillén's use of the son and sonnet forms, stating that Guillén imposed "poetic form on native rhythms" with the son and infused "traditional form with indigenous vitality" with the sonnet]

Nicolás Guillén, best-known as a composer of sones, has also favored the sonnet. Although the fame of the author of Sóngoro cosongo (1931) rests primarily on his innovative nativist verse, from his earliest poems Guillén has shown a special predilection for traditional poetic forms, and particularly...

(The entire section is 5185 words.)

Ian Isidore Smart (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "The Central Creative Conflict, Mulatez" in Nicolás Guillén: Popular Poet of the Caribbean, University of Missouri Press, 1990, pp. 159-73.

[In the following excerpt, Smart examines the synthesis of European and African cultural influences, or mulatez, in Guillén's poetry.]

Mulatez is a cultural concept of direct artistic relevance, which involves an awakening to the full importance of the African cultural heritage. This new awareness engenders conflict in every cultural sphere, be it social, political, economic, or psychological—the inevitable conflict between Eurocentered and Afrocentered realities. In Guillén's view, the conflict...

(The entire section is 3017 words.)

Edward J. Mullen (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Some Early Readings of Motivos de son," in Romance Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 2, May, 1992, pp. 221-30.

[In the essay below, Mullen examines various critical interpretations of Motivos de son in order to show "the multiplicity of ways in which the same poem becomes a radically different object in the context of different critical approaches."]

When Nicolas Guillén died on July 16, 1989, he left behind an enormous obra, much of which has gone unstudied. His work, which had celebrated Cuba's multiracial and ethnic mix, had garnered for him in recent years wide recognition in the Latin American community. There is little doubt, however, that of...

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Further Reading


Kubayanda, Josaphat B. The Poet's Africa: Africanness in the Poetry of Nicolás Guillén and Aimé Césaire. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990, pp. 153-70.

Primary and secondary bibliography of Guillén's works.

Kutzinski, Vera M. Against the American Grain: Myth and History in William Carlos Williams, Jay Wright, and Nicolás Guillén. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, pp. 282-86.

Lists works by Guillén published in Spanish, English translations, and critical studies.



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