Nicolás Guillén Critical Essays


(Poetry Criticism)

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.