About Ernesto Cardenal
 
 
[Go to Sidelights for critique]

Personal Information
Family: Born January 20, 1925, in Granada, Nicaragua; son of Rodolfo and Esmerelda (Martinez) Cardenal.
Education: Attended University of Mexico, 1944–47, and Columbia University, 1947–49.
Politics: Christian-Marxist.
Death: March 1, 2020, in Managua, Nicaragua; see obit in New York Times.

Career
Ordained Roman Catholic priest, 1965. Poet, and author; formerly Minister of Culture in Nicaragua (1979–88); co-founder and currently honorary president, Casa de los Tres Mundos, a literary and cultural organization based in Granada, Nicaragua.

Awards
Christopher Book Award, 1972, for The Psalms of Struggle and Liberation; Premio de la Paz grant, Libreros de la Republica Federal de Alemania, 1980; Orden Rubén Darío, 2005.

Writings by Cardenal

l Ansias lengua de la poesía nueva nicaragüense (poems), [Nicaragua], 1948.

l Gethsemani, Ky. (poems), Ecuador 0 Degrees 0' 0", 1960, 2nd edition, with foreword by Thomas Merton, Ediciones La Tertulia (Medellin, Colombia), 1965.

l Hora 0 (poems), Revista Mexicano de Literatura, 1960.

l Epigramas: Poemas, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, 1961.

l (Translator with Jose Coronel Urtecho) Antología de la poesía Norteamericana, Aguilar (Madrid), 1963, Alianza (Madrid), 1979.

l (Translator and editor at large with Jorge Montoya Toro) Literatura indigena americana: Antología, Editorial Universidad de Antioquia (Medellin), 1964.

l Oración por Marilyn Monroe, y otros poemas, Ediciones La Tertulia, 1965, reprinted, Editorial Nueva Nicaragua-Ediciones Monimbo, 1985, translation by Robert Pring-Mill published as Marilyn Monroe and Other Poems, Search Press, 1975.

l El estrecho dudoso (poems), Ediciones Cultura Hispanica (Madrid), 1966, Editorial Nueva Nicaragua-Ediciones Monimbo, 1985, translation by Tamara R. Williams published as The Doubtful Strait, Indiana University Press (Bloomington), 1995.

l Antología de Ernesto Cardenal (poems), Editora Santiago (Santiago, Chile), 1967.

l Poemas de Ernesto Cardenal, Casa de las Americas (Havana), 1967.

l Salmos (poems), Institución Gran Duque de Alba (Avila, Spain), 1967, Ediciones El Pez y la Serpiente (Managua, Nicaragua), 1975, translation by Emile G. McAnany published as The Psalms of Struggle and Liberation, Herder & Herder, 1971, translation from the sixth edition of 1974 by Thomas Blackburn and others published as Psalms, Crossroad Publishing, 1981.

l Mayapan (poem), Editorial Alemana (Managua, Nicaragua), 1968.

l Homenaje a los indios americanos (poems), Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Nicaragua, 1969, Laia (Madrid), 1983, translation by Carlos Altschul and Monique Altschul published as Homage to the American Indians, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

l Vida en el amor (meditations; with foreword by Thomas Merton), Lohle (Buenos Aires), 1970, translation by Kurt Reinhardt published as To Live Is to Love, Herder & Herder, 1972, published in England as Love, Search Press, 1974, translation by Dinah Livingstone published as Love, Crossroad Publishing, 1981, translation by Mev Puleo published as Abide in Love, Orbis Books (Maryknoll, NY), 1995.

l La hora cero y otros poemas, Ediciones Saturno, 1971, translation by Paul W. Borgeson, Jonathan Cohen, Robert Pring-Mill and Donald D. Walsh, published as Zero Hour and Other Documentary Poems, edited by Donald D. Walsh, New Directions, 1980.

l Antología: Ernesto Cardenal, edited by Pablo Antonio Cuadra, Lohle, 1971, 2nd edition, Universidad Centroamericana, 1975.

l Poemas, Editorial Leibres de Sinera, 1971.

l Poemas reunidos, 1949–1969, Dirección de Cultura, Universidad de Carabobo, 1972.

l (And translator) Epigramas (with translations from Catullus and Martial), Lohle, 1972.

l En Cuba, Lohle, 1972, translation published as In Cuba, New Directions, 1974.

l Canto nacional, Siglo Veintiuno (Mexico), 1973.

l Oráculo sobre Managua, Lohle, 1973.

l (Compiler and author of introduction) Poesía nicaragüense, Casa de las Americas, 1973, 4th edition, Editorial Nueva Nicaragua, 1981.

l Cardenal en Valencia, Ediciones de la Dirección de Cultura, Universidad de Carabobo (Venezuela), 1974.

l El Evangelio en Solentiname (also see below), Ediciones Sigueme, 1975, Editorial Nueva Nicaragua-Ediciones Monimbo, 1983, translation by Donald D. Walsh published as The Gospel in Solentiname, Orbis Books, 1976, published in England as Love in Practice: The Gospel in Solentiname, Search Press, 1977, reprinted in four volumes, Orbis Books, 1982.

l Poesía escogida, Barral Editores, 1975.

l La santidad de la revolución (title means "The Sanctity of the Revolution"), Ediciones Sigueme, 1976.

l Poesía cubana de la revolución, Extemporaneos, 1976.

l Apocalypse, and Other Poems, translation by Thomas Merton, Kenneth Rexroth, Mireya Jaimes-Freyre, and others, New Directions, 1977.

l Antología, Laia (Barcelona, Spain), 1978.

l Epigramas, Tusquets (Barcelona), 1978.

l Catulo-Marcial en versión de Ernesto Cardenal, Laia, 1978.

l Canto a un país que nace, Universidad Autonoma de Puebla, 1978.

l In der Nacht Leuchten die Woerter: Gedichte, Aufbau-Verlag, 1979.

l Antología de poesía primitiva, Alianza, 1979.

l Nueva antología poetica, Siglo Veintiuno, 1979.

l La paz mundial y la Revolución de Nicaragua, Ministerio de Cultura, 1981.

l Tocar el cielo, Loguez, 1981.

l (With Richard Cross) Nicaragua: La Guerra de liberación/der Befreiungskrieg, Ministerio de Cultura de Nicaragua, c. 1982.

l Los campesinos de Solentiname pintan el evangelio, Monimbo, c. 1982.

l (Translator from the German) Ursula Schulz, Tu paz es mi paz, Editorial Nueva Nicaragua-Ediciones Monimbo, 1982.

l (Contributor) Entrustet Euch!: Fur Frieden und volkerverstandigung; Katholiken gegen Faschismus und Krieg (essays on nuclear disarmament), Rdrberg, 1982.

l La democratización de la cultura, Ministerio de Cultura, 1982.

l Nostalgia del futuro: Pintura y buena noticia en Solentiname, Editorial Nueva Nicaragua, 1982.

l Evangelio, pueblo, y arte (selections from El Evangelio en Solentiname), Loguez, 1983.

l Waslala: Poems, translated by Fidel Lopez-Criado and R. A. Kerr, Chase Avenue Press, 1983.

l Antología: Ernesto Cardenal, Editorial Nueva Nicaragua-Ediciones Monimbo, 1983.

l Poesía de la nueva Nicaragua, Siglo Veintiuno, 1983.

l The Gospel in Art by the Peasants of Solentiname (translated from Bauern von Solentiname malen des Evangelium, selections from Evangelio en Solentiname), edited by Philip and Sally Sharper, Orbis Books, 1984.

l Vuelos de Victoria, Visor (Madrid), 1984, Editorial Universitaria, (Leon, Nicaragua), 1987, translation by Marc Zimmerman published as Flights of Victory: Songs in Celebration of the Nicaraguan Revolution, Orbis Books, 1985.

l (Contributor) Teofilo Cabestrero, Ministros de Dios, ministros del pueblo: Testimonio de tres sacerdotes en el Gobierno Revolucionario de Nicaragua, Ernesto Cardenal, Fernando Cardenal, Miguel d'Escoto, Ministerio de Cultura, 1985.

l Quetzalcoatal, Editorial Nueva Nicaragua-Ediciones Monimbo, 1985.

l Nuevo cielo y tierra nueva, Editorial Nueva Nicaragua-Ediciones Monimbo, 1985.

l With Walker in Nicaragua and Other Early Poems, 1949–1954, translated by Jonathan Cohen, Wesleyan University Press, 1985.

l (Compiler and author of introduction) Antología: Azarias H. Pallais, Nueva Nicaragua, 1986.

l From Nicaragua, with Love: Poems 1979–1986, translated by Jonathan Cohen, City Lights Press, 1986.

l Cántico cósmico, Nueva Nicaragua, 1989, translation by John Lyons published as Cosmic Canticle, Curbstone Press,1993.

l Golden UFOs: The Indian Poems/Los Ovnis de oro: poemas indios, translated by Carlos and Monique Altschul, Indiana University Press, 1992.

l Telescopio en la noche oscura, Editorial Trotta, 1993.

l El río San Juan; estrecho dudoso en el centro de América, Latino Editores, 1993.

l Antología nueva, Editorial Trotta (Madrid), 1996.

l (Compiler) Flor y canto: Antología de poesía nicaragüense (title means Flower and Song: Anthology of Nicaraguan Poetry, ), Ediciones Centroamericanas Anama (Managua), 1998.

l Vida perdida (title means Lost Life), Seix Barral (Barcelona, Spain), 1999.

l Los años de Granada: Continuación de la vida perdida (title means The Granada Years: Continuation of the Lost Life), Ediciones Centroamericanas Anama (Managua), 2001.

l Antología, HISPAMER (Managua), 2002.

l Las ínsulas extrañas: memorias (title means Strange Islands: Memoirs), Editorial Trotta (Madrid), 2002.

l Memorias (title means Memoirs), Anamá (Managua), 2003.

l (Compiler) Antología de poesía primitiva (title means Anthology of Primitive Poetry), Alianza Editorial (Madrid), 2004.

l La revolución perdida: memorias 3 (title means Lost Revolution: Memoirs 3), Editorial Trotta (Madrid), 2004.

l Cincuenta años de esculturas, Anamó Ediciones Centroamericanas (Managua, Nicaragua), 2002.

l Las insulas extrañas, Fondo de Cultura Económica (Mexico, D.F.), 2003.

l Seis cantigas del cántico cósmico, Casa el Vedado (Havana, Cuba), 2003.

l Thomas Merton — Ernesto Cardenal. Correspondencia (1959–1968), Trotta (Madrid, Spain), 2004.

l Versos del pluriverso, Trotta (Madrid, Spain), 2005.

l Pluriverse: New and Selected Poems, edited by Jonathan Cohen, and translated by Mireya Jaimes-Freyre, John Lyons, Thomas Merton, Robert Pring-Mill, Kenneth Rexroth, Donald D. Walsh, and the editor; New Directions, 2009.

Sidelights

Ernesto Cardenal is a major poet of the Spanish language well-known in the United States as a spokesman for justice and self-determination in Latin America. Cardenal, who recognizes that poetry and art are closely tied to politics, used his poetry to protest the encroachments of outsiders in Nicaragua and supported the revolution that overthrew Somoza in 1979. Once the cultural minister of his homeland, Cardenal spends much of his time as "a kind of international ambassador," notes Richard Elman in the Nation.

Victor M. Valle, writing in the Los Angeles Times Calendar, cites Cardenal's statement, "There has been a great cultural rebirth in Nicaragua since the triumph of the revolution. A saving of all of our culture, that which represents our national identity, especially our folklore." Literacy and poetry workshops established throughout the "nation of poets," as it has been known since the early twentieth century, are well-attended by people whose concerns had been previously unheard. Most workshops are led by government-paid instructors in cultural centers, while others convene in police stations, army barracks, and workplaces such as sugar mills, Valle reports. In these sessions, Romantic and Modern poetry is considered below standard; Cardenal also denigrates socialist realism, which he says "comes from the Stalinist times that required that art be purely political propaganda." The "greatest virtue" of Cardenal's own poems, says a Times Literary Supplement reviewer, "is the indirectness of Cardenal's social criticism, which keeps stridency consistently at bay." In addition, says the reviewer, Cardenal's poems "are memorable and important both for their innovations in technique and for their attitudes." In this way they are like the works of Ezra Pound, whose aesthetic standards Cardenal promotes.

Review contributor Isabel Fraire demonstrates that there are many similarities between Cardenal's poetry and Pound's. Like Pound, Cardenal borrows the short, epigrammatic form from the masters of Latin poetry Catullus and Martial, whose works he has translated. Cardenal also borrows the canto form invented by Pound to bring "history into poetry" in a manner that preserves the flavor of the original sources — a technique Pablo Neruda employed with success. Cardenal's use of the canto form "is much more cantable" than Pound's Cantos, says Fraire. "We get passages of a sustained, descriptive lyricism … where the intense beauty and harmony of nature or of a certain social order or life style are presented." Pound and Cardenal develop similar themes: "the corrupting effect of moneymaking as the overriding value in a society; the importance of precision and truthfulness in language; the degradation of human values in the world which surrounds us; [and] the search through the past (or, in Cardenal's poetry, in more 'primitive' societies, a kind of contemporary past) for better world-models." Fraire also points out an important difference between the two: "Cardenal is rooted in a wider cultural conscience. Where Pound seems to spring up disconnected from his own contemporary cultural scene and to be working against it, Cardenal is born into a ready-made cultural context and shared political conscience. Cardenal's past is common to all Latin Americans. His present is likewise common to all Latin Americans. He speaks to those who are ready and willing to hear him and are likely to agree on a great many points."

Cardenal's early lyrics express feelings of love, social criticism, political passion, and the quest for a transcendent spiritual life. Following his conversion to Christianity in 1956, Cardenal studied to become a priest in Gethsemani, Kentucky, with Thomas Merton, the scholar, poet, and Trappist monk. While studying with Merton, Cardenal committed himself to the practice of nonviolence. He was not allowed to write secular poetry during this period, but kept notes in a journal that later became the poems in Gethsemani, Ky. and the spiritual diary in prose, Vida en el amor. Cardenal's stay in Kentucky was troubled by illness; he finished his studies in Cuernevaca, Mexico, where he was ordained in 1965. While there, he wrote El estrecho dudoso and other epic poems that discuss Central America's history.

Poems collected in With Walker in Nicaragua and Other Early Poems, 1949–1954 look at the history of Nicaragua which touches upon the poet's ancestry. During the 1800s, the William Walker expedition from the United States tried to make Nicaragua subservient to the Southern Confederacy. According to legend, a defector from that expedition married into Cardenal's family line. Incorporating details from Ephraim George Squier's chronicles of that period, Cardenal's poem "With Walker in Nicaragua" "is tender toward the invaders without being sentimental," Elman observes. "This is political poetry not because it has a particular rhetorical stance but because it evokes the distant as well as the more recent historical roots of the conflict in Central America," Harris Schiff relates in the American Book Review. The poet identifies with a survivor of the ill-fated expedition in order to express the contrast between the violent attitudes of the outsiders and the beauty of the tropical land they hoped to conquer. "The theme of the gringo in a strange land," as Elman puts it, an essentially political topic, is developed frequently in Cardenal's work.

Commenting on the work by Cohen, the translator and editor of With Walker in Nicaragua and Other Early Poems, 1949–1954, Robert Hass in the Washington Post Book World says, "There could hardly be a better introduction to Cardenal than Jonathan Cohen's beautifully edited and really brilliant translations of his early poems." He adds: "[The] cross-fertilization [with Pound's canto technique] makes Cohen's translations eerily beautiful. Passed back into English, it is as if we have suddenly a limpid Pound, clear and sensual, without all that nervous and restless static."

Later poems become increasingly explicit regarding Cardenal's political sympathies. "Zero Hour," for example, is his "single greatest historical poem about gringoism, a patriotic epic of sorts," says Elman. The poem's subject is the assassination of revolutionary leader Cesar Augusto Sandino, who used guerilla tactics against the United States Marines to force them to leave Nicaragua in 1933. "It's a poem of heroic evocation in which the death of a hero is also seen as the rebirth of nationhood: when the hero dies, green herbs rise where he has fallen. It makes innovative use of English and Spanglais and is therefore hard to translate, but … it is very much a work of national consciousness and unique poetic expression," Elman relates.

Moving further back in time to reclaim a common heritage for his countrymen, Cardenal recaptures the quality of pre-Columbian life in Homage to the American Indians. These descriptions of Mayan, Incan and Nahuatl ways of life present their attractiveness in comparison to the social organization of the present. In these well-crafted and musical poems written at the end of the 1960s, the poet praises "a way of life which celebrates peace above war and spiritual strength above personal wealth. One has a strong sense when 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," F. Whitney Jones remarks in the Southern Humanities Review. That the poems are didactic in no way impedes their effectiveness, say reviewers, who credit the power of the verses to Cardenal's mastery of poetic technique.

The use of Biblical rhetoric and prosody energizes much of Cardenal's poetry. El estrecho dudoso, like the Bible, "seeks to convince men that history contains lessons which have a transcendent significance," James J. Alstrum maintains in Journal of Spanish Studies: Twentieth Century. Poems in Salmos, written in the 1960s, translated and published as The Psalms of Struggle, echo the forms and the content of the Old Testament psalms. Cardenal's psalms are updated to speak to the concerns of the oppressed in the twentieth century. "The vocabulary is contemporary but the … sheer wonder at the workings of the world, is biblical," Jack Riemer observes in Commonweal. "Equally memorable are those Psalms in which Cardenal expresses his horror at the cruelty and the brutality of human life. His anguished outcries over the rapaciousness of the greedy and the viciousness of the dictators are the work of a man who has lived through some of the atrocities of this century."

As the conflict between the Nicaraguan people and the Somoza government escalated, Cardenal became convinced that without violence, the revolution would not succeed. "In 1970 he visited Cuba and experienced what he described as 'a second conversion' which led him to formulate his own philosophy of Christian Marxism. In 1977 the younger Somoza destroyed the community at Solentiname and Cardenal became the field chaplain for the Sandinista National Liberation Front," reports Hass in the Washington Post Book World. Poems Cardenal wrote during that "very difficult time in his country" — collected in Zero Hour and Other Documentary Poems — are less successful than the earlier and later work, says Hass, since "there is a tendency in them to make of the revolution a symbol that answers all questions." Some reviewers have found the resulting combination of Biblical rhetoric and Marxist revolutionary zeal intimidating. For example, Jascha Kessler, speaking on KUSC-FM radio in Los Angeles, California in 1981, commented, "It is clearly handy to be a trained priest, and to have available for one's poetry the voices of Amos, Isaiah, Hosea and Jeremiah, and to mix prophetic vision with the perspectives of violent revolutionary Marxist ideology. It makes for an incendiary brew indeed. It is not nice; it is not civilized; it is not humane or sceptical or reasonable. But it is all part of the terrible heritage of Central Latin America." Also commenting on Zero Hour and Other Documentary Poems, American Book Review contributor Harold Jaffe suggests, "Although the manifest reality of Cardenal's Central America is grim, its future — which to Cardenal is as 'real' as its present — appears eminently hopeful. Furious or revolted as Cardenal is over this or that dreadful inequity, he never loses hope. His love, his faith in the disadvantaged, his great good humor, his enduring belief that communism and Christ's communion are at root the same — these extraordinary convictions resound throughout the volume."

"Though Cardenal sees no opposition between Marxism and the radical gospel, neither is he a Moscow-line communist," Mary Anne Rygiel explains in Southern Humanities Review. Rygiel cites the poem "Las tortugas" ("The Turtles") to demonstrate that Cardenal's reference to "communism" as the order of nature might better be understood as "communalism," a social organization of harmonious interdependence founded on spiritual unity. The poet-priest's social vision stems from his understanding of "the kingdom of God," Lawrence Ferlinghetti notes in Seven Days in Nicaragua Libre. "And with [Cardenal's] vision of a primitive Christianity, it was logical for him to add that in his view the Revolution would not have succeeded until there were no more masters and no more slaves. 'The Gospels,' he said, 'foresee a classless society. They foresee also the withering away of the state' [Ferlinghetti's emphasis]."

In the 1980s, Pope John Paul II reprimanded Cardenal for promoting a liberation theology that the prelate found divergent from Roman Catholicism. Alstrum notes, however, that El estrecho dudoso "reaffirms the Judeo-Christian belief that there is an inexorable progression of historical events which point toward the ultimate consummation of the Divine Word. Cardenal himself views his poetry as merely the medium for his hopeful message of the transformation of the old order into a new and more just society in which the utopian dreams and Christian values of men … can finally be realized." Cardenal founded the Christian commune Solentiname on an island in Lake Nicaragua near the Costa Rican border to put that dream into practice.

Cardenal's work of several decades reaches its zenith in two collections focusing on his primary subjects: American Indians and Christian Marxism. Golden UFOs: The Indian Poems/Los onis de oro: Poemas indios gathers Cardenal's poetry on North, South, and Central American Indians placed against the background of his Christian-Marxist viewpoint. This reveals "nothing less than an original mythology closely tied to a modern poetics," as Terry O. Taylor notes in World Literature Today. Cosmic Canticle unifies Cardenal's cantos written over three decades into a modern epic poem. It covers Nicaraguan and world history from the "Big Bang" through the present-day as Cardenal contemplates political leaders, oppressed peoples, capitalism, and the Nicaraguan Revolution, among other topics.

Some critics feel that the political nature of Cardenal's poetry precludes its appreciation by a sophisticated literary audience. Reviewers responded to the 1966 volume El estrecho dudoso, for example, as an attack on the Somoza dynasty while neglecting "the intricate artistry with which Cardenal has intertwined the past and present through myth and history while employing both modern and narrative techniques in his poem," asserts Alstrum. Others point out that Cardenal's work gains importance to the extent that it provides valuable insights into the thinking of his countrymen. Cardenal's poetry, which he read to audiences in the United States during the seventies, was perhaps more informative and accessible than other reports from that region, Kessler concluded in 1981, soon after Nicaraguan revolutionaries ousted the Somoza regime. "It may well be that Cardenal's poems offer us a very clear entrance into the mentality of the men we are facing in the … bloody guerilla warfare of Central America," Kessler suggested. More recently, a New Pages reviewer comments, "We can learn some contemporary history, [and] discover the feelings and thoughts of the people who were involved in Nicaragua's revolution by reading Cardenal's poems. And once we know what the revolution 'felt' like, we'll be a lot smarter, I believe, than most … who … make pronouncements about Nicaragua's threat to the free world."

[Source: Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2005.]


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