Authors: Ernesto Cardenal

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Nicaraguan poet


Ernesto Cardenal (kahr-day-NAHL) is considered by many to be one of the most significant poets of Central America. Cardenal is a Catholic priest, a Nicaraguan revolutionary, a sculptor, and his country’s former minister of culture. The author of numerous books and editor of poetry anthologies, Cardenal has seen only a handful of his works translated into English.{$I[A]Cardenal, Ernesto}{$I[geo]NICARAGUA;Cardenal, Ernesto}{$I[tim]1925;Cardenal, Ernesto}

Following his high school studies at the Colegio Centroaméricana de los Jesuitas in Granada, Cardenal moved to Mexico, where he graduated from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma in 1947. From 1948 to 1949 he studied North American literature at Columbia University. Before returning to Nicaragua in 1950, he traveled through France, Italy, and Spain. Upon his return, he began working in sculpture and shortly thereafter founded the literary press El Hilo Azul. His strong political stand against the dictatorship of Nicaragua’s Anastasio Samoza was the source of some of Cardenal’s early political poems, which were published anonymously in Chile and abroad. Other poets opposed to Samoza formed a group with Cardenal, and in 1954 he participated in an unsuccessful, armed assault against Samoza at the Presidential Palace.

In 1957 Cardenal decided to turn his life in a different direction, and he became a novice at the Trappist abbey Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where Thomas Merton was novice master. Because of health issues, Cardenal left the monastery after only two years but continued his religious training at a Benedictine monastery in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and was eventually ordained as a Catholic priest in Managua, Nicaragua, in 1965.

Following his ordination, Cardenal began plans with Merton to create a small contemplative community in Nicaragua. The commune of Solentiname was established in 1966 on an island in Lake Nicaragua. Painting, sculpture, pottery, and poetry flourished there as part of an attempt to interpret the Gospels from a revolutionary perspective.

In 1977 several young men and women from Solentiname participated in an uprising against the military government. Cardenal had just left the country for diplomatic reasons and was sentenced to several years’ imprisonment in absentia. The commune of Solentiname was destroyed. In 1979, during the final days of the insurrection and with the establishment of a new government, Cardenal was named minister of culture, a position that he held until 1988. Under his direction, volunteer teachers throughout Nicaragua conducted literacy workshops. During that same period, several Catholic priests in Central America who also held government posts were censured by Pope John Paul II, and in 1985 Cardenal was denied the right to continue to perform priestly functions.

Cardenal has received numerous awards and honorary degrees for his work. Since the defeat of the Sandinista government in 1990, he has lived in Managua and is a director of Casa de los Tres Mundos, a literary and cultural organization that supports artists from Nicaragua and around the world. In 1995 he and several other leaders renounced their membership in the Sandanista National Liberation Front.

Cardenal’s literary output is characterized by works that combine the poetic with the political, the Christian with the Marxist. Cardenal, with José Coronel Urtecho, invented a new poetic school knowsn as exteriorismo, that is, poetry which is created from the exterior world, poetry which includes exact names, dates, and historical details. At times Cardenal appropriates entire selections of prose from historical and other documents and inserts them directly into his work, creating a montage style of poem which blends theology with history and politics. Through the juxtaposition of historical data and poetic commentary, he deals with the exploitation of those who have no voice of their own–the poor and the oppressed of society.

Many of Cardenal’s books have received critical acclaim, including several of those translated into English. These include Homage to the American Indians, The Psalms of Struggle and Liberation, The Doubtful Strait, and Cosmic Canticle.

In Homage to the American Indians, the poet highlights the spiritual strengths of Aztec, Maya, and other indigenous peoples and contrasts these with the spiritual weaknesses of people of the Americas today. In this work he uses native cultures to symbolize values, such as peace and social welfare, in comparison to contemporary social phenomena, such as consumerism and war. Psalms has its basis in the Old Testament book of Psalms, which Cardenal has re-cast in a modern version. The evils of the Old Testament have been replaced with capitalism, nuclear arms, and political propaganda. The cry of the oppressed Hebrews becomes the cry of today’s poor and downtrodden.

The Doubtful Straight is a narrative epic poem that focuses on the discovery and conquest of the Americas, particularly Central America. The poet uses words from Christopher Columbus’s logs and from other historic documents to re-create the struggles and violence against the inhabitants of the New World. Cardenal urges the reader to see the present in terms of the past.

There is agreement that Cosmic Canticle is Cardenal’s magnum opus. Written over a thirty-year time span, the six-hundred-page epic poem combines modern sciences, such as quantum physics and biological evolution, with mysticism and contemporary Nicaraguan history. Mythologies and wisdom from dozens of world religions, particularly those of primitive peoples, are blended with the theology of Teilhard de Chardin as well as with the theories of modern scientists such as Albert Einstein.

Ernesto Cardenal has created a unique poetic voice and has used it to defend and support those members of society who are often unable to speak for themselves. His works combine liberation theology and political ideology into poems and prayers that seek justice and compassion.

BibliographyCardenal, Ernesto. Abide in Love. Translated by Thomas Merton and Mev Puleo. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1995. Merton provides a detailed introduction and Puleo’s meticulous translations enhance this new edition of the collection Vida en el amor.Cardenal, Ernesto. Apocalypse and Other Poems. Edited by Robert Pring-Mill and Donald D. Walsh. New York: New Directions, 1977. Both editors, Cardenal experts, provide insightful introductions to the collection. The translators include the editors, along with Thomas Merton, Kenneth Rexroth, and Mireya Jaimes-Freyre.Cardenal, Ernesto. The Doubtful Strait = El estrecho dudoso. Translated by John Lyons. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1995. Tamara Williams provides a substantial introduction to this collection. It is a detailed critical study of its genesis, technical, thematic, and stylistic elements, and historical and literary influences. Demonstrates how an epic quality is developed through the continuous thread of the quest throughout this collection.Cardenal, Ernesto. Flights of Victory. Translated by Marc Zimmerman. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1985. Presents the collection with a critical study of the historical context as well as technical and thematic elements that distinguish it from other works. Zimmerman examines the elements of exteriorismo, which was influenced by the Central American vanguards of revolutionary poets. This study demonstrates how Cardenal utilized exteriorismo in order to create poetry of national resistance to Anastacio Somoza García in the name of Sandino.Cardenal, Ernesto. “Ernesto Cardenal Describes Sandinista Split.” Interview by Leslie Wirpsa. National Catholic Reporter 31, no. 30 (May 26, 1995): 9. In this interview, Cardenal describes Nicaraguan politics and reflects on the efforts made during the years immediately following the establishment of the Sandinista government.Dawes, Greg. Aesthetics and Revolution: Nicaraguan Poetry, 1979-1990. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. The chapter “Poetry and Spiritual Materialism: Ernesto Cardenal” discusses how Cardenal’s Marxism, seen through a Christian lens, affected his poetry. Dawes believes that Cardenal’s work reinterprets theology itself. Through the practice of Liberation Theology, religious states such as faith and salvation are returned to the social sphere. Cardenal’s impact on Nicaraguan politics as well as literature is demonstrated throughout the book.Elias, Edward. “Prophecy of Liberation: The Poetry of Ernesto Cardenal.” In Poetic Prophecy in Western Literature, edited by Jan Wojcik and Raymond-Jean Frontain. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1984. The author considers Cardenal’s poetry within the Old Testament context of prophecy. He notes the poet’s continuous efforts to move others to action and makes comparisons to the Hebrew prophets of old.Gibbons, Reginald. “Political Poetry and the Example of Ernesto Cardenal.” Critical Inquiry 13, no. 3 (Spring, 1987): 648-671. The poet speaks against injustice and oppression and in favor of compassion and revolution. It is impossible to separate the political from the poetic in Cardenal’s work, Gibbons suggests.Rowe, William. Poets of Contemporary Latin America: History and the Inner Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. In the chapter “Ernesto Cardenal: Eros and Belief Under Epic Necessity,” Rowe explores the poems as differing proposals of attention for each collection. He avoids making critical artistic decisions from political, religious, or erotic perspectives. Rowe believes that these preconceptions make the poems’ words serve as a vehicle for a higher cause, rather than enable them to be appreciated for their intrinsic artistic value.Sarabia, Rosa. Poetas de la palabra hablada. London: Tamesis, 1997. This study examines the oral nature of several Latin American writers. The chapter “La historia como musa en la poesía de Ernesto Cardenal” focuses on historical influences, including Native American mythology. The contemporary reality also influences the politically conscious poet as spokesman for the voiceless who are suffering injustices. This study demonstrates how past and contemporary realities, along with an oral tradition, find their voices in Cardenal’s poetry. Available only in Spanish.
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