Ernesto Cardenal Epigramas Analysis Essay

SOURCE: "Cardenal's Poetic Style: Cinematic Parallels," in Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos, Vol. XI, No. 1, 1986, pp. 119-29.

[In the following essay, Valdés discusses the cinematic images and techniques Cardenal utilizes in his poem "Oráculo sobre Managua."]

In commenting on the ethical purpose and art of the poet, Cardenal writes in his poem "Epístola a monseñor Casaldáliga":

These lines declare even as they demonstrate a belief in the avoidance of highly figurative language, and they suggest the reasons for this belief. Indeed, the reader of Hora 0, Salmos, and the poetry that follows will be struck by the abundant use of literal, commonplace details and the paucity of figurative language. The details include historical and current events, ordinary household objects, commercials, well-known biblical references, the names of some of Cardenal's friends, and familiar, twentieth-century political figures, all having an existence apart from the subjective world of the poet, all verifiable, as it were, in external reality. This is not to say that the poetry of Cardenal is devoid of similes, metaphors, or symbols. One need only turn to the evocative, intimate poems of Gethsemani, Ky. to find several examples of figures of speech. In Cardenal's poetic work as a whole, however, one discovers not only the predominance of literal images but an ever-increasing use of prosaic detail, particularly in the poetry written after 1960—such as Homenaje a los indios americanos, "Canto nacional," "Oráculo sobre Managua," and the epistles to Casaldáliga and José Coronel Urtecho. In order to explain the poetic advantages of this technique, we need, first, to consider it by itself and, then, within a poetic structure or form. In doing the former, it will prove useful to invoke a parallel with the artistry of film, and, in doing the latter, to apply the language of film to an analysis of the structure of the first sequence of Cardenal's most ambitious poem, "Oráculo sobre Managua." But before doing either, it is necessary to discuss what led Cardenal to use literal detail so extensively.

Cardenal's penchant for a concrete language, often journalistic in style, can be explained partly by his faithful adherence to the principles of exteriorismo, a tendency predominant in Nicaraguan poetry since the 1950's. For Cardenal, the foremost exponent of this poetic tendency

El exteriorismo no es un ismo ni una escuela literaria. Es tan antiguo como Homero y la poesía bíblica (en realidad es lo que ha constituido la gran poesía de todos los tiempos).

El exteriorismo es la poesía creada con las imágenes del mundo exterior, el mundo que vemos y palpamos, y que es, por lo general, el mundo específico de la poesía. El exteriorismo es la poesía objetiva: narrativa y anecdótica, hecha con los elementos de la vida real y con cosas concretas, con nombres propios y detalles precisos y datos exactos y cifras y hechos y dichos. En fin, es la poesía impura.

Poesía interiorista, en cambio, es una poesía subjetivista, hecha sólo con palabras abstractas o simbólicas como: rosa, piel, ceniza, labios, ausencia, amargo, sueño, tacto, espuma, deseo, sombra, tiempo, sangre, piedra, llanto, noche …

Cardenal's affinity for exteriorismo cannot be explained solely in aesthetic terms, as this passage seems to suggest. It is, rather, the result of combined aesthetic and ethical interests. Indeed, in most instances, his aesthetic interests are subservient to his strongly ethical concerns. From the early Epigramas to the present, his poetry is patently didactic. As he emphatically states in the prologue to his anthology Poesía nueva de Nicaragua: "La literatura debe prestar un servicio. Debe estar—como todo lo demás en el universo—al servicio del hombre. Por lo mismo la poesía también debe de ser política. Aunque no propaganda política, sino poesía política." Thus, Cardenal's poetry seeks to inform, convince, and, ultimately, through immersion in apparently objective detail, move the reader beyond reflection into action. It seeks, in Robert Pring-Mill's words, "to provoke him [the reader] into full political commitment, thus fostering the translation of the poet's more prophetic visions into sociopolitical fact" [Ernesto Cardenal: "Zero Hour" and Other Documentary Poems, edited by Donald D. Walsh, 1980]. Exteriorist poetry, Cardenal feels, with its emphasis on the details of external reality is the mode most capable of rendering the troubled sociopolitical reality of Latin America, and, because of its sensory immediacy and readily verifiable frame of reference, the one most effective in engaging the reader.

Although in his definition of exteriorismo Cardenal focuses on the type of language employed by the poet, what mostly distinguishes his exteriorismo from "interiorist poetry" is the way in which he employs "los elementos de la vida real y … cosas concretas." The word "sangre," for instance, included by Cardenal in his catalogue of interiorist terms, is not uncommon in his exteriorist poetry, as we see in the following passage from "Oráculo sobre Managua":

Puertas destrozadas hierros retorcidos techo de zinc
perforado por la avioneta las paredes con grandes huecos
sangre en el patio un colchón ensangrentado en el baño
pedazos de camisas calzonetas pañuelos llenos de sangre
sangre en la cocina los frijoles regados tapas de parras
con goterones de sangre en el patio la casa llena de humo …

In all cases in which "sangre" appears in this passage, it is employed as one of many visual, concrete details depicting sensorially and directly the aftermath of Leonel Rugama's shootout with Somoza's forces. The term thus functions strictly as a literal image.

Cardenal therefore remains true to his exteriorist poetic credo, not by restricting his poetic language to certain words as he suggests, but by using visual details in a literal way. The literal use of concrete language allows him to create a reality external to the speaker. At times, the speaker appears to be totally independent of this reality, as when Cardenal writes in Hora O:

En abril, en Nicaragua, los campos están secos.
Es el mes de las quemas de los campos,
del calor, y los potreros cubiertos de brasas,
y los cerros que son de color de carbón;
del viento caliente, y el aire que huele a quemado,
y de los campos que se ven azulados por el humo
y las polvaredas de los tractores destroncando;
de los cauces de los ríos secos como caminos
y las ramas de los palos peladas como raíces;
de los soles borrosos y rojos como sangre
y las lunas enormes y rojas como soles,
y las quemas lejanas, de noche, como estrellas.

En mayo llegan las primeras lluvias.
La hierba tierna renace de las cenizas.
Los lodosos tractores roturan la tierra.
Los caminos se llenan de mariposas y de charcos,
y las noches son frescas, y cargadas de insectos,
y llueve toda la noche. En mayo
florecen los malinches en las calles de Managua.

The end of winter in the first stanza and the coming of spring in the second are described with such realism and objectivity that the passage seems almost a random documentation of external reality. The faithfulness to concrete detail on the part of the poet and his restraint in withholding his emotional attitude allow the reality its autonomy. In depicting places and events which immerse the reader in the physical world about him, Cardenal's poetry operates much like a camera recording elements and events that can be responded to with sensory immediacy. Such poetry Robert Pring-Mill calls "documentary poetry."

Whereas Cardenal's...

Ernesto Cardenal 1925-

Nicaraguan poet, translator, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Cardenal's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 31.

Noted as a major contemporary Latin-American poet and literary spokesperson for the political struggles of the Nicaraguan people, Cardenal, an ordained Catholic priest, is known for the unique fusion of Christian theology and Marxist political philosophy in his works. Cardenal's poetry often focuses on Latin-American history and comments on contemporary society, culture, and politics. His poetry incorporates a montage style, juxtaposing disparate voices from history, biblical lore, and contemporary popular culture, as well as interweaving lyrical passages with prosaic lines of verse. His most celebrated works include Hora 0 (1960; Zero Hour), Salmos (1967; The Psalms of Struggle and Liberation), and Homenaje a los indios americanos (1969; Homage to the American Indians). Cardenal's poetry has often been compared to the works of poets Pablo Neruda and Ezra Pound.

Biographical Information

Cardenal was born January 20, 1925, in Granada, Nicaragua. He attended the University of New Mexico, where he studied literature and philosophy from 1944 to 1948, and Columbia University in New York City from 1948 to 1949. His first volume of poetry, Ansias lengua de la poesia nueva nicaraguense, was published in 1948. Cardenal returned to Nicaragua in the early 1950s, where he became involved in political activism in opposition to Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza. In 1956 Cardenal converted to Catholicism and enrolled in the seminary at the Trappist Monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky. Studying under the renowned monk, scholar, and poet Thomas Merton, Cardenal developed a commitment to nonviolence. Due to health problems, Cardenal left Kentucky before completing his course of study, but continued his studies in Mexico and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1965. He subsequently founded his own commune in Solentiname on an island in Lake Nicaragua where he could promote his unique synthesis of religious vision and commitment to social justice. During the 1960s, Cardenal published over ten volumes of poetry. In 1970, he visited Cuba, where he experienced what he called a “second conversion” and developed a philosophy of Christian Marxism that synthesized his religious and political convictions. The escalating political oppression in Nicaragua contributed to Cardenal's renouncement of his former commitment to nonviolence and his embracement of revolutionary struggle. During the 1970s, Cardenal published over twenty volumes of poetry and gave readings of his work during tours throughout the United States. In 1977 he became a chaplain for the revolutionary Sandinista Liberation Front. The Nicaraguan government responded to Cardenal's political activities by destroying his commune at Solentiname and sending him into exile in Costa Rica. In 1979 when the Sandinista revolution overthrew Somoza, Cardenal returned to Nicaragua and was appointed Minister of Culture. He eventually resigned from this post, however, in disagreement over human rights abuses committed by the new government. During the 1980s, Cardenal was criticized for his liberation theology by Pope John Paul II, who considered the poet-priest's politics to be at odds with the philosophy of the Catholic Church. During the 1980s and 1990s, Cardenal published over twenty-five volumes of poetry.

Major Works

Cardenal's dominant themes throughout his four decades of writing poetry have included religious prophecy, Marxism, and political struggle. Cardenal's poetry often explores Latin-American history, from the pre-Colombian native cultures to the era of colonialism, focusing strongly on the latter's relationship to the problems of contemporary governments and modern culture. His early poem “With Walker in Nicaragua” is set during the nineteenth century when an expedition from the United States attempted to make Nicaragua a colony of the Southern Confederacy. Cardenal relates the story of one of his ancestors, a Nicaraguan woman who married a white man from the expedition. The poem is largely devoted to examining the perspective of the white man who renounces the stated mission of his countrymen. “Zero Hour” concerns the assassination of Cesar Augusto Sandino, a Nicaraguan revolutionary leader, in 1933. Sandino, the hero of the poem, employs guerilla tactics in an attempt to expel the United States Marines from Nicaragua. Through Cardenal's portrayal of this historical figure, the poet addresses themes of political resistance and Nicaraguan nationalism from the perspective of both biblical prophecy and Marxist political theory. The volume Gethsemani, Ky (1960) is comprised of a series of short poems based on Cardenal's notes taken while studying for the priesthood in Gethsemani, Kentucky. His poem “Oracion por Marilyn Monroe” (“Prayer to Marilyn Monroe”) is a commentary on modern commercialism as a corrupting cultural influence. The works collected in El estrecho dudoso (1966; The Doubtful Strait) make extensive use of biblical references and the colonial history of Latin America to comment on modern political struggles. Continuing Cardenal's use of biblical allusions, the poems in The Psalms of Struggle and Liberation take the form of Old Testament psalms to express outrage at the social oppression inflicted by modern governments on their constituents. In Homage to the American Indians, Cardenal contrasts the oppression and commercialism found in many modern societies with the spiritual wholeness and pacifism of the pre-Colombian cultures of the Mayan, Incan, and Nahuatl Indians. Golden UFOs (1992), a collection of Cardenal's previously published poetry, further examines the native cultures of the South, North, and Central Americas, once again viewed through the poet's Christian-Marxist perspective. Cosmic Canticle (1993) brings together thirty years of Cardenal's canto poetry in one long, epic poem. The volume covers historical events in Nicaragua and throughout the world, spanning from the origins of the universe to the present day. In these poems, Cardenal contemplates the role of political leaders, oppressed peoples, capitalism, and the Nicaraguan Revolution, among other topics.

Critical Reception

Critics have consistently commented on Cardenal's mixture of Christianity and Marxism in his poetry. However, many reviewers have argued that Cardenal manages to avoid the strident tones and didacticism of other political poets, although his political views are increasingly explicit in his later works. Cardenal has been praised for effectively commenting on contemporary society and politics through his writings placed in pre-Colombian and early colonial Latin-American settings. Critics have also observed that, despite his focus on oppression and human suffering, Cardenal has maintained a strong sense of hopefulness and idealism, as evidenced by his frequent expressions of a utopian vision of the future. Critical response to Cardenal's poetry has often focused on the unique theological perspective of his works. Commentators have frequently discussed the elements of biblical prophesy in his poetry, noting his use of biblical references in his verse which also utilizes contemporary language to comment on history and modern society. Stylistically, Cardenal has been praised for his lyricism, experimental use of form, and well-crafted poetry, particularly his use of the canto form invented by Pound and later employed by Neruda. Cardenal has also been lauded for his montage style of writing, and his ability to juxtapose a variety of voices, including historical documents, colloquial Spanish, pop culture references, and biblical passages to create a decidedly individual poetic form.

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