Corona de lauros / Sergio Ramírez

Laurel Crown

This January marks 80 years since the birth of Ernesto Cardenal. His name belongs to the race of Nicaraguan poets that opens up to the mentoring shadow of Ruben Darío and floods the entire XX century beneath a singular sign of modernity. Darío imposed modernismo on Latin America, as the sign of an entire memorable era, from whose ribs Lorca, Neruda and Vallejo would eventually emerge. But in Nicaragua he imposed modernity in poetry as an organic and immediate phenomenon, along with that desire for always adding different voices, updated voices. Undoubtedly, Darío had been a renovator.

Quite a singular desire for this small country which, throughout the same century, while remaining poor and marginal and afflicted by disturbances, civil wars, military occupations and dictatorships, saw itself far away from achieving modernity as a society, as it would within literature. And if Darío would open the doors of the Spanish language to French Symbolist poetry, José Coronel Urtecho, the founder of the vanguardia in Nicaragua, would open them to modern North American poetry as early as 1927. Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot were already familiar names when my own generation of writers appeared at the beginning of the sixties.

The modernista poetry of princesses and swans, taken on its most superficial level, remained for provincial-minded poets, while modernity would become a permanent engagement and complaint during the entire century. Alfonso Cortés, Salomón de la Selva, Azarías Pallais, who appeared after Darío and then Coronel Urtecho, Joaquín Pasos, Pablo Antonio Cuadra, from the vanguardia generation, until reaching Carlos Martínez Rivas and Ernesto Cardenal, who arrived later. Along with Coronel, Cardenal would translate the poems for the anthology of North American poetry which was published in Spain by Editorial Aguilar at the beginning of the fifties, a true novelty.

The poetry of descriptive images, with a conversational tone, which takes into account what the external world is capable of offering in terms of unique sensations and perceptions and which Cardenal would make his own until it became his personal trademark, all that which has been called exteriorismo, much of it comes from North American poetry. But it was already present within the Epístola by Darío dedicated to Juana Lugones, Leopoldo Lugones's wife, a very long account written in Alexandrine couplets, with Alexandrine footnotes as well.

Cardenal would go even further, until incorporating the poetry he finds in the dry documents of the archives of the Indies concerning the conquest and colonization of Nicaragua, in his book El estrecho dudoso.

But before that we have the Cardenal of the Epigramas, which were the result of his reading of Catullus and Marcial during his years at the Department of Philosophy and Letters at the University of Mexico. Two poets he thus translated in perfect games of intelligence about love, solitude and disillusion. Verses that are copied in love letters and can be heard recited by the hopeless in bars. But the Cardenal who seduced me as a teenager, before anything, was from the period of Hora 0, because he helped me understand how much poetry prose can sustain and vice versa. The border between the two was shown to be tenuous with the revelation of that poem's long structure that defied the canon, which up to that time had ruled what we could call "political poetry." Cardenal accomplished this while still separating himself from what Neruda was writing.

In Hora 0, a poem about the Central American dictatorships of Somoza, Ubico and Carías, Cardenal doesn't denounce but instead he describes from an almost neutral perspective, as a good narrator must. It is a poem that is already half a century old and which has lost, at least in my eyes, none of its original freshness and continues to seem like a new experiment to me, as always happens with classic literary pieces.

It doesn't carry a single lyrical tone, it clears out all rhetoric and it doesn't try to impress with elegiac accents.

And I would go further with Canto nacional, a beautiful and unique elegy to Nicaragua which also lacks a lyrical tone and which functions as a scrupulous register of the country.

A profound change begins with Hora 0, affecting the approach to understanding poetic composition. A change which has ended up having so much influence in Latin America and has been reduced, as always, to the simple term exteriorismo.

The poems of Getsemaní, KY are not far behind, poems which were written during his apprenticeship in the Trappist monastery in Kentucky where Thomas Merton lived, his mentor in many senses.

Of course, the poetry that took Cardenal to the stages of Europe was that of the Salmos, which European youth at the start of the seventies, especially in Holland, Germany and in the Scandinavian countries, assumed as a symbol of their identity as they faced the shadows of oppression and totalitarianism. His voice was one which in the midst of the XX century, a century of horrors and human cataclisms, massive purges and concentration camps, cold war and threats of nuclear extinction, called out toward the heights with accents from the Old Testament. Once again, the voice of the prophets.

A voice which has crossed the borders of the XX century and which always rises anew, as it does in Cántico cósmico, the deepest and farthest that Cardenal's poetry has gone and whose influence will grow as we enter the new century.

Today, in his 80th year, he has merely entered a new stage of his literary life.

Masatepe, January 2005

{ Sergio Ramírez, El Nacional, 30 January 2005 }

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