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Cardenal, Ernesto (1925–)

Cardenal, Ernesto (1925–)

Ernesto Cardenal (b. 20 January 1925), Nicaraguan writer and minister of culture (1979–1988). Born into a wealthy family in Granada, Cardenal received his early education from the Christian Brothers and the Jesuits. A precocious writer, he allied himself with Carlos Martínez Rivas and others of the Generation of 1940. As a student of philosophy at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (1942–1947), Cardenal joined other Nicaraguan exiles opposed to the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza García. Reading T. S. Eliot and the Imagists (Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell, among others) during two subsequent years of study at Columbia University (1947–1949) shaped his emerging exteriorista poetics, which emphasized nonmetaphoric language and concrete (frequently historical) detail.

Cardenal's political, poetic, and critical abilities were evident in La ciudad deshabitada (1946), Proclama del conquistador (1947), and his introduction to Nueva poesía nicaragüense (1949; translated as New Nicaraguan Poetry). Following a year of study in Spain (1949–1950), he returned to Managua for seven years, where he operated a bookstore and formed a small publishing company (both called El Hilo Azul) with ex-vanguardista José Coronel Urtecho. He continued to write poetry on romantic and, increasingly, political themes.

Influenced by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and others, Cardenal explored Latin American indigenous culture and native resistance to domination, concerns that are prominent in Con Walker en Nicaragua (1952). His participation in the anti-Somoza April Rebellion of 1954 supplied themes for La hora cero or Hora O (1957–1959), especially that of the renewal of life through revolutionary activity. A religious conversion in 1956 led him to two years (1957–1959) of study with Thomas Merton at a Trappist monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky, and two more years at a Benedictine monastery in Cuernavaca, Mexico; ultimately he went to Colombia to study for the priesthood (1961–1965). Cardenal's evolving political and religious views issued in the lyrical poems of Gethsemani, Kentucky (1960), Epigramas (1961), Salmos (1964; a recasting of the Psalms in terms of present-day political realities and language), and Oración por Marilyn Monroe y otras poemas (1965).

In 1966 Cardenal established on the island of Solentiname in Lake Nicaragua, an experimental Christian contemplative colony oriented to agricultural, social, political (anti-Somoza), and cultural work among the largely illiterate rural population. During the Solentiname years, Cardenal published the political poems of El estrecho dudoso (1966), Homenaje a los indios americanos (1969), and Canto nacional (1972) and the Christian-Marxist exegetical dialogues of El evangelio en Solentiname (1975). The Solentiname community was destroyed by Somoza's National Guard in 1977. Increasingly Marxist in orientation during the 1970s, Cardenal became a cultural ambassador for the anti-Somoza FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) in 1976. Appointed minister of culture by the new Sandinista government in 1979, he projected a "revolutionary, popular, national, and anti-imperialist" cultural policy modeled substantially upon the earlier Solentiname experiments (especially the controversial exteriorista poetry workshops and primitivist painting). Ambitious plans for film production and a national system of centers for popular culture, libraries, museums, and theater and dance companies were frustrated by the post-1982 budget crisis, exacerbated by the Contra war financed by the United States. The Ministry of Culture ceased to exist as a separate entity in 1988.

At the end of the twentieth century Cardenal published his first two volumes of memoirs Vida Perdida (1998) and Las ínsulas extrañas (2002) and toured Germany, Italy, and Spain where his works had been translated. Upon his return he was invited to Cuba for La Semana del Autor (the Week of the Author) (2003) where he was honored with the José Martí Award. Subsequently he was awarded the Nicolás Guillén Literary Prize in Italy (2004). In May 2005, Cardenal was nominated—but did not receive—the Nobel Prize in Literature.

See alsoLiberation Theology; Nicaragua, Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).


The best single source on Cardenal is Paul W. Borgeson, Jr., Hacia el hombre nuevo: Poesía y pensamiento de Ernesto Cardenal (1984). On the Ministry of Culture see David E. Whisnant, "Sandinista Cultural Policy: Notes Toward an Analysis in Historical Context," in Central America: Historical Perspectives on the Contemporary Crises, edited by Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr. (1988), and The Politics of Culture in Nicaragua (1995). Cardenal's own major statements on culture, together with those of other members of the FSLN's national directorate, appear in Nicaragua, Ministry of Culture, Hacia una política cultural de la Revolución Popular Sandinista (1982), esp. pp. 162-273. An illuminating set of interviews (including one with Cardenal) is in Steven White, ed., Culture and Politics in Nicaragua: Testimonies of Poets and Writers (1986). Also useful is John Beverley and Marc Zimmerman, Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions (1990).

Additional Bibliography

Pastor Alonso, Ma Angeles. La poesía cósmica de Ernesto Cardenal. Huelva: Diputación Provincial, 1998.

Sheesley, Joel et al. Sandino in the Streets. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

                                   David E. Whisnant

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