Guillén, Nicolás (1902–1989)

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Guillén, Nicolás (1902–1989)

Nicolás Guillén (b. 10 July 1902; d. 16 July 1989), Cuban poet. A contender for the Nobel Prize for literature, Nicolás Guillén was Cuba's national poet. He developed an early interest in poetry and published his first poems in Camagüey Gráfico in 1920. That same year he enrolled in the University of Havana to pursue a degree in law. For lack of interest and for financial reasons, Guillén left the university a few weeks later and returned to his native city, where he earned a living as a printer, a trade he learned from his father. With Vicente Menéndez Roque he edited the literary section of the newspaper Las Dos Repúblicas and contributed to Orto and Castalia, both literary reviews.

Guillén made a second attempt to continue his studies in Havana in 1921 but, as before and for similar reasons, he returned to Camagüey. That same year he gathered his poems under the title "Cerebro y corazón," which remained unpublished as a book until 1965. He also published his sonnets in Alma Mater, published the magazine Lis, and edited El Camagüeyano.

In 1926 Guillén went to work as a typist for the Ministry of the Interior in Havana, but continued to write and publish poetry. It was through Gustavo E. Urrutia, who invited the poet to write for a section he edited, "Ideales de una raza," in the Diario de la Marina, that Guillén began to compose poems about Afro-Cubans, which resulted in the publication of Motivos de son in 1930. These poems, along with others by José Zacarías Tallet, Ramón Guirao, and Emilio Ballagas, became part of the Negrista movement of the 1920s and 1930s. In his poems Guillén explored the exoticism and rhythm of the other poets, but also added a social and cultural dimension about the lives of Cuban people of African descent.

After the Diario de la Marina ceased to publish Urrutia's column, Guillén continued to explore Afro-Cuban themes in Lino Dou's "La marcha de una raza," in the newspaper El Mundo. Subsequently, he published Sóngoro cosongo (1931) and West Indies, Ltd. (1934), which were more expressive about the subordinate conditions of blacks and their need to develop self pride not only in Cuba but throughout the Caribbean. During this period, Guillén was editor of the newspaper Información and the weekly El Loco.

Guillén's political life and literary activities began to merge. In 1935, as a result of his political activities, he was forced from his job at the Department of Culture. He became a member of the editorial boards of Resumen, a publication of the Communist Party, and Mediodía, which he edited when it was transformed into a politico-literary weekly. In 1937, with other Cuban and Latin American notables, he attended the Congress of Writers and Artists in Mexico and the Second International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture in Barcelona, Valencia, and Madrid. That same year he joined the Cuban Communist Party and the following year two of his poems were published in its newspaper Hoy. Guillén's Cantos para soldados y sones para turistas (1937) and España: Poema en cuatro angustias y una esperanza (1937), completed before his trip to Spain, address conditions mainly in Cuba and Spain, respectively, and belong to a period of ideological commitment.

For Guillén, the 1940s were characterized by an internationalist consciousness and extensive travel throughout the world. After an unsuccessful candidacy for mayor of Camagüey in 1940, he traveled to Haiti in 1942 and Venezuela in 1945, and later to Colombia, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. El son entero: Suma poética, 1929–1946, published while he was in Buenos Aires in 1947, gathers poems written both prior to and following his travels. Following an unsuccessful run in 1948 as senatorial candidate for the Cuban Communist Party he returned to Havana. Other trips included attending the World Peace conference in New York City and meetings in Paris, Prague, and Mexico; he later traveled extensively throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Between 1948 and 1958, he wrote and compiled his Elegías.

An active opponent of the Batista dictatorship, after 1953 Guillén lived in exile for six years and continued to travel in Latin America and Europe, where he received the Lenin International Peace Prize in 1954. Guillén lived in Paris from 1955 to 1958 and then moved to Buenos Aires, where he resided until Fidel Castro's revolutionary triumph. La paloma del vuelo popular, which contains six elegies, is a product of this period and was published in Buenos Aires in 1958. Guillén returned to Cuba on 23 January 1959 as a hero of sorts. In 1961 he became a member of the National Council of Education and was named president of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba; he later joined the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Tengo (1964), El gran zoo (1967), La rueda dentada (1972), El diario que a diario (1972), and Sol de domingo (1982) draw upon Guillén's social and political concerns as well as his inventiveness and creativity in developing further his poetic talents, particularly so with El diario que a diario, but these later collections do not reach the levels of literary quality, innovation, or importance he attained in his early work. Prosa de prisa, 1929–1972, a three-volume collection of newspaper articles, was published in 1975–1976. Guillén is buried in the Colón Cemetery in Havana.

Nancy Morejón, Keith Ellis, Ángel Augier, and others have suggested that Guillén's poetry is limited to an ideological or revolutionary perspective. Other critics, however, such as Vera Kutzinski, Roberto González Echevarría, Antonio Benítez Rojo, and Gustavo Pérez Firmat place Guillén within a broader literary framework. For example, Pérez Firmat points to Guillén's interest in writing Italian sonnets and madrigals, González Echevarría to his fascination for Baroque poetry, and Benítez Rojo to the different stages in his career, shifting from Communist, to controversial, to subversive, and to philosophical positions. This more recent reading of Guillén confirms his greatness as a truly outstanding poet who appeals to a variety of readers.

See alsoCuba: Cuba Since 1959; Cuba: The Republic (1898–1959).


Nancy Morejón, ed., Recopilación de textos sobre Nicolás Guillén (1974) and Nación y mestizaje en Nicolás Guillén (1982).

Lorna Williams, Self and Society in the Poetry of Nicolás Guillén (1982).

Keith Ellis, Cuba's Nicolás Guillén: Poetry and Ideology (1983).

Ángel Augier, Nicolás Guillén: Estudio biográfico-crítico (1984).

Vera M. Kutzinski, Against the American Grain (1987), pp. 133-235.

Vera M. Kutzinski, ed., "Nicolás Guillén," in Callaloo 10 (1987).

Ian I. Smart, Nicolás Guillén: Popular Poet of the Caribbean (1990).

Additional Bibliography

Augier, Angel I. Lo que teníamos que tener: Raza y revolución en Nicolás Guillén. Pittsburgh: Instituto Internacional de Literatura Iberoamericana, Universidad de Pittsburgh, 2003.

Barchino, Matías, and María Rubio Martín. Nicolás Guillén: Hispanidad, vanguardia y compromiso social. Cuenca: Ediciones de la Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha, 2004.

Branche, Jerome. Vida y obra de Nicolás Guillén. Ciudad de La Habana: Editorial Pueblo y Educación, 2002.

Brock, Lisa, and Digna Castañeda Fuertes. Between Race and Empire: African-Americans and Cubans before the Cuban Revolution. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.

                                              William Luis

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Guillén, Nicolás (1902–1989)

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