BORN: 1902, Camaguey, Cuba
DIED: 1989, Havana, Cuba
GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction
Motifs of Son (1930)
Songoro Cosongo (1931)
West Indies Ltd. (1934)
The Dove of Popular Flight (1958)
I Have (1964)
Nicolás Guillén was a significant Latin American poet of the twentieth century. He was one of the first writers to affirm and celebrate the black Cuban (or Afro-Cuban) experience, beginning with his celebrated and controversial Motifs of Son (1930). Guillén chronicled the turbulent history of his native land from a Marxist perspective, addressing what he perceived to be the injustices of imperialism, capitalism, and racism. He came to be regarded as Cuba's national poet, and was recognized as such by the nation's leader, Fidel Castro, in 1961. His work as an essayist and journalist also won him acclaim.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Political Beginnings Nicolás Cristóbal Guillén was born in Camaguey, Cuba, on July 10, 1902—just seven weeks after Cuba achieved its independence from Spain. He was the eldest of six children; his parents were both of mixed African and Spanish ancestry. His father, a newspaper editor, senator, and leader of the Liberal Party, was assassinated by soldiers in 1917 during an electoral conflict between Liberals and Conservatives. This loss profoundly affected Guillén's political outlook and creative writing.
The Son Cubano Guillén began writing poems in 1916, and his work first appeared in print three years later. Printing, which he had learned as a hobby from his father, became the means by which he supported his needy family. His secondary education had to be undertaken at night. In 1920, he left the provinces to study in the University of Havana's School of Law. Soon afterward, pressing financial need forced him to return to Camaguey and to his printing work. He became a journalist and editor of the newspaper El Camagueyano, founded a literary journal, and participated in the city's cultural institutions.
In 1926 Guillén decided to accept again the challenge of the capital city, where, thanks to a friend of his
late father, he secured a job as a typist in the Ministry of the Interior. He began writing poetry again in 1927, and was invited to contribute to a newspaper supplement highlighting the cultural achievements of Cuba's black population. This writing developed into his first important collection, Motifs of Son (1930).
The son cubano, a sensual Afro-Cuban dance rhythm, inspired Guillén to open a literary window on the reality of the black presence in Cuba. He simulated African rhythms in his verse, and he used black dialect and speech patterns. These were departures from his earlier poetic style and from European traditions that treated blacks as an exotic Other. The son became a vehicle to convey the indignation of Havana's poor blacks and their struggle against oppression and injustice, which connected back to slave rebellions and the previous generation's quest for national independence.
Deepening Social Consciousness Guillén expanded his focus in his next publication, Songoro Cosongo (1931). In this volume he emphasized the importance of mulatto culture in Cuban history, striving to reflect Cuba's true history and racial composition. The title is an example of the nonsense phrases Guillén uses to turn his poetry into syncopated rhythms reflecting the music of the people. Songoro Cosongo earned its author a worldwide reputation; many call it his masterwork.
After the fall of the corrupt government headed by Gerardo Machado in 1933 and the increasing U.S. presence in Cuba, Guillén's poetry grew overtly militant. West Indies, Ltd. (1934), depicts in bitterly satirical tones the cruel and exploitative history of slavery, Spanish colonialism, and American imperialism in the West Indies. The verses describe the Caribbean as a factory profitably exploited by foreign nations. In 1936, under the new regime of Fulgencio Batista, Guillén was arrested and briefly jailed with other editors of the journal Mediodia.
Now a Communist Party member, the poet's commitment to social change grew in 1937, when he traveled to Spain to cover the civil war for Mediodia and to participate in an international antifascist writers' conference. Before departing for Europe, he wrote a long elegy called Spain: A Poem in Four Anguishes and a Hope (1937). In another volume of poetry released that year, Songs for Soldiers and Sones for Tourists, Guillén bitingly satirizes both types of invasion, by soldiers and by tourists, that Cuban society was enduring.
Exile and Revolution Guillén spent much of the next two decades abroad, traveling around Europe and Latin America as a lecturer and journalist. His first volume available in English, Cuba Libre (1948), was translated by his friend, the iconic American poet Langston Hughes. After an uprising, led by Fidel Castro, was
suppressed in 1953, the Batista dictatorship denied Guillén permission to return to Cuba. He spent several years in unhappy exile in Paris. He wrote a volume of protest poems against the regime, The Dove of Popular Flight (1958), and a work of Elegies (1958) mourning the loss of friends and victims of political repression.
The triumph of the Cuban revolution in early 1959 immediately brought Guillén back to his homeland, where he enthusiastically embraced the cause. There his first public reading, at the invitation of Che Guevara, was to the recently victorious rebel soldiers. Guillén readily took on the role of poet laureate of the revolution. He helped found the Cuban National Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC) and headed it for more than twenty-five years. His 1964 verse collection I Have joyfully celebrates the flight of Batista, the Cuban victory over the American-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs, and the nation's abolition of racial and economic discrimination.
Among Guillén's later works, the most notable are The Great Zoo (1967), a poetic visit to a metaphorical zoo containing some of the world's curious and beautiful natural, social, and metaphysical phenomena; Hasty Prose, 1929–1972 (1972), a three-volume collection of his journalism; and The Daily Diary (1972), which combines narrative, journalistic, and poetic arts in a parody of the Cuban press of times past.
In 1981, Guillén garnered Cuba's highest honor, the Order of José Martí. In his later years, he became a member of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party. He died in 1989 after a long illness; the Cuban people mourned as his body lay in state in Havana's Revolution Square.
Works in Literary Context
Guillén frequently refers to the works of other poets as sources of reinforcement and debate. Among his influences are major Spanish and Latin American poets of the nineteenth century, such as Gustavo Adolfo Becquer, Ruben Dario, and the hero of Cuba's independence movement, José Martí. Guillén's reliance on “nonsensical” phrases and imagery in his early work, and his occasional use of the ballad form, show the influence of the acclaimed Spanish poet Federico García Lorca.
Afro-Cuban Synthesis Nicolás Guillén strove to capture the everyday reality and social complexity of Cuba. Combining European and African elements, Guillén developed a “mulatto” or “mestizo” poetry, a Caribbean poetic mold that is musical and revolutionary. His synthesis of traditional Spanish metric forms with Afro-Cuban rhythms and folklore uniquely captures the cultural flavor of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, critics have noted. He was also credited with capturing the genuine dialect and speech patterns of Cuban blacks, which he blended with onomatopoetic African words to create a unique language in which sound replaces semantic meaning. Some poems in Songoro Cosongo are abstract word-paintings, carefully crafted in rhyme, meter, and tone, but with no meaning other than rhythm and symbolic suggestion.
Love and Indignation Themes of protest against social injustice are a constant in the writing of Guillén. In melancholy or caustically satirical tones, a pronounced indignation shines through. From his earliest work, he gave poetic voice to the lives of poverty and pathos behind the picturesque facade of Havana's black slum dwellers. He frequently invokes the historical memory of slavery, which lasted in Cuba for more than three and a half centuries. His poems, and his nonfiction, place issues of race in the context of the economic imperialism he saw as draining the lifeblood from Cuba. Guillén starkly illuminates the contradiction between harsh socioeconomic circumstances and the universal aspirations for security, solidarity, and love.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Guillén's famous contemporaries include:
Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986): Argentine writer whose works were banned in Cuba under Castro.
Alejo Carpentier (1904–1980): Cuban novelist, literary theorist, and scholar of Cuban music.
Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906–2001): Senegalese poet, developer of the theory of Negritude, and President of Senegal from 1960 to 1980.
Fidel Castro (1926–): Cuban revolutionary leader and head of state from 1959 to 2008.
National Institution Two decades since his death, Guillén remains Cuba's most celebrated literary figure. Along with the Puerto Rican poet Luis Pales Matos, he was the leading practitioner of poesia negra (“black poetry”), which became an influential cultural genre for decades. The forthright social criticism in works such as West Indies Ltd. contributed to a tradition of political art and literature in Cuba that goes back to Martí. As the poetic spokesman for the Cuban revolution, and long-time leader of the writers' union, he became a venerable institution in his home country, and inspired and helped many in the younger generation.
Works in Critical Context
With his Motifs of Son, Nicolás Guillén brought a burst of energy to the artistic world of Havana. “The stir these poems provoked,” literary scholar Vera Kutzinski writes, “remains unparalleled in Cuban literary history: While their reception was largely enthusiastic, some critics were also disturbed by the aesthetic and social implications of Guillén's literary use of the son.” Poems like “Negro Bembon” (translated by Langston Hughes as “Thick-Lipped Cullud Boy”) prompted some readers to accuse Guillén of promoting negative images of black Cubans. Nevertheless, the originality and infectious musicality of his first two publications, especially Songoro Cosongo, brought him wide acclaim.
Black or Red? With West Indies Ltd., the protest element in Guillén deepened and also broadened from a racial to a social dimension. Many commentators have distinguished between his early works of poesia negra (black poetry) and the poems he produced after converting to communism. Some critics, whom Guillén, in his Hasty Prose, called “urgent and hasty,” have emphasized what they call the Afro-Cuban—playful, hypnotic, or folkloric—aspects of his poetry. Such a superficial reading can give short shrift to the sociopolitical and revolutionary focus of his work. Guillén himself rejected the term “Afro-Cuban,” pointing out that the Cuban nation is in fact “Afro-Spanish.”
Contemporary scholars have begun to focus on his work's artistic elements, his mastery of numerous poetic genres, and his commitment to revealing the authentic voice of his people. Their appreciation of Guillén has gone beyond labeling him a black poet or a political poet. According to Kutzinski, “[Guillén's] poetic texts are engaged in the forging of a literary tradition from the many disparate elements that constitute the cultural landscape of that region.” Alfred Melon, in his contribution to Tres ensayos sobre Nicolas Guillén (Three Essays on Nicolas Guillén, 1980), shares this assessment, naming Guillén a “poet of synthesis.”
A Nation's Poet After the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, Nicolás Guillén came to be regarded as Cuba's national poet. Other countries were equally appreciative. Like Pablo Neruda, he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize by the Soviet Union. Literary critics and fellow writers in many countries nominated him for the Nobel Prize in Literature. His poetry, much of which has been set to music, is sung and recited by people worldwide and has been translated into more than thirty languages.
Responses to Literature
- Using your library or the Internet, find a recording of son cubano music. What do you hear in the music that helps you appreciate Guillén's Motifs of Son? What elements can you identify that Guillén incorporated into his work?
- Some critics thought Guillén's Afro-Cuban poems contained words and images that demeaned black Cubans. Based on your reading, do you agree? Why or why not? Provide examples from the author's work to support your view.
- Compare and contrast Guillén's early poems to the poetry of Langston Hughes, who translated Guillén's work into English. Was Hughes similarly inspired by music?
- After the triumph of Fidel Castro's insurgency in 1959, Guillén went from being a revolutionary poet to a poet celebrating and defending a revolution. What differences of tone and substance do you detect between his earlier and later writing?
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Nicolás Guillén gave voice to the black contribution to Cuban life in his poetry. The following works all represent the African voice in twentieth-century poetry and popular culture.
Drumbeats of Kinkiness and Blackness (1937), a poetry collection by Luis Pales Matos. The most well-known volume of poetry by the acknowledged cocreator, along with Guillén, of the Latin American negrismo movement.
Anthology of the New Black and Malagasy Poetry in French (1948), a poetry anthology edited by Leopold Sehar Senghor. This collection was a breakthrough for the French-speaking negritude movement, founded by Senghor and Aime Cesaire in Paris.
Black Orpheus (1959), a film directed by Marcel Camus, from a play by Vinicius de Moraes. This Cannes Film Festival winner sets the Greek myth of Orpheus in Rio de Janeiro during the celebration known as Carnaval.
Zombie (1977), an album by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and Afrika 70. Fela Kuti, the Nigerian pop music star and so-called “black president,” aroused the wrath of his government with this scathing attack on the misuse of military authority.
Coulthard, G. R. Race and Colour in Caribbean Literature. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.
Ellis, Keith. Cuba's Nicolas Guillén: Poetry and Ideology. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983.
Smart, Ian Isidore. Nicolas Guillén: Popular Poet of the Caribbean. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990.
White, Clement A. Decoding the Word: Nicolas Guillénas Maker and Debunker of Myth. Miami: Ediciones Universal, 1993.
Williams, Lorna V. Self and Society in the Poetry of Nicolas Guillén. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.
Callaloo 10, No. 2 (Spring 1987): Special issue devoted to Guillén.
July 10, 1902
July 16, 1989
Nicolás Guillén was Cuba's most important and most popular twentieth century poet and one of Spanish America's most capacious and signally original poetic voices. Born in the eastern provincial city of Camagüey, his poetry's conscientiously Afro-Hispanic character, thematic foci, patterns of stress and inflection—with its distinctively Afro-Hispanic modulations and syncretic quality—became the personification and, as he early on intended, "perhaps the most apt" emblematic sign of his lyric articulation and unwavering defense of a national identity and cultural sensibility at once ethnically creole, distinctively Cuban, and broadly Antillean.
Guillén was a compelling chronicler of his island's historic odyssey under two colonial regimes (Spanish and American). His poetry served as a lyric barometer of his country's general condition, persisting inequities, and determined aspirations to a more racially egalitarian society and an authentically national sovereignty. It also reflected the political, social, and racial dramas unfolding on the wider global stage, apparent in such poems as "Soldiers in Abyssinia" (1935), Spain: A Poem in Four Agonies and One Hope (1937), "My Last Name" (1953), "Maus Maus" (1953), the poet's affecting "Elegy to Emmett Till" (1956), "Little Rock" (1957), "The Flowers Grow High" (1963), and "Small Ode to Vietnam" (1966). Guillén's verse deftly combines its author's characteristically elegiac, prophetically epic vision and radical Marxist temper with an appealingly subversive ironic wit and a wily, incisive humor.
Guillén's first published book of poems, Motivos de son (1930), revealed an unprecedented realism in the perception of black life in Havana's slums. The collection's socially complex and critically compassionate monologues brought unwonted, strikingly new dimensions to the shades of exoticism more typical of the negrista movement then coming into vogue. In the introduction to Sóngoro cosongo (1931), he wrote that in Cuba "we all have a touch of the ebony" and that, in consequence, "a Creole poetry … would not be truly such were it to ignore the Negro." The major collections which followed—West Indies, Ltd. (1934), Cantos para soldados y sones para turistas (1937), El son entero (1943), his several Elegías (1948-58), and La paloma de vuelo popular (1958)—gave a sharper quality and pitch to the poet's pioneering of his son poem, a "mulatto verse," as Guillén defined it, and the increasingly distressed "voice of rage" which the title poem of West Indies, Ltd. announces. Guillén's piercing ironies and "singing plain" censure of the "blood and weeping / [lie] behind easy laughter" take regular aim at all manner of racial and colonial or colonizing presumption. They reveal the ignominy and daily humiliations of a social system wherein "to get enough to eat / you work 'til you're almost dead," and "it's not just bending you're back, / but also bowing your head." There is also an intimation of the coming of the society's revolutionary transformation, wherein all citizens would be treated more humanely.
Guillén greeted the 1959 Cuban Revolution enthusiastically. Its impact, unfolding, achievements, and difficulties immediately became one of his work's central themes. The poems in El gran Zoo (1967), La rueda dentada (1972), El diario que a diario (1972), and Por el mar de las Antillas anda un barco de papel (1977) were infused with a new celebratory tone, and the poet's characteristically elegiac mood became both more provocative and playful. The intimate passion and longing poignancies of En algún sitio de la primavera: elegía (1986) with its chronicling of love's loss and one's own mortality, likewise gave unaccustomed inflections and resonance to an already varied corpus of poetry of love and romantic yearning.
The communicative efficacy, artistic rigor, innovative virtuosity, and lyric range that, over the course of his long career, epitomized Guillén's Afro-Hispanic poetic synthesis and critical gaze, effectively produced, in one critic's words, "a general poetic revision at the core of modern poetry written in the Spanish language" (González Echevarría, p. 302). Universally regarded as the greatest of the negrista, or black theme, poets, he also stands with César Vallejo and Pablo Neruda as one of the three most representatively original Latin American poets of his era. A national icon, he was officially proclaimed Cuba's Poeta Nacional in 1961. Elected first president of the Union of Cuban Artists and Writers just two years later, he served in that office until his death in 1989. Selections of his prose and journalistic writings can be found in the three volumes of Prosa de prisa 1929-1972 (1975–1976) and in Páginas vueltas (1982).
See also Literature
Branche, Jerome, ed. Lo que teníamos que tener: Raza y revolución en Nicolás Guillén. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh: Instituto Internacional de Literatura Iberoamericana (Serie Antonio Cornejo Polar), 2003.
González Echevarría, Roberto. "Guillén as Baroque: Meaning in Motivos de son," Callaloo 10, no. 2 (spring 1987): 302.
Márquez, Roberto, and David Arthur McMurray, trans. and eds. Man-Making Words: Selected Poems of Nicolás Guillén, 2d ed. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003.
roberto mÁrquez (2005)
The Cuban author Nicolás Guillén (1902-1989) was one of the most famous writers in Latin America. His poetry showed that he was one of the greatest innovators in Latin American verse. Guillén introduced the Hispanic world to Afro-Cuban folk and musical forms.
Nicolás Guillén was born on July 10, 1902, in Camagüey, Cuba. He was one of six children of mulatto parents. Guillén received his early education in his native Camagüey. His father, who was involved in provincial politics, was murdered when Nicolás was 17. After his father's death he helped support his family by working as a typesetter. He completed his secondary schooling in just two years and began publishing poetry which reflected the prevailing influence of Modernism in the journal Camagüey Gráfico.
In 1920 Guillén went to Havana to study law but was forced by economic restraints to return home. In 1921 he returned to Havana and managed to complete one year of formal study at law school. During this period he became actively interested in writing through his association with the literary circles of the capital. He returned to Camagüey in 1922 where, with the help of his brother, he founded the literary journal Lis and worked as the editor of a local newspaper from 1922 to 1926.
In 1926 Guillén again returned to Havana, where he worked as a typist. In the late 1920s he began writing for a special Sunday newspaper section—"Ideales de una Raza"—of the Diario de la Marina devoted to aspects of Black life. It was in this Sunday supplement that he launched his literary career with the publication on April 20, 1930, of Son Motifs. Guillén's slim collection of eight poems describing the lives of Blacks in Cuba's urban slums had an electrifying effect on both whites and Blacks who saw in it the genesis of an authentic Cuban art form. The poems were based on the son, an Afro-Cuban dance which was popular at the time and symbolized the dual ethnic/ racial makeup of the island. Although these poems explored a variety of urban situations among poor Blacks—the search for money, tension between Blacks and mulattoes, "passing"—they presented these themes from a festive, musical perspective. The poems in Son Motifs were soon set to music by composers such as Eliseo Grenet and Silestre Revueltas.
Guillén's next book, Sóngoro Cosongo (1931), was longer (it contained 15 poems) and represented a step toward artistic maturity. Although he continued to develop the themes and styles of his first book, the folkloric and picturesque elements were subordinated to capture more authentically the violence and cynicism of ghetto life. In many ways this book is reminiscent of the themes introduced by Langston Hughes in the United States with his Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927). In this second book Guillén focused slightly more attention on problems of general national concern. This was noted in the subtitle "Mulatto poems, " which clearly indicated Guillén's concern with what was properly the national essence.
Change in Style
The collection of poems West Indies Ltd (1934) marked a turning point both in Guillén's poetic techniques and in his political ideology. Here Guillén universalized his concern for the common man by expanding his vision to include all the marginated peoples of the Caribbean. For example, the poem, which gives title to the collection enumerates a long list of evils which plague the Caribbean, many of which are attributed to U.S. economic imperialism.
During the 1930s Guillén worked as a journalist for the liberal newspaper Meiodía and became increasingly involved in politics. He joined the Communist Party in 1937, the same year he made his first trip out of Cuba to attend a congress of writers and artists in Mexico. In 1937 he also traveled to Spain to attend the Second International Writers Congress for the Defense of Culture, where he met writers such as Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Langston Hughes, and Ernest Hemingway, among others. In 1937 he published two books: Songs for Soldiers and Songs for Tourists and Spain:Poem in Four Anguishes and One Hope. In these collections, Guillén increasingly turned to more universal themes and motifs and abandoned temporarily his exploration of Afro-Cuban life. Thus in Spain he decried the evils of fascism and poetically called upon the soldiers of Cortés and Pizarro to return and fight the evils of the modern era. Similarly Song for Soldiersis a moving indictment of militarism.
In 1947 Guillén published The Entire Son, a book which marked the integration of his earlier stages into a universalist apprehension of man's social dilemma. This was followed by The Dove of Popular Flight—Elegies (1958), a collection of poems written in exile from Cuba which focuses directly on social issues of the 1950s. Here Guillén treated contemporary political material in an explicit and forceful way. Typical of his political bent are poems such as "Elegy for Emmett Till" and "Little Rock" (both U.S. racial confrontations), whereas "My Last Name" is a mythological search for his African heritage. Published in 1964, I Have represented the culmination for the poet of the revolutionary process and evinced a sense of satisfaction. Later collections such as The Big Zoo (1967), The Serrated Wheel (1972), and particularly The Daily Diary (1972) show that Guillén continued to mature and was capable of producing verse which is ironic, humorous, and yet ever faithful to his artistic vision which embraced the condition of the common man.
Apart from the poetry already mentioned, Guillén wrote hundreds of essays for newspapers, many of which dealt with racial problems in Cuba. An anthology of these articles was published in 1975 under the title Hurried Prose. In 1953 he was awarded the Stalin Prize in Moscow. After the Cuban revolution in 1959, he served in a variety of diplomatic and cultural missions. In 1961 he was named National Poet of Cuba and became president of the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists.
Robert Marquez and David McMurray edited Man-making Words:Selected Poems of Nicolas Guillén's in 1972. Man-making Words was a collection of the Afro-Cuban poet's works ranging from his early experimental political poetry to his mature descriptions of the socio-historical and everyday life of his beloved Cuba. Broadening the significance of Guillén's poetry, Ian Isidore Smart wrote Nicolás Guillén, Popular Poet of the Caribbean (1990), protraying the breath and richness of the artistic ability of the poet.
Dennis Sardinha's The Poetry of Nicolás Guillén (1976) offers a good general introduction to his work and contains considerable information about his life; Frederick Stimson's The New Schools of Spanish American Poetry (1970) has a full chapter dedicated to Guillén in addition to a good bibliography; The introduction to Robert Márquez and David Arthur McMurray's Man Making Words (1972) also offers a good biographic overview of his life and works with a good discussion of his poetry of social protest; An excellent study of Guillén in relation to the poets of Negritude is found in Martha Cobb's Harlem, Haiti, and Havana:A Comparative Critical Study of Langston Hughes, Jacques Roumain and Nicolás Guillén (1979); Wilfred Cartey's Black Images (1970) has a chapter related to the poetry of Guillén which deals with the Black experience; Lorna V. William's Self and Society in the Poetry of Nicolás Guillén (1982) defines Guillén's racial identity and evaluates his sociopolitical views as they are expressed in his poetry; Keith Ellis' Cuba's Nicolás Guillén:Poetry and Ideology (1983) is the most comprehensive literary study of the totality of the poet's work to date. It contains an extensive bibliography. Also see Twentieth-century Latin American poetry:a bilingual anthology, edited by Stephen Tapscott (Univ of Texas Press, 1996). □