Ernesto Cardenal

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Ernesto Cardenal: 1925: Poet

It is nearly impossible to separate Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal from his country, or his poetry from his politics. He rose to prominence during the dark days of the four-decade-long dictatorship of the Somoza family. Cardenal used his pen as a sword to help undermine the Somoza regime, exposing its atrocities to the world. Some of his most renowned work grew out of that period, including "Zero Hour" and The Psalms of Struggle and Liberation. A Catholic priest as well as a committed activist, Cardenal was also one of the proponents of "liberation theology," a philosophy that worked to integrate spiritual ideals with social practice, namely economic liberation for the poor and oppressed. Following the overthrow of the dictatorship, the left-wing Sandinistas assumed power and appointed Cardenal as Nicaragua's first Minister of Culture, a post he held for nearly a decade. The National Catholic Reporter noted that "Ernesto Cardenal became for many the cultural symbol of the Nicaraguan revolution."

Married Poetry to Politics

Ernesto Cardenal was born on January 20, 1925, in Granada, Nicaragua, where he wrote his first poem at the age of seven. His parents, Rodolfo Cardenal and Esmerelda Martinez, provided Cardenal and his brother Fernando with a middle-class upbringing. Cardenal attended a Catholic school run by the Jesuits in Granada. Upon graduation in 1943 he left to study philosophy and literature at the National University of Mexico, earning a degree in literature in 1947. During his time in Mexico, he published several poems in local magazines.

In 1948 Cardenal traveled to New York City and spent two years studying North American literature at Columbia University. He was impressed by American poets William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman and, in particular, Ezra Pound. The Alsop Review website noted that Cardenal "[Identified Pound's] poetic style as 'exteriorismo'a word [Cardenal] coined." According to the Painted Rooster Press website, Cardenal defined the style as "objective poetry: narrative and anecdotal, made of the elements of real life and concrete things, with proper names and precise detail and exact data and numbers and facts and sayings the only poetry that can express Latin American reality, reach the people, and be revolutionary."

At a Glance . . .

Born on January 20, 1925, in Granada, Nicaragua; son of Rodolfo Cardenal and Esmerelda Martinez. Education: National University of Mexico, degree in literature, 1947; Columbia University, New York City, postgraduate study, North American literature, 1948-49; seminary training, Trappist monastery, Gethsemani, KY, 1957-59; Benedictine Monastery, Cuernavaca, Mexico, 1959-61; Le Ceja Seminary, Colombia, 1961-65. Religion: Roman Catholic. Politics: Christian-Marxist.

Career: Poet, 1960; Priest, 1965; Minister of Culture, Sandinista regime, Nicaragua, 1979-88.

Memberships: Official, Sandanista National Liberation Front (FSLN), early 1970s-95; National Union for Popular Action (UNAP), 1950s; co-director, co-founder, Casa de Los Tres Mundos, Cultural Center, Granada and Managua, Nicaragua; founder, Solentiname Commune, Nicaragua, 1966-77.

Awards: Honorary doctorates, University of Granada and Valencia, Spain, 1987, and Latin American University, Medillin, Colombia, 1986; honorary member, Academy of Fine Arts, Germany, 1986; Maximum Order of Augusto Cesar Sandino, Government of Nicaragua, 1985; Knights Order, Arts and Letters, Government of France, 1985; Peace Prize, Germany, 1980; Christopher Book Award for The Psalms of Struggle and Liberation, 1972.

Address: Office Casa de los Tres Mundos, Antigua Casa de Los Leones, Granada, Nicaragua.

In the early 1950s Cardenal was active both poetically and politically. He co-authored a multi-volume translation of North American poetry, launched a poetry magazine called El Hilo Azul ("The Blue Thread"), and published his own work as well as that of other poets. Cardenal also began to sculpt during this time, and his work has been shown in Latin America and the United States. Politically, Cardenal became increasingly disillusioned with the Somoza regime, and sought to reflect those feelings in his poetry. However, the dictatorship harshly censored any writing it deemed revolutionary. As a result, Cardenal published several poems outside of Nicaragua under the name Anonymous Nicaraguan. By 1954 he had joined the National Union for Popular Action (UNAP), an illegal revolutionary group, and on April 3 of that year, members of the group attacked the presidential palace. The attack, which history has called the "April Rebellion," was unsuccessful, and many of Cardenal's associates were captured and executed. Cardenal managed to escape and went into hiding. During this time he wrote one of his most famous poems, "Zero Hour," detailing the 1934 assassination of Nicaraguan revolutionary leader Cesar Augusto Sandino by Somoza's guard. "It's a poem of heroic evocation in which the death of a hero is also seen as the rebirth of nationhood: when the hero dies, green herbs rise where he has fallen," wrote a reviewer in National Catholic Reporter. It was a poem that used history to urge Nicaraguans to continue their struggle against oppression and dictatorship. The poem was an example of Cardenal's "exteriorismo."

Found Inspiration in Religion

In 1956, at the age of 31, Cardenal experienced the first of two incidents he called "conversions," and he decided to become a monk. He renounced all forms of violence and took up residence in the Trappist monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky. Cardenal studied under the well-known religious scholar and poet Thomas Merton, who was in charge of the novices at the monastery. He and Merton became very close and Merton would later write the forewords to Cardenal's Gethsemani, Ky in 1960 and To Live is to Love in 1970. The former was a series of short poems written on the theme of God's love. The latter was a collection of spiritual meditations on the theme of universal love. A stomach ulcer forced Cardenal to abandon his studies at Gethsemani and return to Latin America. There he recovered and resumed his seminary studies at the Benedictine Monastery in Cuernavaca, Mexico. In 1961 he moved to Colombia and studied for four more years at the Le Ceja Seminary. While in Colombia he completed Epigrams and The Psalms of Struggle and Liberation. The latter won the prestigious Peace Prize for literature from the West German government in 1980. He also completed Prayer for Marilyn Monroe and Other Poems, a collection of poetry critical of the excesses of affluent society, "in which commercialization is seen to have replaced emotional spontaneity," noted the website for Curbstone Press. He also began to research the lives and history of the local indigenous populations, visiting several Indian tribes. The poems in his volume Homage to the American Indians portray the lives of the pre-Colombian natives as spiritually superior to those in money-driven modern society.

Cardenal returned to Nicaragua in 1965, where he was ordained a priest. He soon began building a religious refuge on a lush tropical island in Lake Nicaragua. Founded in 1966, Solentiname was a commune of artists, writers, peasants, and others who sought a contemplative spiritual life, and it also included a school of primitive painting, which produced widely acclaimed works. Life in Solentiname reflected Cardenal's philosophy that men could live in harmony with nature and with each other if they adhered to Christian principles, including those which advocated non-violence. On Sundays, rather than attend a traditional sermon given by a priest, the commune's residents gathered together to take part in a dialogue about spiritual matters. Cardenal began tape-recording these meetings, and in 1975 published them in a multi-volume set called The Gospel in Solentiname. It was considered an important work in the newly emerging philosophy of "liberation theology." While at Solentiname, Cardenal also published one of his most important poems, The Doubtful Strait. Using myth and history, the long poem reexamines the conquests of Christopher Columbus in Central America and juxtaposes them with commentary on the Somoza regime in Nicaragua. Reflecting Cardenal's spirituality, the poem also uses Biblical imagery and implies that Central America's history, like that of the rest of the world, will ultimately bend to God's divine will.

In 1970 Cardenal visited Cuba and had his second "conversion." He spent three months there and had a meeting with Fidel Castro, the country's revolutionary leader. Though he was aware that the island had some serious economic problems, he became convinced that Nicaragua could also have a successful revolution. He felt that if Nicaraguans could accept the ideals that he practiced in Solentiname, post-revolutionary Nicaragua would be a success. According to the Curbstone Press website, "Cardenal changed his stance on violence and decreed that militancy would be necessary to achieve the Christian goals of peace and brotherhood desired by the anti-Somozan majority." The pacifism he had practiced since his days at Gethsemani seemed to be no longer practical. In 1972 he published En Cuba, an account of his trip.

Became Spokesman for Sandinistas

Cardenal became increasingly involved with the Sand-inista National Liberation Front (FSLN). Named for Sandino, Nicaragua's revolutionary hero, the leftist group waged guerrilla warfare in its attempts to oust the Somoza government. Cardenal served as their field chaplain and international spokesperson. In 1972 he published Canto Nacional, which was dedicated to the FSLN. That same year a severe earthquake devastated Nicaragua, destroying Managua. An estimated 10,000 people were killed and 300,000 were left homeless. International aid poured in to help rebuild the country, but Somoza and his cronies diverted much of the relief money into their own accounts. When the news of these actions became known, the country was outraged. Anger increased when Somoza rigged the 1974 presidential elections, ensuring his continued reign. This anger led to more support for the FSLN.

In October of 1977 the Sandinistas launched an attack on Somoza's barracks in San Carlos. Many who participated in the attack were from Solentiname, and in retaliation the government destroyed the refuge. Fortunately, Cardenal had been ordered out of the country by the Somoza leadership days earlier. His role as the voice of the Sandinista movement was much too valuable to be jeopardized. The conflict escalated over the next two years, during which Cardenal fulfilled his role as spokesman, telling the world about the reality of the revolution. Finally, the Somoza regime fell and the Sandinistas took office on July 19, 1979. Cardenal returned home as the first Minister of Culture in Nicaragua's history. In that role he promoted literacy and held poetry workshops throughout the country. The National Catholic Reporter wrote, "By giving people their voices, he created a cultural rebirth in his country, and the recreation of national identity and pride among the working class." Though Cardenal was busy in his new role, he did produce one notable work, 1984's Flights of Victory: Songs in Celebration of the Nicaraguan Revolution.

Sadly things did not progress in Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, though strides were made in healthcare, literacy, and agriculture. Like the Somozas before them, top Sandinista officials began to amass great personal wealth at the expense of the people. And the new Reagan Administration in the United States, opposed to the Sandinista's Marxist philosophies, began supplying money and arms to guerrilla bands of counter-revolutionaries known as the Contras. Instead of the peaceful utopia that Cardenal had hoped for, Nicaragua was plunged into an economic and social depression. The Sandinista government, which had won the country's first post-revolution elections in 1984, became increasingly dictatorial, quashing opponents and terrorizing communities thought to provide refuge for the Contras. Cardenal began to distance himself from the FSLN, though he maintained his role as Minister of Culture until 1988.

Maintained Dream of Utopia

In 1990 and in 1996, the Sandinistas lost the presidential elections. Though many remained loyal to the FSLN, Cardenal renounced his membership in the party in January of 1995. He was deeply disturbed by the human rights violations committed by the FSLN, as well as the increasing corruption within the party. He told the National Catholic Reporter, "The revolution was corrupted when we lost the elections. There was desperation that came along with that loss of power, and there was anxiety to get it back. The leaders of the party created a commander who rules in an authoritarian way." He was referring to Daniel Ortega, the former Sandinista president.

In 1989 Cardenal published what many critics consider his masterpiece, Cosmic Canticle. The nearly 500-page poem tackles the big questions: who are we, why are we here, where are we going. A reviewer on the Alsop Review website noted that Cardenal said the poem is "the culmination of my life's work of some thirty years." Cardenal continued, "It deals with the entire cosmos. That's why the poem is so long. It is principally written in scientific language. I attempt here to unify science and poetry; also poetry and politics, science and mysticism, and mysticism and revolution!" When not composing or reading poetry, Cardenal devoted his time to the Casa de los Tres Mundos, the cultural center he co-founded in 1992 in Granada, Nicaragua. Though his days were filled with art, he was not immune to the strife all around him. In 1998 Nicaragua was rocked by Hurricane Mitch, which killed over 6,000 people and left over 300,000 homeless. By the dawn of the new millennium, Nicaragua was the second poorest nation in Latin America, behind Haiti. It continued to be plagued by economic, political, and social instability. Yet Cardenal, still strong in his faith, continued to express hope for the future. He told the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, "Still we have to maintain our hope for a utopia."

Selected writings

Gethsemani, Ky., Ecuador 0 Degrees, 1960.

Oracion por Marilyn Monroe, y otros poemas, Ediciones La Tertulia, 1965, translated as Marilyn Monroe and Other Poems, Search Press, 1975.

El estrecho dudoso, Ediciones Cultura Hispanica, 1966, translated as The Doubtful Strait, Indiana University Press, 1995.

Salmos, Institucion Gran Duque de Alba, 1967, translated as The Psalms of Struggle and Liberation, Herder & Herder, 1971.

Homenaje a los indios americanos, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Nicaragua, 1969, translated as Homage to the American Indians, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

Vida en el Amor, Lohle, 1970, translated as To Live Is to Love, Herder & Herder, 1972.

La hora cero y otros poemas, Ediciones Saturno, 1971, translated as Zero Hour and Other Documentary Poems, New Directions, 1980.

En Cuba, Lohle, 1972, translated as In Cuba, New Directions, 1974.

El Evangelio en Solentiname, Ediciones Sigueme, 1975, translated as The Gospel in Solentiname, Orbis Books, 1976.

From Nicaragua with Love: Poems 1979-1986, City Lights Press, 1986.

Golden UFOs: The Indian Poems/Los Ovnis de oro: poemas indios, Indiana University Press, 1992.

Cosmic Canticle, Curbstone Press, 1993.



Los Angeles Times, July 26, 1999.

National Catholic Reporter, May 27, 1994, p. 28; May 26, 1995, p. 9.


El Mundo (Madrid, Spain), (March 21, 2003).

"Ernesto Cardenal," Curbstone Press (March 21, 2003).

"Ernesto Cardenal," Painted Rooster Press, (March 21, 2003).

"Ernesto Cardenal, Cosmic Canticle," Alsop Review, (March 21, 2003).

Candace LaBalle

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Ernesto Cardenal

Ernesto Cardenal (born 1925) a Roman Catholic priest, had become a poet of major standing by the end of the twentieth century. His epic works spoke to a proud people of its heritage. They spoke to people around the world, as well, with a human spirit that went beyond pure poetry.

Cardenal's role as a priest and spiritual mentor was evident throughout his more than 35 books of poetry. He wrote poems, and translated the works of others-many speaking out against Anastasio Samoza, the dictator who ruled Nicaragua for decades. His support for the anti-government movement (Sandanistas), led to the overthrow of the Samoza dictatorship in 1979.

Ernesto Cardenal was born in Grenada, Nicaragua, on January 20, 1925. He was the son of Rodolfo and Esmerelda Martinez Cardenal. Ernesto was raised in a middle-class family of 19th century European immigrants. Legend had it that a family member was William Walker, one of many Southern Confederates who defected to Central and South America. Their intention had been to create a slave-holding state in Nicaragua in the way they had been unable to continue to do in the United States. His poem, With Walker in Nicaragua, is his own study of that expedition. Cardenal attended the University of Mexico from 1944 until 1948. He spent the following academic year (1948-1949) at Columbia University in New York City, studying American literature. Following his U.S. studies, Cardenal traveled in Europe, returning to Nicaragua in 1950.

Cardenal soon became involved in his country's political unrest. In 1954, he was one of the participants in what became known as the "April Rebellion," when anti-Samoza forces stormed the presidential palace. His political activities forced Cardenal to flee the country in 1957.

By the time of his return to Nicaragua, Cardenal had already begun publishing his poems, many with political themes. One poem in particular, his famous Hora Zero ("Zero Hour") that dealt with the assassination of Sandino, a revolutionary hero, was published underground. This and other poems had to be distributed clandestinely, evading the Samoza regime's watchful eye. Many of his early works were distributed along with other revolutionary literature.

Cardenal went to the Trappist monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky as a novice and considered becoming a monk. He spent two years there with the noted author, Thomas Merton, known for his bestseller entitled Seven Story Mountain. In his introduction to Cardenal's spiritual writings published in To Live Is to Love, (1972), Merton talked about Cardenal's time with him at the abbey. "During the ten years that I was Master of Novices at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, I never attempted to find out what the novices were writing down in the note-books they kept in their desks. If they wished to talk about it, they were free to do so. Ernesto Cardenal was a novice at Gethsemani for two years, and I knew about his notes and his poems. He spoke to me about his ideas and his meditations. I also knew about his simplicity, his loyalty to his vocation, and his dedication to love. But I never imagined that some day I was going to write an introduction to the simple meditations he was writing down in those days, nor that in reading them (almost ten years later) I would find so much clarity, profundity, and maturity."

Due to ill health, Cardenal left Gethsemani and returned to Nicaragua. His commitment vocation to the Roman Catholic priesthood did not waiver. He was ordained in 1965 in Madrid, Spain. Cardenal continued his work as a priest as well as his writing. A religious community Cardenal established on the island of Solentiname in Lake Nicaragua included writers, artists, other religious figures, and local peasants. From that commune he continued his work for the revolution. His philosophy and spirituality was an unusual mixture of Catholic Christianity and Marxist Socialism.

Papal Reprimand

Cardenal was one of several key Central and South American priests who attempted to integrate their religious and political views into a new ideology that became known as "liberation theology." The focus of this movement was to join political with spiritual forces, and to preach liberation for all oppressed peoples. Advocates varied in the degree to which they strayed from traditional Roman church law. Some used it as a forum to call for the ordination of married men and women to the priesthood. Some were less radical in that regard, but courted political ideologies in equal standing with their religious function.

The success of the Sandanista revolution in 1979 brought a new role for Cardenal. He held the position of minister of culture until 1988. In 1983, when Pope John Paul II toured Central America, he expressed his concern for the discord in this region. As Richard N. Ostling reported in the March 7, 1983 issue of Time magazine, John Paul's flock in Latin America was "split into at least three factions: the traditionalist right wing, the reform-minded middle, and the radical revolutionary left." In direct defiance of the Roman Catholic code of canon law, (the group of law that exists to govern the operations of the Catholic church around the world) Cardenal and another priest, Miguel D'Escoto Brockmann held government positions. Canon law does not allow a priest to hold a government office without the permission of his local bishops. Even though the bishops withdrew that permission in 1981, Cardenal and Brockmann remained in office.

When John Paul visited Nicaragua in 1983, Cardenal attempted to greet the Pope in the traditional manner of dropping to one knee and kissing his ring. John Paul pulled his hand away from Cardenal and shook his finger at him. The world looked on uncomfortably.

Cardenal left the Sandanista movement in October 1994 when he became disillusioned with the government of President Daniel Ortega. "The truth is," Cardenal said at the time, "that a small group headed by Daniel Ortega has taken over the Sandinista Front. This is not the Sandanista Front we joined. Because of this I have considered it my duty to resign." As minister of culture, Cardenal had become increasingly subject to the control of government officials. He found he had less time to write. The major positive aspect of his work was setting up literacy and poetry workshops throughout the country.

His Work in Words

Cardenal was a poet and writer who produced volumes of work. Much of it was translated into English and published for distribution around the world. Among his works in addition to Zero Hour, were: Flights of Victory, Vida en el Amor, (published in English as To Live Is to Love) in 1972; Psalms of Struggle and Liberation, for which he won the Christopher Book Award, and With Walker. His English translation poetry volumes included, Marilyn Monroe and Other Poems, 1965; Apocalypse and Other Poems, 1977; Nicaraguan New Time, 1988; Cosmic Canticle, 1993; and, The Doubtful Strait, 1995.

With Walker in Nicaragua, Cardenal seemed to be coming to terms with his own past, dealing with the purported familial connection he shared with Walker. As Elman further noted in his review in The Nation, the poem was "narrated by a survivor, in a voice still awed by the jungle, the deaths, the tropics, the wonder of a land, a people. It is a report on a time when the land was unsullied, the air clear, and imperialist either bloody-minded or awestruck." In a book review in The Christian Century, in May 1982, Cardenal's poetry found in Psalms was praised. "In the pages of Psalms can be found hymns of praise, strong paeans expressing exuberance and joy. Yet it is the harsh cry for justice and peace which makes these poems memorable," said the reviewer.

Cardenal brought the Nicaraguan struggle to every reader of his poetry. His vivid portrayals provided a critical glimpse into a society struggling against oppression. Cardenal traveled to Cuba in the early 1970s in order to seek out the history of other struggles. He spent four hours with Castro. Cardenal published notes from his trip, as well as the works of Cuban writers in a 1972 book entitled, In Cuba. Choice, magazine called Cardenal, "one of the world's major poets" who "struggled to convince himself that the underlying force in the universe was divine purpose rather than pure chance. For him, the politics of commitment was essential to the poetic discourse, just as love, the ultimate cohesive principle, was necessary to preserve the oneness of creation."

Cardenal left the government but continued his work for the literary consciousness of his country and the political consciousness that he needed to live a life of universal love. He served as vice president of Casa de Las Tres Mundos, a literary and cultural organization based in Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua. Cardenal also traveled to the U.S. to read and present his work to students and others. American poet, Robert Bly, said that Cardenal continued "the tradition of Pablo Neruda," who had said, "all the pure poets will fall on their face in the snow. Cardenal's poetry is impure, defiantly, in that it unites political ugliness and the beauty of imaginative vision."

The Teacher

Cardenal's poetry was more than poetry alone. Thomas Merton concluded his introduction to To Live Is to Love, with these comments about Cardenal. "Ernesto Cardenal left Gethsemani because of ill health. However, today I can see that this is not the only reason: it did not make sense to continue at Gethsemani as a novice and as a student when actually he was already a teacher." Still Cardenal's own words at the end of that same book pointed to his own spirituality, his own sense of himself. He said, "God knows that what is not good for me today may be good for me tomorrow. And God may not wish something today that He may wish at some future time; or He may wish something to happen at a particular place which He does not wish to happen at another place, or He may wish something for me that He does not wish for others. When Joan of Arc was asked during her trial whether God loved the British, she answered: 'God does not love the British in France.' This hints at the mysterious vocation of us all. God may like a dictator who hails from Nicaragua, but He does not want him to be the dictator of Nicaragua."

Cardenal's life was continually evolving as he continued to answer what he believed to be his call from God. As a priest and poet he served an honest and generous piece of his own talents.

Further Reading

Contemporary Authors, Gale, 1998, Volume 66.

The Christian Century, May 26, 1982, p. 638.

The Nation, January 28, 1984, pp. 96-99; March 30, 1985, pp. 372-375.

National Catholic Reporter, February 6, 1981, p. 4; December 9, 1983, p. 3.

Time, March 7, 1983, pp. 52-54.

"Cardenal, Ernesto, biographical profile, New York State Writers Institute," University at Albany-State University of New York website, (April 10, 1999). □