Nicolás Guillén

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.

Early Work

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.

Further Reading on Nicolás Guillén

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).