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)
Nicolas Guillen (right) receiving the Stalin Peace Prize. Guillen, Nicolas, photograph. AP images.
Nicolas Guillen 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). Guillen 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. Nicolas Cristobal Guillen 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 Guillen’s political outlook and creative writing.
The Son Cubano. Guillen 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 Guillen 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 Guillen 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. Guillen 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 Guillen 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, Guillen’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, Guillen 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, Guillen bitingly satirizes both types of invasion, by soldiers and by tourists, that Cuban society was enduring.
Exile and Revolution. Guillen 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 Guillen 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 Guillen 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. Guillen 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 Guillen’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, Guillen garnered Cuba’s highest honor, the Order of Jose Marti. 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.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Guillen's famous contemporaries include:
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986): Argentine writer whose works were banned in Cuba under Castro.
Langston Hughes (1902-1967): American poet of the Harlem Renaissance; a friend and English translator of Guillen.
Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980): Cuban novelist, literary theorist, and scholar of Cuban music.
Pablo Neruda (1904-1973): Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet and communist diplomat.
Leopold Sedar 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.
Works in Literary Context
Guillen 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, Jose Marti. Guillen’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 Garcia Lorca.
Afro-Cuban Synthesis. Nicolas Guillen strove to capture the everyday reality and social complexity of Cuba. Combining European and African elements, Guillen 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 Guillen. 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. Guillen starkly illuminates the contradiction between harsh socioeconomic circumstances and the universal aspirations for security, solidarity, and love.
National Institution. Two decades since his death, Guillen 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 Marti. As the poetic spokesman for the Cuban revolution, and longtime leader of the writers’ union, he became a venerable institution in his home country, and inspired and helped many in the younger generation.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Nicolas Guillen 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 Guillen, 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.
Works in Critical Context
With his Motifs of Son, Nicolas Guillen 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 Guillen’s literary use of the son.’’ Poems like ‘‘Negro Bembon’’ (translated by Langston Hughes as ‘‘ThickLipped Cullud Boy’’) prompted some readers to accuse Guillen 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 Guillen 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 Guillen, 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. Guillen 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 Guillen has gone beyond labeling him a black poet or a political poet. According to Kutzinski, ‘‘[Guillen’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 Guillen (Three Essays on Nicolas Guillen, 1980), shares this assessment, naming Guillen a ‘‘poet of synthesis.’’
A Nation’s Poet. After the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, Nicolas Guillen 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 nom- mated 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
1. Using your library or the Internet, find a recording of son cubano music. What do you hear in the music that helps you appreciate Guillen’s Motifs of Son? What elements can you identify that Guillen incorporated into his work?
2. Some critics thought Guillen’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.
3. Compare and contrast Guillen’s early poems to the poetry of Langston Hughes, who translated Guillen’s work into English. Was Hughes similarly inspired by music?
4. After the triumph of Fidel Castro’s insurgency in 1959, Guillen 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?
Coulthard, G. R. Race and Colour in Caribbean Literature. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.
Ellis, Keith. Cuba’s Nicolas Guillen: Poetry and Ideology. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983.
Irish, J. A. George. Nicolas Guillen: Growth of a Revolutionary Consciousness. New York: Medgar Evers College, City University of New York, 1990.
Kubayanda, Josphat B. The Poet’s Africa: Africanness in the Poetry of Nicolas Guillen and Aime Cesaire. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Kutzinski, Vera M. Against the American Grain: Myth and History in William Carlos Williams, Jay Wright, and Nicolas Guillen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.
Smart, Ian Isidore. Nicolas Guillen: Popular Poet of the Caribbean. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990.
White, Clement A. Decoding the Word: Nicolas Guillen as Maker and Debunker of Myth. Miami: Ediciones Universal, 1993.
Williams, Lorna V. Self and Society in the Poetry of Nicolas Guilleen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.
Callaloo 10, No. 2 (Spring 1987): Special issue devoted to Guillen.