Nicolás Guillén

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Nicolás Guillén
Born 10 July 1902
Died 16 July 1989
Genres Poetry
Subjects Black poetry (poesía negra)

Nicolás Cristóbal Guillén Batista (10 July 1902 – 16 July 1989) was a Cuban poet, journalist, political activist, and writer. He is best remembered as the national poet of Cuba.[1]

Guillén was born in Camagüey, Cuba. He studied law at the University of Havana, but he soon abandoned a legal career and worked as a typographer and journalist.

His poetry was published in various magazines from the early 1920s and his first collection, Motivos de son, appeared in 1930. West Indies, Ltd., published in 1934, was Guillén's first collection of poetry with political implications.[2] Cuba's dictatorial Machado regime had been overthrown in 1933, but political repression in the following years intensified. In 1936, with other editors of Mediodía, Guillén was arrested on trumped-up charges, and spent some time in jail. In 1937 he joined the Communist Party[2] and made his first trip abroad–to attend a Congress of Writers and Artists in Spain. During his travels in the country he covered Spain's Civil War as a magazine reporter.[1]

Guillén returned to Cuba via Guadeloupe. He stood as a Communist in the local elections of 1940. The following year he was refused a visa to enter the United States, but he travelled widely over the next twenty years – in South America, China and Europe. Guillén's poetry was increasingly becoming imbued with issues of cross-cultural Marxist dialectic.[3] He was prevented by the Batista government from entering Cuba in 1953,[1] but was welcomed back by Fidel Castro after the revolution, becoming appointed president of the Unión Nacional de Escritores de Cuba–the National Cuban Writers' Union–in 1961.[2] He also wrote some evocative and poignant poetry highlighting social conditions, such as "Problemas de Subdesarrollo" and "Dos Niños". He was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1954, which was later renamed for Lenin under de-Stalinization and also the Laureate Of The International Botev Prize in 1976. He was the inaugural winner of Cuba's National Prize for Literature (1983).

Nicolás Guillén died in 1989 at age 87 and was buried in the Colon Cemetery, Havana. His nephew was experimental Cuban filmmaker Nicolás Guillén Landrián (1938–2003).

Early life[edit]

Nicolás Guillén Batista was born July 10, 1902, in Camagüey, Cuba. Guillén was the sixth child of Argelia Batista y Arrieta and Nicolás Guillén y Urra, both of whom were of mixed African-Spanish descent. His father was a journalist who introduced him to Afro-Cuban music when he was very young. The government assassinated Guillén's father, and as Nicolas and his brothers and sister finished school in pre-revolutionary Cuba they encountered the same racism Black Americans lived with before the 1950s.[4]

Literary works[edit]

Guillén’s mixed African and Spanish descent gave him the opportunity to combine his knowledge of traditional literary form with firsthand experience of the speech, legends, songs, and sones of the Afro-Cubans in his first volume of poetry, Motivos de son, which was soon acclaimed as a masterpiece and widely imitated.[5] In the 1920s, when Afro-Cuban sounds and instruments were changing the world of Cuban music, Afro-Cuban culture began to spread to the realms of art and literature. Initially, Afro-Cuban poetry, or "negrista" poetry, was mainly published by white Cubans such as Emilio Ballagas, Alejo Carpentier, and José Tallet. It was not until the 1930s when Guillén would appeal to the literary society by giving an accurate personal account of the struggles, dreams, and mannerisms in the Afro-Cuban.[6]

Guillén became outspoken politically, No longer satisfied with mere picturesque portrayal of the daily life of the poor, and began to decry their oppression in the volumes Sóngoro cosongo and West Indies Ltd. Guillen also wrote poems of Cantos para soldados y sones para turistas, which reflected his growing commitment.[5] Guillén is probably the best-known representative of the "poesía negra" ("black poetry") that tried to create a synthesis between black and white cultural elements, a "poetic mestizaje".[7] Characteristic for his poems is the use of onomatopoetic words ("Sóngoro Cosongo", "Mayombe-bombe") that try to imitate the sound of drums or the rhythm of the son. Silvestre Revueltas's symphonic composition Sensemayá was based on Guillén's poem of the same name, and became that composer's best known work.

Guillén later became acknowledge by many critics as the most influential of those Latin American poets who dealt with African themes and re-created African song and dance rhythms in literary form.[5] Guillen made an international mark for himself with the publication of Motivos de son. The work was inspired by the living conditions of Afro-Cubans and the popular "Son" music. The publication consisted of eight short poems that were composed using the everyday language of the Afro Cubans. The collection stood out in the literary world because it emphasized and established the importance of Afro-Cuban culture as a valid genre in Cuban literature.[8]

In Man-Making words: Selected Poems of Nicolás Guillén, Angel Aguier, in reference to Motivos de son, wrote that "the son, a passionate dance born of the Negro-white encounter under Caribbean skies in which the words and music of the people culminate in song, is the basic substance of the elemental poetry which Guillen intuitively felt as the expression of the Cuban spirit.… He specifically chose the son as the mixed artistic creation of the two races that make up the Cuban population; for the son, in form and content, runs the full gamut of every aspect of our national character." [9] This quote establishes how the son, such a profound musical genre of that time, initiated the fusion of black and white Cuban culture, which, with Guillén's incorporation of the genre into his writings, symbolized and created a pathway for the same cultural fusion in Cuban literature.

Guillén's unique approach of incorporating the son into poetry was one of the aspects of his book Sóngoro consongo (1931). In this literary work, Guillén included poems that depicted the lives of Cubans and emphasized the importance of Afro-Cuban culture in Cuban history. Sóngoro consongo authentically captures the realistic essence of the Afro-Cuban lifestyle and the ways in which they deal with their personal situations.[2]

One of Guillén's works, "La canción del bongó", from Sóngoro consongo, is a fusion of West African and Hispanic literary styles, contributing to the uniqueness of Guillén's literary vision.

Esta es la canción del bongó:
—Aquí el que más fino sea,
responde, si llamo yo.
Unos dicen: Ahora mismo,
otros dicen: Allá voy.
Pero mi repique bronco,
pero mi profunda voz,
convoca al negro y al blanco,
que bailan el mismo son,
cueripardos y almiprietos
más de sangre que de sol,
pues quien por fuera no es de noche,
por dentro ya oscureció.
Aquí el que más fino sea,
responde, si llamo yo.

En esta tierra, mulata
de africano y español
(Santa Bárbara de un lado,
del otro lado, Changó),
siempre falta algún abuelo,
cuando no sobra algún Don
y hay títulos de Castilla
con parientes en Bondó:
Vale más callarse, amigos,
y no menear la cuestión,
porque venimos de lejos,
y andamos de dos en dos.
Aquí el que más fino sea,
responde si llamo yo.

Habrá quién llegue a insultarme,
pero no de corazón;
habrá quién me escupa en público,
cuando a solas me besó...
A ése, le digo:
ya me pedirás perdón,
ya comerás de mi ajiaco,
ya me darás la razón,
ya me golpearás el cuero,
ya bailarás a mi voz,
ya pasearemos del brazo,
ya estarás donde yo estoy:
ya vendrás de abajo arriba,
¡que aquí el más alto soy yo!

This poem, like many in Sóngoro consongo, incorporates the rhythmic sounds of son. The poem has a rhythm, unlike most poems that focus on the number of syllables, which focuses on the marking of stressed and unstressed syllables in strong and weak beats. "La canción del bongó" is one of Guillén's poems that truly stands out, according to Dellita L. Martin, because "it is the only one to indicate Guillén's painfully increasing awareness of racial conflicts in Cuba".[10]

The Meeting of Langston Hughes and Nicolás Guillén[edit]

José Antonio Fernández de Castro, the publisher of the Havana, Cuba daily Diario de la Marina and the first to translate Langston Hughes’s poetry to Spanish, was responsible for the meeting of the two poets. Fernandez de Castro was a white Cuban from an aristocratic family who loved black Cuba. He was a newspaperman, a diplomat and a friend to Cuba’s artists.

In February 1930, Langston Hughes traveled to Cuba for the second time. He was on a two-week mission to find a black composer to collaborate with him on a folk opera and was armed with a letter of introduction to José Antonio Fernández de Castro, his door to Cuba’s artistic world. By this time Hughes’s poetry was better known to Cubans than that of Guillén, so the American’s arrival created quite a stir in the artistic community. On 9 March 1930, the Cuban poet published an article in the Diario de la Marina entitled “Conversación con Langston Hughes”, in which he describes the surprise upon meeting Hughes at his arrival in Havana. Apparently the Cuban welcoming contingent expected a practically white, tall and heavyset man in his forties with thin lips and an even thinner English-style mustache. Instead they saw a twenty-seven-year-old slight brown man without a mustache. Nicolás Guillén wrote that Mr. Hughes “parece justamente un mulatico cubano” - looks just like a Cuban mulatto.

Nicolás Guillén was especially taken with Langston’s warm personality and enthusiasm for the son music that he heard on the nightly forays into Cuba’s Marinao district that Fernandez de Castro organized. Apparently, Langston was a hit with the soneros who made the district famous for dance and music. This enthusiasm for Cuban music was to have a profound effect on Nicolás Guillén. Langston Hughes immediately saw the similarities between son and the blues as folk music traditions whose form was based on the call-and-response structure of African music. Additionally, he saw its possibilities as an organic base for formal poetry.[11] According to Arnold Rampersad, it was Hughes who recommended to Guillén that he should make the rhythms of the son central to his poetry as he himself had done with blues and jazz.

These folk musical traditions did not only have rhythmic import to Langston Hughes, they were also a vehicle for protest against racial inequality. Both poets shared anger against racism, but Langston Hughes impressed Nicolás Guillén with his particular kind of racial consciousness. Although Guillén had previously shown a strong sense of outrage against racism and economic imperialism, he had not yet done so in language inspired by native, Afro-Cuban speech, song, and dance; and he had been far more concerned with protesting racism than with affirming the power and beauty of Cuban blackness.

Within weeks of meeting the poet from the United States, Guillén, quickly wrote eight poems that were different from all of his previous work. Much controversy in the Cuban art world followed, as well as the lasting fame of Nicolás Guillén as one of the premier poets of the Négritude movement. On 21 April 1930, Guillén would send to Langston Hughes a copy of the fruit of his inspiration, his book of poetry Motivos de Son. The author wrote on the inside cover of this tiny 12-page book, “Al poeta Langston Hughes, querido amigo mío. Afectuosamente, Nicolás Guillén”. Langston Hughes, though failing in his task of finding a composer, succeeded in creating a lasting friendship with Nicolás Guillén based on a mutual respect for each other’s poetry and convictions about racial inequality.[12]

Major works[edit]

  • Motivos de son (1930)
  • Sóngoro cosongo (1931)
  • West Indies Ltd. (1934)
  • España: poema en cuatro angustias y una esperanza (1937)
  • Cantos para soldados y sones para turistas (1937)
  • El son entero (1947)
  • Elegías (1948–1958)
  • Tengo (1964)
  • Poemas de amor (1964)
  • El gran zoo (1967)
  • La rueda dentada (1972)
  • El diario que a diario (1972)
  • Por el mar de las Antillas anda un barco de papel. Poemas para niños y mayores de edad (1977)
  • Yoruba from Cuba: Selected Poems of Nicolas Guillen (trans. Salvador Ortiz-Carboneres; Peepal Tree Press, 2005)


  • Antologia Oral: Poesia Hispanoamericana del Siglo XX / Oral Anthology: Spanish-American Poetry of the 20th Century (Folkways Records, 1960)
  • Nicolás Guillén: Poet Laureate of Revolutionary Cuba (Folkways, 1982)

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c Associated Press, "Nicolas Guillen, 87, National Poet of Cuba", The New York Times, 18 July 1989: A19.
  2. ^ a b c d "Nicolás Guillén 1902–1989", Poetry Criticism. Retrieved 9 March 2009.
  3. ^ Tapscott, Stephen. Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1996, p. 176. ISBN 0-292-78140-7, ISBN 978-0-292-78140-5.
  4. ^ "Nicolas Guillen". Retrieved 6 November 2012. 
  5. ^ a b c "Nicolas Guillen". Retrieved 6 November 2012. 
  6. ^ Benítez-Rojo, Antonio. "The role of music in the emergence of Afro-Cuban culture". Research in African Literatures 29. (1998) : 1.179-189
  7. ^ Duno Gottberg, Luis, Solventando las diferencias: la ideología del mestizaje en Cuba. Madrid: Iberoamericana – Frankfurt am Main: Vervuert, 2003.
  8. ^ Nicholas Guillén, Cuban Poet. Books on Cuba. 7 March 2010.
  9. ^ Aguier, Angel, and Joseph M. Bernstein. "The Cuban Poetry of Nicolas Guillen", Phylon 12 (1951): 1. 29-36. 5 March 2010.
  10. ^ Matin, Dellita L. "West African and Hispanic Elements in Nicolás Guillén's ‘La canción del bongó’", South Atlantic Bulletin. 45.1 (1980): 47-53. JSTOR
  11. ^ Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes (1986), p. 178.
  12. ^ Gray, Kathryn, "The Influence of Musical Folk Traditions in the Poetry of Langston Hughes and Nicolas Guillen" (1997).

External links[edit]