Born: Camaguey, Cuba, 10 July 1902. Education: Educated at the Instituto de Segunda Ensenanza, Camaguey, to 1920; studied law at the University of Havana, 1920 and 1921-22: abandoned studies. Career: Worked for El Nacional as printer and typesetter while taking evening classes, 1918-19; contributor, Camaguey Grafico, 1919, Orto, 1920 and 1927, Las Dos Republicas, 1920, and Alma Mater, 1922; co-founder and editor, Lis, 1923; editor, El Camagueyano, 1923; typist, Ministry of the Interior, Havana, 1926; contributor, Diario de la Marina, from 1928, editor, Informacion and El Loco, from 1934; worked in the Havana Ministry of Culture, 1935-36; editor, Mediodia, 1936-38; travelled to Spain and attended pro-Republican conferences, 1937; joined National Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, 1938, and worked on its journal Hoy, 1938-50 (closed by the authorities) and from its revival in 1959; unsuccessful mayoral candidate, Camaguey, 1940; travelled to Haiti, 1942, and throughout Latin America on lecture and recital tour, 1945-48; co-editor, Gaceta del Caribe, 1944; travelled widely throughout Europe, USSR, and China, attending conferences and cultural events, 1948-52; contributor, La Ultima Hora, 1952; detained twice for activities against the Batista regime, 1952; left Cuba for Chile, 1953, and, though based in Paris, 1955-58, continued travelling widely during the 1950s; lived in Buenos Aires, 1958-59; returned to Cuba after the Castro Revolution, 1959, and thereafter combined career as writer with attendances at numerous international conferences, lectures, and cultural events, often in other countries of the socialist bloc, and often in an official capacity as Cuban ambassador at large or president of the Cuban Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC) (appointed 1961); member, Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, from 1975; had leg amputated, June 1989. Professor of Merit, University of Camaguey, 1981. Awards: International Lenin Peace prize, 1954; Jesus Suarez Gayol prize, 1972;Union of Journalists’ Felix Elmuza prize, 1972; Viareggio prize (Italy), 1972; Jamaican Institute Musgrave medal, 1974; Ricardo Miro National Poetry prize (Panama), 1979; Julius Fucik medal for journalism, 1981; Maurice Bishop prize, 1989. Honorary doctorates: University of Havana, 1974; University of the West Indies, 1975; University of Bordeaux (France), 1978. Cirilo and Metodio medal (Bulgaria), 1972; Red Band of Achievement (USSR), 1972; Order of Merit (Poland), 1974; Distinguished Son of the Cuban Popular Assembly, 1981; Cuban Order of Jose Marti, 1981. Died: 16 July 1989.
Motivos de son. 1930.
Songoro cosongo: Poemas mulatos. 1931.
West Indies Limited: Poemas. 1934.
Espana: Poema en cuatro angustias y una esperanza. 1937.
Cantos para soldados y sones para turistas. 1937.
El son entero; Suma poetica 1929-1946. 1947.
Elegia a Jacques Roumain en el cielo de Haiti. 1948.
Cuba Libre: Poems, translated by Langston Hughes and Ben Frederic Carruthers. 1948.
Versos negros (selection), edited by Jose Luis Varela. 1950.
Elegia a Jesus Menendez. 1951.
Elegia cubana. 1952.
Lapaloma de vuelo popular: Elegias. 1958.
Buenos dias, Fidel. 1959.
Sus mejores poemas. 1959.
Los mejores versos. 1961.
Poemas de amor. 1964.
Tengo. 1964; as Tengo, translated by Richard J. Carr, 1974.
Antologia mayor: El son entero y otros poemas (selection). 1964;enlarged edition, 1969.
Che comandante. 1967.
El gran zoo. 1967; as ”The Great Zoo,” in jPatria o muerte!: The Great Zoo and Other Poems, 1973.
Cuatro canciones para el Che. 1969.
Antologiia clave. 1971.
El diario que a diario. 1972; corrected edition, 1979; as The Daily Daily, translated by Vera Kutzinski, 1989.
La rueda dentada. 1972.
Man-Making Words: Selected Poems, translated by Robert Marquez and David Arthur McMurray. 1972.
Obra poetica, edited by Angel Augier. 2 vols., 1972-73; enlarged and corrected edition, 1979; revised edition, 1985. jPatria o muerte!: The Great Zoo and Other Poems (bilingual edition), edited and translated by Robert Marquez. 1973.
El corazon con que vivo. 1975.
Poemas manuables. 1975. Suma poetica, edited by Luis Inigo. 1976.
Por el mar de las Antillas anda un barco de papel. 1977.
Musica de camara. 1979.
Coplas de Juan Descalzo. 1979.
El libro de las decimas (selection), edited by Nancy Morejon. 1980.
Sol de domingo. 1982.
New Love Poetry; In Some Springtime Place; Elegy, translated and edited with commentary by Keith Ellis. 1994.
Poema con ninos (produced 1943). In Songoro cosongo y otros poemas, 1942.
Soyan, music by Jorge Berroa (produced 1980).
Prosa de prisa; Cronicas. 1962; revised and enlarged edition, as Prosa de prisa 1929-1972, edited by Angel Augier, 3 vols., 1975-76.
Paginas vueltas; Memorias. 1982.
Nicolas Guillen: Notas para un estudio biografico-crotico, 2 vols., 1965, La revolution cubana en la poesia de Nicolas Guillen, 1979, and Nicolas Guillen: Estudio biografico-critico, 1984, all by Angel Augier; La poesia afro-cubana de Nicolas Guillen by Ezequiel Martinez Estrada, 1966, revised edition, as La poesia de Nicolas Guillen, 1977; La poesia de Nicolas Guillen by Adriana Tous, 1971; Recopilacion de textos sobre Nicolas Guillen edited by Nancy Morejon, 1974, and Nacion y mestizaje en Nicolas Guillen by Morejon, 1982; La poesia de Nicolas Guillen by Jorge M. Ruscalleda Bercedoniz, 1975; El sentimiento de la negritud en la poesia de Nicolas Guillen by Armando Gonzalez-Perez, 1976; Hazanay triunfo americanos de Nicolas Guillen by Juan Marinello, 1976; The Poetry of Nicolas Guillen: An Introduction by Dennis Sardinha, 1976; Harlem, Haiti, and Havana: A Comparative Critical Study of Langston Hughes, Jacques Roumain, and Nicolas Guillen by Martha K. Cobb, 1979; Black Writers in Latin America by Richard Jackson, 1979; Self and Society in the Poetry of Nicolas Guillen by Lorna V. Williams, 1982; Against the American Grain: Myth and History in William Carlos Williams, Jay Wright, and Nicolas Guillen, 1987, and Guillen issue of Callaloo 31, 10(2), 1987, both by Vera M. Kutzinski; Nicolas Guillen: Popular Poet of the Caribbean by Ian Isidore Smart, 1990; Nicolas Guillen: Growth of a Revolutionary Consciousness by J.A. George Irish, 1990; Decoding the Word: Nicolas Guillen as Maker and Debunker of Myth by Clement A. White, 1993.
Nicolas Guillen forsook his youthful imitation of Ruben Darfo and the modernist aesthetic to focus a revolutionary’s eye on social and political matters and on formal innovation. His message of protest, he once said, was sometimes ”dissimulated by the rhythm, the picturesque elements,” characteristic of his early poetry. Until recently, critics considered his works only in the light of these elements, his unveiling of Cuba’s black heritage, or of his communist ideology. Critics classified his poetry, as ”black” and related it to the ”Afro-Caribbean” movement or the ”negritude” of black francophone Caribbean poets. This classification was made on the basis of his evocative imagery of African nature, his musicality reminiscent of African ritual-dance rhythms, and his reproduction of Cuban black speech (recently acknowledged as the popular speech of Cubans of all races). Contrary to ”Afro-Caribbean” and ”negritude” poetry that tends to exacerbate divisions among the races, Guillen’s work aims to consolidate.
The subtitle of Songoro cosongo: Poemas mulatos [Songoro Cosongo: Mulatto Poems] expresses such an integrative intent. In the prologue to the first edition, Guillen indicated that he wanted his poetry to reflect the ethnic composition of Cuba. He also claimed that Cuban society, by excluding ”blackness” from its writings, disavowing its African roots, and perceiving itself as ”white,” had failed to create an authentic Cuban national literature. To rectify this lack, Guillen created a consciously ”mestizo” (of racially mixed ancestry) poetry which used the Spanish language to express Cuba’s African essence. In Motivos de son [Son Motifs], Songoro consongo, West Indies Limited, and to some extent in later collections, Guillen used his revolutionary poetic form based on the son, a popular Cuban musical form with roots in Spanish, African, and Arawak traditional forms. Guillen’s son-poem uses the eight-syllable lines of the Spanish ”romance” (ballad) and an ”estribillo” (chorus), similar to the antiphonal chants of African and/or Arawak ritual traditions. In addition, Guillen revolutionized Cuban poetry by using expressions long perceived as ”jitanjaforas” (onomatopoeic neologisms) that subsequently have been identified as words in various African languages. These sounds (such as ”songoro consongo”) provide rhythmic auditory effects evocative of Africa and, through their encrypted meaning, of its culture.
Guillen also proposed to legitimize blacks and mulattos as images in Cuban literature and to assert their beauty and positive value. In ”Negro bembon” (”Thick-Lipped Cullud Boy”), for example, the reader’s perception is refocused to recognize the beauty of those generally disdained thick lips. The black/white dichotomy (evil/good in white societies) is debunked in ”/.Que color?” (”What Color?”), a poem commemorating the assassination of Martin Luther King. The negative value judgement implicit in the image of the black-skinned pastor who, nevertheless, had ”such a white soul” is repudiated and replaced with awe before his ”powerful black soul.”
Guillen also rebelled against Cuban society’s hypocritical modesty—hypocritical because by the 1950s Cuba had become the brothel and playground of America’s affluent and gangster classes. Instead, Guillen’s poetry evokes voluptuous images of dark women that are unabashedly sensuous.
This period of Afro-Cuban synthesis in Guillen’s work was followed by one of revolutionary political preoccupation. His solidarity with the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War is evident in Espana: Poema en cuatro angustias y una esperanza [Spain: Poem in Four Anguishes and One Hope]. The grievances of the oppressed classes in Cuba are depicted in the poems of Cantos para soldados y sonespara turistas [Songs for Soldiers and Sones for Tourists] and El son entero [The Whole Son]. His protest against the Spanish slayer’s lash disfiguring his black grandfather’s back in ”Balada de los dos abuelos” (”Ballad of the Two Grandfathers”) is as intense as that in ”Mau-maus” for the failure to indict the slain Englishman because he ”pierced the lung of Africa / with an Empire-dagger of / alphabetizing steel … / of syphilis, gunpowder, / money, business, yes.” Published after the Cuban Revolution, the collection Tengo, extols the more egalitarian society that struggle created.
Guillen’s revolutionary poetic form reaches its zenith in El gran zoo (The Great Zoo) and El diario que a diario (The Daily Daily). The former, a neo-bestiary, portrays the denizens of the zoo not as animals, but as inanimate objects, character types, or institutions that caustically satirize capitalist society. Form in The Great Zoo ranges from haiku-like brevity to polymetric free verse. The Daily Daily is a collection of newspaper items recounting Cuba’s history since colonial times. Some are authentic journalistic items, others are creations of the author; some are in recognizably poetic forms, others are classified advertisements, display advertisements, social items, or municipal announcements. His early humour reappears in this volume with a demythologizing effect. The bullfight—the mythic paradigm of Spanish masculinity—collapses in ”Bulls,” in which bullfighters do everything from taking ”a great leap over a bull,” to ”stick[ing] a new kind of banderilla into another from the top of a stool,” to making ”fun of the animal’s ferocity by dancing ‘La Cucaracha’ on a table.” The sharp criticism of the capitalist establishment contained in this topic crowns a career dedicated to exposing the flaws and abuses of the moneyed classes.
Guillen revolutionized Cuban literature by making it mirror Cuba’s mixed racial heritage, in his new form, the son-poem, and by using ”jitanjaforas” and ritual-like rhythm. With renewed language and formal innovations, he denounced oppression, and, through satire, demythologized the ”reality” imposed by the dominant classes.