A TALE OF TWO POETS
Nicaragua’s Passion for Poetry
“Words should paint the color of sound, the aroma of a star.”
Would be Miss Nicaragua, Luz María Sanchez stood in front of the theatre audience in high heels and a bright orange bikini. The judges had called the beauty pageant a draw, to break the deadlock the two contestants were allowed a minute of unprepared, unrehearsed commentary to attempt to convince the judges and public that they were worthy of the Miss Nicaragua crown. The tall beautiful contestant tied with Luz María had already spoken, citing the universal importance of family, peace and personal career achievements; the crowd applauded politely. Then the diminutive Luz María came forward in her bikini, paused, and recited from memory a stark, enigmatic poem written by the Nicaraguan metaphysical poet Alfonso Cortés. When she finished reciting the poem the crowd erupted spontaneously in ovation, now THAT was Nicaraguan. It was no contest, Luz María won easily.
Few outsiders could imagine or fathom the importance, popularity and deep rooted passion for poetry in Nicaragua. There is no art form, or any form of expression that rivals poetry for the Nicaraguan people. From the poorest rural child to the internationally educated literary student and from the policeman to the bank CEO there is often a common thread, poetry. The great poet from Granada, José Coronel Urtecho, once said that “Every Nicaraguan is a poet until proven otherwise”. Few Nicaraguans would argue, but if they did, they would likely do so using verse. Poetry in Nicaragua is an equally important tool and method to express political protest and social criticism, as it is for romance, pictorial and abstract thought.
First grade school children learn poetry as a form of expression, cooperation and performance. Young students often divide into teams to recite a poem of Nicaragua’s supreme national hero, León poet Rubén Darío, each team memorizing a couplet so in unison they can recite the entire poem. Soon after school boys will be inventing versus to express their admiration for school girls and school girls writing poetry to repair broken hearts. Nicaraguan daily newspapers publish poetry at least three times a week. On Friday the country’s most-read periodical La Prensa publishes poetry submitted by the public, on Saturday their literary supplement runs poems by past and current Nicaraguan poetry greats and on Sunday a political humor supplement is filled with sardonic rhymes of critique against political figures and policy.
Nicaraguan painters, singers and sculptors join businessmen, lawyers and doctors in writing poetry. In Nicaragua “poet” doubles as a world for friend, brother, buddy. One can hear at a Managua traffic signal a taxi driver shouting to another taxi driver waiting at the red light, “Hey poet, where are you headed?” It would surprise few who know Nicaragua well that the first Latin American ever nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature was a Nicaraguan poet, Salomón de la Selva. The verses of León-born Salmón de la Selva are still cherished today in Nicaragua, but most English speakers would recognize him more for his English translations of fellow León poet Rubén Darío.
The love of poetry in Nicaragua can be traced back to before Rubén Darío (1867-1916), but it was this great Nicaraguan master who cemented it as the country’s dominant art form and passion.
Darío, who began to read at age 3, was a child poet prodigy, “El Poeta Niño” as he was known across Central America by the age of 13. At the age of 7 Darío was being scolded by his professor after being caught secretly delving into the 3rd century Greek romance “Daphnis and Chlöe”. By the age of 10 little Rubén had digested “Don Quixote”, the Bible, “1001 Arabian Nights”, “Corinne, or Italy” by Germain de Stael and “De Officiis” written by Cicero in 44 BC. The child poet’s education continued with Jesuit instruction in Latin classics the following year and by the age of 13 Darío had his first verses published in newspapers in Nicaragua and then the rest of Central America. Rubén Darío’s first book of collected poems was published a year later.
At the age of 17 Rubén Darío found work in the National Library in Managua and after one year working there he is said to have memorized every word of the Royal Spanish Academy Dictionary. Darío traveled outside Nicaragua for the first time to El Salvador at the age of 15 and in reality did not stop traveling until his death at the age of 49. Darío wrote much of his poetry while working as a journalist and diplomat living in Argentina, Spain, Chile, France and visiting the United States, England, Italy, Belgium, Morocco and numerous other countries in Latin America. Darío looked back to his native Nicaragua from his cosmopolitan life abroad in the poem “Far Away”:
Ox that I saw in my childhood, steaming one day
under the flaming gold of the Nicaragua sun,
in the fertile hacienda filled with tropical harmony,
forest dove that sang with the sound of the wind
of the axes, of birds and savage bulls:
I salute you both, you are both my life.
Though not well known to most English speakers, Darío’s importance to the Spanish language is matched by few. Darío was the father of modernism, a late 19th and early 20th century movement that revolutionized Spanish verse. Spanish literature had few heroes in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the language was dusty, neglected, left behind by romantic literary movements in France and other European countries. Darío’s verses woke the Spanish language up from a long, deep baroque sleep, inspiring entire generations of new poets. From Darío’s poem “Rhymes”:
Out on the sea a swift boat rowing,
rowing: the lover with his beloved,
flying to the land of dreams.
In the sunset light and the million glints
that flashed on the sea, those streaming oars
seemed made of burnished gold.
And, in that graceful boat, still rowing,
rowing, the lover and his beloved,
flying to the land of dreams.
Their fate? I do not know. I remember
that after a pallid twilight, the sky
darkened and the sea grew rough.
One of the most influential amongst Rubén Darío’s many works was his collection of poems “Azul” published in 1888 when the poet was just 21 years old. Azul brought Rubén fame across Latin American and Spain and established him as THE poet of Spanish Modernism. Another milestone was his poems gathered in the collection “Cantos de Vida y Esperanza” (Songs of Life and Hope) published in 1905, considered by some to be one of the greatest works of poetry in the history of the Spanish language.
The great Spanish language poets of the 20th century, including immortals such as Mexican Octavio Paz, Chilean Pablo Neruda and Spaniard Federico García Lorca all paid tribute to Rubén Darío. Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz wrote in his 1964 essay on Darío “The Seashell and the Siren” that in his poems Darío “seeks a beauty that is beyond beauty; that words can evoke but can never state”. In 1933 Pablo Neruda and Federico García Lorca paid special homage to Rubén Darío in Argentina in a speech that was spoken by the two poets as a single voice trading poetic embraces to the memory of Darío. García Lorca: “He gave us the murmur of the forest in an adjective, and being a maser of language… he made zodiacal signs out of the lemon tree, the hoof of a stag, and mollusks full of terror and infinity. He launched us on the sea with frigates and shadows in our eyes…” Neruda: “His red name deserves to be remembered, along with his essential tendencies, his terrible heartaches, his incandescent uncertainties, his descent to the hospitals of hell, his ascent to the castles of fame, his attributes as a great poet, now and forever undeniable.”
Some of Rubén Darío’s most beautiful verses were written during those deep emotional valleys alluded to by Pablo Neruda, moments when the genius of Darío was teetering on the brink of insanity. Like the first two stanzas of his poem “Melancholy”:
Brother, you that have light, please give me light
I am like a blind man. I grope about in the dark.
I am lost among the tempests, lost among torments, blinded
by fantasies, and driven mad by music.
That is my curse. To dream. For poetry
is an iron vest with a thousand cruel spikes
That I wear around my soul. The bloody points
let fall the endless drops of my melancholy.
Today literature critics admit that the poetry of Rubén Darío no longer looks quite as modern, or unique, for he has now been surpassed, but Darío’s subtle dexterity, the sumptuousness of his verbs and his rhythmic variety made him truly revolutionary in his time. Tiny tropical Nicaragua, a forgotten ex-colony of Spain and home to less than 500,000 people when Darío was at the height of his powers, had produced a true giant in Spanish literature and a king of Spanish poetry. One would be disappointed if the Nicaraguans did not realize the miracle of Darío’s accomplishment, on the contrary, few countries in the world can boast to have taken a literary hero and his passion so much to heart and on such a popular level.
During the final year of his life, exhausted and ill, Darío returned to his home town of León. Soon after his triumphant return, Rubén Darío died. He was buried under the main alter of the Cathedral of León on February 13, 1916, after seven days of national mourning. Darío’s death was a great loss for Nicaragua, it was as if God had blocked out the brilliant Nicaraguan sun and soaked the country in a bitter rain. As Rubén’s death grew near poems like “Eheu” began to anticipate his own end and Nicaragua’s imminent sorrow:
I am a student of the clouds,
I think I can interpret
the confidences of the wind,
the earth and the sea –
A few vague confidences
about being and non-being,
and fragments of awareness
from today and yesterday.
I stopped and cried out,
As if in the midst of a desert,
And I thought the sun was dead,
And I burst into tears.
11 years after the death of Darío the house in León where Rubén Darío grew up was occupied by a 34 year old poet by the name of Alfonso Cortés (1893-1969). Alfonso Cortés was in his León bedroom, where the master poet Darío once slept, when on midnight of February 18, 1927 he lost his mind. Alfonso Cortés delirium grew violent and he spent much of the year chained to the iron grillwork of Darío’s old bedroom window. Alfonso Cortés would spend the remaining 42 years of his life wavering between unbalanced and insane, passing most of those years interned in a mental hospital in Managua. However, in his moments of lucidity Cortés would be unchained to play guitar, work on poetry translations and thankfully write original poems, which he often jotted down in the margins of newspapers in a script so microscopic that they are hard to read without a magnifying glass. The “Song of Space” was the first poem Cortés wrote after he went mad and it remains one of his most popular:
The distance from here to
a star that never existed
because God has not succeeded in
stretching the night’s skin
that far! And to think we still believe
that world peace is more
useful, greater, and comes before
the peace of a single savage…
Nicaragua has produced numerous great poets since Darío and many have gone on to become central figures in Spanish language literature, with their works translated in various foreign languages. Giaconda Belli, Salomón de la Selva, Ernesto Cardenal, Jose Coronel Urtecho, Carlos Martínez Rivas and Pablo Antonio Cuadra, to name just a few, have left their mark on Spanish language poetry and have been read in countries around the world. Yet it was León poet Alfonso Cortés, despite (or perhaps because of) dancing most of his life on and over the fine line that separates insanity from genius, who took the torch from Darío for radical innovation in Nicaraguan poetry. Sadly, the unique talent of Cortés remains masked in obscurity outside of the Spanish speaking world. Perhaps it is due to the near impossibility of meaningful foreign translations of Cortés’ stark, enigmatic verses that his poetry suffers from a complete lack of international recognition.
Rubén Darío and Alfonso Cortés, two immortals of Nicaragua poetry that emerged from the very same bedroom of a corner house on the Calle Real in León. One left as a child genius and the other as a mental patient. Rubén would go on to international fame, Alfonso to forced isolation. Darío would periodically lose himself in alcohol and Cortés in rage. Rubén lived with kings and presidents as his patrons, Alfonso lived chained to his bedroom window, then locked inside an insane asylum. Darío’s portrait graces Nicaragua’s highest currency in circulation, the 100 córdoba note, while Cortés is known simply as “el poeta loco” or the crazy poet. Today the house of Rubén Darío in León is a museum where Rubén’s old four-post bed sits next to the twisted iron grillwork where Cortés was chained to the window. The only mention of Cortés in the Rubén Darío Museum is a small plaque and a portrait next to the twisted iron bars. Alfonso Cortés does have his own museum, it is situated just two blocks away from the Darío Museum, but it has been closed for the last 4 years due to lack of funds. The street where both poets’ museums are located, Calle Real, has been renamed Calle Rubén Darío.
Was it an overdose of inspiration from the spirit of Darío that caused Cortés to lose his mind while sleeping in the bedroom of the deceased master? Alfonso Cortés never said, but in literary terms it hardly matters as his verses are highly cherished and often remembered as the only truly metaphysical poetry that exists in the Spanish language. From “The Song of Space”:
The earth does not know the roads
where it journeys every day.
Yet those roads are the
earth’s awareness… But allow me
a question if this is not so:
Time, where are we,
you and I, since I live in you
and you do not exist?
According to legendary Nicaraguan priest-poet Ernesto Cardenal, “the poetry of Alfonso Cortés is obsessed with problems of Space and Time; it is abnormal poetry, obscure, enigmatic and paradoxical…” What is strange and astonishing is that unlike all other poets, Alfonso’s poetry did not change from his youth to his old age. “There were no poems of youth in Alfonso Cortés”, Cardenal points out “his poetry was without time”. Cortés also found moments of lucidity to translate the works of Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallamaré, D’Annunzio and Poe.
While chained to the iron grating of his bedroom in León Alfonso Cortés composed “The Detail”, which Ernesto Cardenal dubbed “the most beautiful poem written in the Spanish language”:
A speck of blue has more
intensity than all the sky;
I feel that there lives, a flower
of happy ecstasy, my longing.
A wind of spirits, passes
so far, from my window
sending a breeze that shatters
the flesh of an angelic awakening.
Witnesses said that Alfonso Cortés spoke slowly, while shaking and stuttering, his face changing from thrilled to horrified, then at once falling totally expressionless. Cortés said before his death that he was sure he was, “less important than Darío, but more profound.” On February 6, 1969, 42 Februarys since he lost in mind in the house of Rubén Dario and 53 Februarys since the death of Darío, Alfonso Cortés was buried in the Cathedral of León – next to the tomb of Rubén Darío. Above Cortes’ tomb there is a simple plaque with one of his poems “The Great Prayer”; it contains an image unmistakably Alfonso Cortés:
The dream is a solitary rock
where the eagle of the soul nests.