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Nicolás Guillén: 1902-1989: Writer, Journalist, Social Activist

Work Changed By Political Climate

With Guillén's second book of poetry, Motivos de son, he achieved a critical success that immediately brought a level of acclaim to the young poet. Guillén was introducing his audience to a new form of poetry. Guillén used his African and Spanish heritage by combining African Creole dialects and language structures with more formal Spanish poetic traditions. The result was an original poetic genre that captured the feel of black life in Cuba. Motivos de son also officially introduced the son to audiences of Guillén's work. The son is a sensual African-Cuban dance rhythm that portrays the feeling of black life in Cuba. The son evokes images through poetry that capture what ordinary words cannot. And yet, not everyone was enthusiastic about Guillén's work. There were some readers who thought that he was revealing too much of the slums and the squalor in which many of Cuba's black population lived. Such criticisms would not change the focus on Guillén's work. Instead, it would become clear in later works that Guillén's efforts to use poetry to call attention to the injustices and inequities of black life would prove to be an effective way to call attention to the need for change.

As he had done in his earlier articles for Diario de la Marina, Guillén used poetry as a way to give voice to his political activism and as a way to highlight Cuba's racial composition. His second book, Songoro cosongo: Poemas mulatos, emphasized the importance of the mulatto culture in Cuba, while it condemned the tragedy of racism and the marginalization of blacks. The revolution of 1933 that deposed Cuba's dictator, Antonio Machado, led to a greater United States presence in Cuba. Guillén responded to these changes in the political climate with poetry that embraced a more general social protest, rather than the racism of his earlier work. In 1934 he published West Indies, Ltd.: Poemas, a collection of poems that attacked American and Cuban imperialism and lamented the conditions in which the poor must live. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1937, a war of oppression and fascism, Guillén traveled to Spain to report on it for Mediodie magazine. He also used his time there to participate in the anti-fascist Second International Congress for Writers for the Defense of Culture, where he condemned fascism. His time on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War inspired a long narrative epic poem, España: Poema en cuatro angustias y una esperanza, that chronicled that war. Along with covering the war in 1937, Guillén joined the Cuban Communist Party and published Cantos para soldados y sones para turistas, a poem that denounced the growing military presence in Cuba and that contrasted the living conditions of the poor with the richness of the ways in which Cuba courted tourists.

For much of the next twenty years, Guillén lived outside Cuba, although he did return occasionally. He campaigned for mayor of Camaguey in 1940 but lost that election, and in 1948, he campaigned for the senate of the Cuban Communist Party, but he also lost. He kept writing, and in 1948, Guillén published his first English-language collection of poetry, Cuba-Libre, which was co-edited and translated by Langston Hughes. Much of Guillén's time in exile was spent in Europe and South America, where he lectured and continued to write. However, he was also a correspondent for several Cuban journals, submitting articles that would later be published in a collection titled, Prosa de prisa: 1929-1972. During this period, he was opposed to the regime of Cuba's leader, Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar, which Guillén thought oppressive. During Batista's rule, Guillén was arrested several times, and in 1953, Batista refused to permit Guillén's return to Cuba after a trip to Chile. Guillén was finally able to return to Cuba in 1958. In a collection of his poems published that year, La paloma de vuelo popular: Elagias, Guillén praises Fidel Castro and voices approval for revolution as a means of change and as a way to expel a corrupt government. After Castro's successful revolution, Castro gave Guillén two important assignments: to design a new cultural policy and to establish the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba. Guillén accomplished both these responsibilities, and in 1961, he became president of the Union of Writers and Artists, a position that he would hold for the next twenty-five years.

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Brief BiographiesBiographies: Bob Graham (1942-) Biography - Awards to Francis Hendy Biography - Born to SewNicolás Guillén: 1902-1989: Writer, Journalist, Social Activist Biography - Cuban Racism Influenced Early Work, Work Changed By Political Climate, Became The National Poet Of Cuba