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

Became The National Poet Of Cuba

With his return to Cuba, Guillén became Cuba's poet laureate of the new revolution. He would celebrate Castro's victory in a new collection of poems, Tengo, which praised the heroes of the revolution and depicted the battles against Batista. Guillén also noted the American embarrassment at the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Even with the success of the Cuban revolution, Guillén did not cease his efforts to expose the injustices of the world. The poems of his 1967 collection, El gran zoo still focus the reader on such topics as imperialism, but now he also includes musing on love and nature. In his 1967 collection, Guillén also moved away from the rhythms of his earlier poetry to use free verse to capture his thoughts. Over the next decade and a half, Guillén continued to write, publishing several more collections of poetry. His last collection, Sol de domingo, was published in 1982.

In her study of how culture, language, and poetry intersect in Guillén's work, Self and Society in the Poetry of Nicolás Guillén, author Lorna Williams maintained that Guillén's work was important in pointing to the need for social change in Cuba. She reiterated that "the referential nature of Guillén's verse meant that his poetry readily became a vehicle for diagnosing the ills of society." Williams noted of Guillén's choice of topics, that "The divided self of the Afro-Cuban, the irresponsibility of national leaders, militarism, and American domination of Latin America were all seen by Guillén as fitting themes of poetry." Guillén did not simply use the inequities of racism and cultural oppression as topics for his poetry; he used them to try and create change where he saw the need for transformation. Williams suggests that "Ethical engagement with his fellow men led Guillén to give his verses a particular form of expression." This form of expression engaged his readers in a dialogue, in which they were forced to acknowledge the injustices of which he wrote and the need for change. In the months before his death, Guillén was in ill health. One of his legs had to be amputated the month before his death, and he had been suffering from Parkinson's disease for some time. Guillén died on July 16, 1989. He was 87 years old.

At the time of his death, Guillén was mourned as the National Poet of Cuba. Among the many obituaries that praised Guillén, Richard Gott, writing for The Guardian of London, praised Guillén for creating "an atmosphere in which black people as a whole become fully integrated into Cuban society." Gott also reminded his readers that Guillén "was instrumental in putting black culture on the political agenda." More importantly, as Gott suggested, is the legacy that Guillén has left: "Guillén forced Cuba's intelligensia, so involved historically with Paris, Barcelona and New York, to search inwards for their inspiration, to examine the reality of the island on which they found themselves."

Gott's observations were similar to those expressed in other obituary notices. Still another writer for The Guardian, Jean Stubbs labeled Guillén as "a major export of Black poetry in the Spanish-speaking world." Stubbs suggested that, "Guillén reaffirmed Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean culture" in his poetry. Guillén, according to Stubbs, "did much to build up the arts in Cuba and develop its profile abroad." Following his death, Guillén's body lay in state in Havana's Plaza of the Revolution. He lay at the foot of a monument honoring Jose Marti, a famous Cuban poet of the previous century. Castro had awarded Guillén with the Cuban Order of Jose Marti in September of 1981, and so Guillén's position at the foot of this monument seemed particularly poignant. In 2002 cities in Spain and South America honored the centennial of Guillén's birth with celebrations. Conferences honoring his work were held at the University of Castilla La Mancha in Ciudad Real, Spain, while symposiums on his poetry were held in Mar del Plata, Argentina and Santiago, Chile. These celebrations coincided with the release of new editions of Guillén's work. The efforts of the centennial organizers and the re-release of his works will help ensure that Guillén's legacy lives on long after his death.

Selected writings

El Camino de Harlem, 1929.

La Conquista del Banco, 1929.

El Blanco: he ahi el problema, 1929.

Rosendo Ruíz, 1930.

Motivos de son, 1930.

Songoro cosongo: Poemas mulatos, 1931.

West Indies, Ltd., 1934.

Cantos para soldados y sones para turistas, 1937.

España: Poema en cuatro angustias y una esperanza, 1937.

Cuba Libre: Poems by Nicolás Guillén, 1948.

La paloma de vuelo popular: Elegias, 1958.

Tengo, 1964.

Prosa de prisa: 1929-1972, 1975.

Cerebro y corazón, 1977.

Sol de domingo, 1982.



Between Race and Empire, Temple University Press, 1998.

Nicolás Guillén: Popular Poet of the Caribbean, University of Missouri Press, 1990.

Self and Society in the Poetry of Nicolás Guillén, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.


Guardian, July 18, 1989.

—Sheri Elaine Metzger

Additional topics

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