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Poet, Activist Ernesto Cardenal Explores Cosmos, Humanity in Verse

Ernesto Cardenal, one of Latin America's most renowned, but also controversial, poets and political activists, has shifted his recent work to reflect on humanity's connection to nature and relationship to the universe. Ray Suarez speaks with the poet about his life and writing.

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    Finally tonight, one of Latin America's most-renowned, but also controversial, writers.

    Ray Suarez has our profile.

  • ERNESTO CARDENAL, poet (through translator):

    "What's in a star? We are. All the elements of our body and the planet were once in the belly of a star. We are stardust."


    At 86, Ernesto Cardenal is known as one of Latin America's greatest living poets.

  • ERNESTO CARDENAL (through translator):

    "We are universal. And after death, we will help to form other stars and other galaxies. We come from the stars, and to them, we shall return."


    His recent work reflects on humanity's connection to nature and relationship to the universe. But even in his later years, Cardenal doesn't shy away from politics, or controversy, in his life or his writing.

  • ERNESTO CARDENAL (through translator):

    "Cell phone. You talk on your cell phone and talk and talk and laugh into your cell phone, never knowing how it was made and much less how it works. But what does that matter? Trouble is, you don't know, just as I didn't. Many people die in the Congo, thousands upon thousands for that cell phone. They die in the Congo."


    Ernesto Cardenal was born and raised in Nicaragua. He left the country in the 1950s to study in Kentucky with the famed poet-priest Thomas Merton. When Cardenal later returned home, he was ordained a Catholic priest, and quickly resumed his political activism.

    A committed Marxist, Cardenal championed the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. When the revolution seized power in the late 1970s, Cardenal became the government's first cultural minister. It was that post that famously drew condemnation from Pope John Paul II, who publicly scolded Cardenal when he visited Nicaragua. The confrontation resulted in Cardenal losing his privileges as a Catholic priest.

    Later, Cardenal left the government and the Sandinista Party, opposing the leadership of Daniel Ortega. We recently spoke with Ernesto Cardenal while he was visiting the U.S. at the Poets House in New York. We spoke about his life and work, looking back to the early days of Augusto Sandino's rebellion against the United States in the early 20th century.

    Sandino's guerrilla war against the U.S. made him a symbol of resistance in Latin America. Sandino was assassinated in 1934 by Gen. Anastasio Somoza Garcia, whose family went on to rule Nicaragua for another 40 years. His son's government was later overthrown by a revolution that took on Sandino's name.

  • ERNESTO CARDENAL (through translator):

    Well, I was about 6 years old when Sandino was murdered by Somoza — 7 years old. But later, and once dead, a movement in favor of Sandino began.

    As a young man, I participated in the resurrection of the figure of Sandino that was taking place in Nicaragua, and later appeared a political movement, the Sandinist, which was a guerrilla in the mountain with the emblem of Sandino, with Sandino's flag.

    I also participated in that Sandinist revolution of the '80s and in its government. But now I am in the Sandinist opposition of the present government, who calls itself Sandinista, but which is not. It is the betrayal of the Sandinist movement.


    After you left government, and after you parted ways with the party, were your powers as a priest restored, your — were you able to carry out your priestly responsibilities again in the eyes of the Vatican?

  • ERNESTO CARDENAL (through translator):


    I was sanctioned by the Vatican for being a priest with a position in the government, along with other priests who also had them. But I have not wanted them to give me back the sacrament administration, because I didn't become a priest to administer sacraments. For me, it wasn't important. It was rather unpleasant. Performing baptisms, marriages and all the pastoral and sacramental exercises wasn't my vocation.

    My vocation was contemplative, and I always exercised the priesthood in a contemplative manner, and, like a poet, delivering my message, my sermons in my poems.

    "Praise the lord in the cosmos, his sanctuary, the radius of a hundred thousand million light years. Praise him through the stars and the interstellar spaces. Praise him for the galaxies and the intergalactic spaces. Praise him for the atoms and the interatomic voids."


    You have been writing a long time. When you look back at your older work, is it like your children, you love them all equally? Or do you look back at an older poem and say, oh, how naive, or, what was I thinking then?

  • ERNESTO CARDENAL (through translator):

    Naturally, one always evolves. As time passes by, one can see that one can do better what was done before.

    Sometimes, I correct what was done. Other times, it has to stay like it, because there is no way you can correct it. My favorite poem is always the one I wrote last. After a while, I stop liking it, and then I can do something new. If one sticks with what is already done, one cannot move forward. That's it.


    And the new work, does it come from new thinking about the world, new thinking about life?

  • ERNESTO CARDENAL (through translator):


    In the first place, one matures, and can write about things one couldn't before. One couldn't get poetry out of this theme or this situation. And later, you can do it because you have more technical ability to do it. Now I can do easily things that were impossible for me to do when I was younger.

    That also happens to painters, I guess, and to all artists and creators. Even politicians mature and become, perhaps, more astute or more cunning.

    "Evolution unites us all, the living and the dead. Darwin discovered it, that we come from a single cell, that we are interlinked. If one rises from the dead, we all rise from the dead."


    That was poet Ernesto Cardenal reading from his book "Pluriverse." You can watch him read more of his poetry on our website.