The Poetry of Nicolás Guillén. An Introduction (1976)

This book provides an overview of the literary career of the Afro-Cuban poet and journalist, Nicolás Guillén (1902-1989). Guillén is a towering figure in Caribbean poetry and in Hispanic world literature. Active in the 1930s as a journalist and Communist Party member, he faced prison then exile under the Batista government, subsequently returning after the Cuban revolution of 1959 as president of the newly formed Unión Nacional de Escritores de Cuba. This critical discussion of his poetry includes excerpted poems in Spanish and in English translation and an account of his major themes. Its author, Dennis Sardinha, was a lecturer in the Spanish department at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados.
The Poetry of Nicolás Guillén. An Introduction (1976) by Dennis Sardinha. 80pp.


Like several other New Beacon publications, the book began life as a public presentation. Sardinha gave his lecture on Spanish Caribbean Literature to members of the Caribbean Artists Movement. Translations of Guillén’s poems had already appeared in Savacou, but Spanish-language literature of the Caribbean remained a little-known subject in the literary communities of the English-speaking islands. As Sardinha sets out, Guillén’s poetry developed African-influenced rhythms and forms (for example in Motivos de Son, 1930); it transformed folklore into written poetry and son to express new unity among black people in Cuba. His work emerged from the growing recognition of forms of African culture in Cuba during the 1920s, in music, dance and literature, in the work of Alejo Carpentier and Emilio Ballagas. This negrismo movement, alongside the Harlem Renaissance, was a significant precursor to the French negritude movement of the 1930s. The friendship between Guillén and African-American poet and novelist Langston Hughes was a key part of their literary development. Sardinha notes other influences on Guillén, including the work of Gabriel Garcia Lorca, and explores in turn the resonance of Guillén’s own verse in Lorca’s poetry (“Iré a Santiago”). The critical discussion points to ways in which Guillén has approached issues of racial and social solidarity against a horizon which shifts between the rapidly changing national political backdrop in Cuba, regional (“West Indies Ltd”), and universal frames of reference.
This inevitably selective introduction is organised in the following five sections: Early Years and Writing in the 20s; “Sóngoro Cosongo” and Racism, the critical reaction and “West Indies Ltd”; Songs for Soldiers and Songs for Tourists; “El Son Entero”; More recent works, Guillén’s style and Conclusion. The final section offers a reading of “Tengo” (“I have”), a poem written in 1964 which expressed “a hymn to acquired freedom obtained after fifty years”. Sardinha concludes with a discussion of Guillén’s stylistic vanguardismo, and his general “desire to break with established literary norms” (54) through transcribed spoken forms, invented words, overtly musical rhythms and onomatopoeia. This is felt in his poem “Sensemayá” or in the repetitive sounds of “Canto Negro”:
¡Yambambó, yambambé!
Repica el congo solongo,
Repica el negro bien negro;
Congo solongo del Songo
baila yambó sobre un pie.
The book includes a translation of a 1972 interview with Guillén by Ciro Bianchi Ross. It provided the opportunity to further understanding and promote discussion of Cuban literature and its Afro-Cuban elements among New Beacon’s readers.


John La Rose had a long-standing political and cultural interest in Cuba’s cultural and political contribution to Caribbean regional identity. He was first introduced to Guillén’s work through a lecture by Eric Williams in 1952 (Walmsley, 37). This interest was bolstered during two trips to Havana, including one in January 1968, documented in Andrew Salkey’s Havana Journal, where he attended a Cultural Congress as part of a commission on “the responsibility of the intellectual”. During that trip he made connections with a number of Cuban and Latin American writers and intellectuals, including Mario Benedetti (Uruguay), and developed his interest in what he termed a burgeoning post-revolutionary “neo-negritude” on the island. His impressions, along with those of others who had attended, were presented at two CAM symposia held in Spring 1968. The project for Sardinha’s book came about shortly after this.
Cuban Counsellor for Cultural Affairs, Lisandro Otero helped source a photograph of Guillén to use for the cover after La Rose approached him in August 1974.
Letter from Lisandro Otero to John La Rose, dated 6 August 1974. Archive Ref: GB 2904 NBB/1/14 (uncatalogued)
The book was then delayed due to illness and a shortage of paper caused by the economic downturn in the 1970s. La Rose explained: “Printing is slow nowadays in England with the 3 day week which affected everything for months ahead and with the shortage of paper” (Letter JLR to D. Sardinha 4.5.74, NBB/1/14). The book eventually appeared in January 1976 and was launched with a party jointly hosted by the Cuban embassy and New Beacon.

Further reading

Guillén, Nicolás. Man-making Words: Selected Poems of Nicolás Guillén by Roberto
Marquez. Amherst: University of Massachussetts Press, 2003; 1972.