Ernesto Cardenal’s time in the media spotlight was brief but iconic. The bearded poet of the Sandinista revolution removed his beret and attempted to kneel when greeting Pope John Paul II in Managua, Nicaragua, in 1983. John Paul not only stopped Cardenal from kneeling but also delivered a finger-wagging scolding about the priest’s volunteering his talent for verse to the Sandinista cause.
Cardenal popped up on one of many video summaries of John Paul’s 26-year papacy — just long enough to say the pope misunderstood Marxism. Reed Johnson of the Los Angeles Times has written a 1,700-word Column One piece on Cardenal’s continuing commitment to the Sandinista vision (though not to former president Daniel Ortega, “whom Cardenal has accused of acting like a dictator by quashing dissent within the Sandinista party and cutting cynical deals with the party’s former opponents”).
Johnson’s piece is a reminder that although Cardenal has no use for U.S. foreign policy, he’s been shaped by American culture, including a time as a disciple of Thomas Merton (who also was no slouch when it came to opposing U.S. foreign policy):
Cardenal’s life is one of active solitude. He spends much of his time reading and writing. He receives visitors at home but doesn’t use the Internet, entrusting a secretary with his extensive correspondence. He still sculpts, a passion that began during his student days at New York’s Columbia University in the late 1940s. With satisfaction, he points to an elegant abstract piece modeled after a tropical plant.
And he still writes poetry.
In a country where poets are treated like movie stars, Cardenal is admired for his plain-spoken candor, technical innovations and sheer productivity. His wide-ranging intellect, epigrammatic style and blank-verse emotional immediacy recall such key influences as Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.
In his longer narrative poems such as “With Walker in Nicaragua,” about William Walker, the Tennessee soldier of fortune who invaded Nicaragua in the 1850s and tried to transform it into a slave society, Cardenal uses the canto form to spin history into verse. Reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” in its lush, symbolic imagery and haunted, backward-glancing point of view, “With Walker in Nicaragua” is a masterpiece of historical re-imagination.
Only in some later works does Cardenal occasionally fall into polemics. “He can be such a superb poet,” critic Richard Elman wrote in the Nation in 1985, “that his occasional wordiness and heavy-handedness is all the more unforgivable.”
Cardenal’s emphatically mixed feelings about the United States surface in many of his poems, as well as in his latest memoirs. As a young man he honed his beliefs while living in a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, where he became a disciple of Thomas Merton, the monk who was a poet, theologian and social justice advocate. Though his spoken English is limited, he has read widely in that language and has translated English poetry into Spanish. “American poetry has influenced me more than that of any other country,” he says.
Although Cardenal has not, like Dominican-turned-Episcopalian Matthew Fox, prepared 22 questions for John Paul’s successor, he shares Fox’s pessimism about the Catholic Church under Benedict XVI: “Asked about the new pope in an interview last week with a Nicaraguan publication, Cardenal described Benedict as an ‘inquisitor’ and called his election a ‘fatal’ decision by the church.”