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A Nation Tempered by Poetry

Nicaraguans, hardened by a history of invasions, brutal dictatorships and natural disasters, turn to poets for healing and guidance. They are the country's heroes.

July 26, 1999|JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — On a terrace overlooking Managua, sipping an after-dinner rum--better than brandy on a balmy tropical night--old friends reminisce, and their recollections lead to poetry.

A top officer of the Central Bank and confirmed believer in free-market economics begins. Eyes moist, she recites the warning from Ruben Dario, her country's most famous poet, to Teddy Roosevelt after the fourth U.S. invasion of Nicaragua: "Be careful. Spanish America lives! There are a thousand cubs of the Spanish lion on the loose."

In Nicaragua, even disciples of conservative U.S. economist Milton Friedman recite anti-imperialist poetry. And what's more, many of them write it, along with love poems and odes to nature.

"Every Nicaraguan is a poet until proven otherwise," Jose Colonel Ultrecho, another famous poet, once quipped. Nicaraguans even call out "poet" to greet a friend, the way cowboys would shout "pardner."

On weekdays, children wait outside television stations with poems in hand to read them on morning variety shows. On Saturday mornings, Nicaraguans find pages of poems in the weekly literary supplements of the country's major daily newspapers. On weekends, audiences pack La Casa de los Mejia Godoy, a '90s coffeehouse, to hear brothers Carlos and Luis Enrique recite poetry and sing songs--many of them poems set to music.

Further, international critics agree that Nicaragua produces a remarkable amount of excellent verse. "Bad poetry is not tolerated," said Steven White, language professor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., and translator and editor of numerous volumes of Nicaraguan poetry.

Poetry arguably is all that still unites Nicaragua after 20 years of revolution, counterrevolution and corruption.

"Nicaragua needs a lot of healing, and through its best product, poetry, it can be healed," contemporary Nicaraguan poet Yolanda Blanco said by telephone from her New York City home. "Great poets are like teachers--they are listened to in Nicaragua."

Why do poets and poetry have such an important voice in the second-poorest nation in the Americas, a country where nearly one-third of its 4 million people are unable to read, and where all are marked by their history of invasions, brutal dictatorships and natural disasters?

Nicaraguans reply that they write and revere poetry precisely because of that. "This is an illiterate, despotic, rebellious country," said poet-musician Luis Enrique Mejia Godoy, "with a great need to define itself culturally."

Part of that definition includes a long tradition of oral poetry. A popular figure in town festivals is El Cabezon, the Big Head, a masked character who composes extemporaneous couplets, usually teasing the audience or criticizing the government.

After 8-year-old Maria Nazareth Sevilla saw El Cabezon at the Easter festival in Chinandega, in western Nicaragua, she challenged her father on the ride home: "OK, Daddy, first you say a rhyme, then I'll say a rhyme."

"Our children invent rhymes from the time they are little because that is part of tradition," explained her father, Roger Sevilla, who oversees the secondary school curriculum at the Education Ministry.

Poetry became the language of rebellion in a heavily censored country during the four-decade Somoza family dictatorship that ended 20 years ago. "This has produced a poetry of giving witness, a poetry with fire," said Ariel Montoya, publisher of the Decenio literary magazine.

Still, it is hard to imagine that a nation of poets could have been produced without the influence of one man: Dario, the father of modernism, not just in Nicaragua but in the entire Spanish-speaking world.

"He pulled poetry from a humdrum repetitiveness as old as [Miguel de] Cervantes [author of the early 17th century masterpiece 'Don Quixote'] that imitated prose," said Pablo Antonio Cuadra, himself among Nicaragua's most respected poets and literary critics. "A tree of that dimension had to produce a commotion in his own country."

Dario is the standard by which poets are measured in Nicaragua, not only for the quality of their verse, but also for the depth of their commitment to their country and to developing the next generation of poets.

"Nicaraguans do not have a lot to give us glory or examples," said Education Ministry spokesman Sergio Boffeli. "Our politicians are ward bosses. So poets attract us. . . . They are our national heroes."

Dario brought both glory and example. A century ago, he wrote carefully crafted, sophisticated verse that can be easily understood, still a characteristic of Nicaraguan poetry today.

First-graders at the Colegio Calasanz break up into teams to recite his sonnet "Caupolican." Each group learns a couplet, and one after the other they can recite the entire poem.

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