When Words Matter Most


Review of A Nation of Poets: Writings From the Poetry Workshops of Nicaragua, bilingual, translated with an introduction by Kent Johnson, and with an interview with Ernesto Cardenal, West End Press (Box 291471, Los Angeles, CA 90029), $5.95. 1985


          North Americans who do not read Spanish but who are interested in poetry from within the society transformed by the Sandinista revolution should start with Nicaragua in Revolution: The Poets Speak, and Nicaragua in Reconstruction and War: The People Speak (both from MEP, c/o Anthropology Dept. U. of Minn., 215  Ford Hall, 224 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis MN, 55455, $8.95 each).  But if you are also interested in how poetry is taught, developed, promoted as part of the cultural revolution integral to the political one, then get Kent Johnson's A Nation of Poets: Writings From the Poetry Workshops of Nicaragua.  Nicaragua teaches us by example that poets’ words matter.  In Nicaragua poetry and culture, poetry and revolutionary culture, are intimately connected.

          In spite of its dependence on oral traditions—in Nicaragua this includes the peasant songs, religious hymns, the corrido or story-ballads—poetry cannot be separated from the act of reading, for poetry is literacy fully aware of itself.  This, at least, is the example Nicaragua offers us.  Nicaragua is a country emerging from an imposed U.S. imperial ideology;  Cardenal: “Miami was the cultural capital of my country.” It is, at the same time, emerging from an imposed strategy of illiteracy that ensured a docile, easily exploited workforce. It is very appropriate that Kent Johnson should provide us with this collection since he was one of the first North Americans to volunteer to be a part of the national literacy campaign that sent thousands of young people into the countryside to teach their brothers and sisters to read.  Johnson’s book is a challenge to North Americans who are literate but who have lost the feeling for the liberating power of the written word.

          Johnson’s book illustrates how poetry workshops connect to the revolution. The poems he gives us show poets developing self-consciousness as well as revolutionary self-consciousness (which is, is it not, the same thing?). This book challenges the methods used in North American poetry workshops, exposing the shallowness, the one-dimensional nature of such poetry teachings where the individual is purposefully separated from her social concerns, where engaged poetry is given the pejorative label “political”, and where the poet who has realized that individual transformation is only fully realized within social transformation is made to feel inferior to the one who has accepted the bourgeois notion of poetry of transcendence, the esthetics of inaction.  Johnson’s book measures not only the Nicaraguan poetry against the workshop poetry in our country, but it measures us. It challenges the whole activity of writing poetry, because it presents us with the challenge Nicaragua Libre makes to us.  It should provoke us into asking what we mean to ourselves, our language, our bodies, that our poetry is condemned to operate at the least edge of influence upon the lives of our people.

          To the extent that we take our poetry seriously this small book should provoke a big response.  Certainly everyone who teaches, who participates in, poetry workshops in this country should have a copy.  Every poet should take this challenge, should measure herself against these emerging voices still alive with the meaning of language, alive with audience in their voices.

          The poems in this book are varied, certainly as varied as the “Iowa School” poetry still dominating our poetry. And there are as many love poems as in the average university sponsored journal. But here, realizing the eros in guerrilleros, we find many poems dealing with the necessary connection of love and revolution.



You’ve become accustomed to my way

to such an extent

that when I say, “Love,

the Revolution requires

          that I go away for some time,”

you answer:

          “I understand clearly comrade.”

And it’s then when I start to feel

a twinge of doubt about our love.


(Isidoro Tercerno, Sandinista Police, Poetry Workshop of the State Security Division)


          It is our ability to love that this book challenges. Does poetry matter to us? Of course. We all say that it does. But to what degree are we to work and sacrifice to back up our words with action?  In his introduction, Johnson makes the appeal that if we care, we do something. His words are worth repeating:

Poetry and the arts in Nicaragua are no longer the patrimony of an intellectual elite.  Thousands of working class people, many of whom only recently learned to read and write during the Literacy Campaign of 1980, are experiencing new‑found joys of poetic and artistic creation.  In that process, they are deepening and enriching their enjoyment of life.

...This is one more compelling reason why artists and writers in the United States should actively speak out against the senseless war now being waged by the government of our country against the Land of the Poets.


          Some artists and writers are speaking out against this war with their words and their bodies; and, though I would like to end with Kent’s words to add force to his appeal, it is best to end a review of a book of poetry not with prose but with a poem. From Carlos Pacheco:



I wonder

at the life of a man

who is not loved.

It must be like the silence at dawn,

or the Masaya Lagoon,

stagnant and serene,

where the sun’s reflection is like a fish

that leaps at noon...

or it must be

like a foreigner who has just arrived.