Obituary: Jose Coronel Urtecho
Friday 01 April 1994
'THE PAST will not return. / Today everything has changed . . .' wrote one of Nicaragua's leading poets, Jose Coronel Urtecho, in 1980, the year after the overthrow of the tyrant Anastasio Somoza by the Sandinistas.
Urtecho was the originator of a literary revolution in Nicaragua, prompted in part by his early youth and his experiences in the United States, where he became inspired by the discovery of the poetry of Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost, but also of innovators like Hart Crane, Vachel Lindsay and Ezra Pound.
In his charming book on his life in San Francisco in the Twenties, Rapido Transito, Coronel describes, in a chapter entitled 'Mis (sic) Gay Twenties', his happy years with his adored mother in an apartment on Van Ness Avenue and as a pupil at Commerce High School, where he fell for the blond charms of several American girls. But, at the age of 21, he returned to Nicaragua with a first collection of poems, Los Parques ('The Parks') which, though immature, were surprisingly innovative in the still rather old-fashioned local poetic circles.
With another young poet, Luis Alberto Cabrales, who had just returned from France and its Surrealist frenzies, he started in 1926 the avant-garde literary review Semana ('The Week') and founded the important 'Vanguardia' movement which was eagerly welcomed by several young experimental poets, like Pablo Antonio Cuadra and Joaquin Pasos. Coronel became the literary mentor of a generation. He was a fascinating talker, and his influence on the poets of his time was mainly oral, a quality that informs much of his poetic work. He wrote in long, flowing, Whitmanesque lines which reflected the dramatic rhythms of his speech.
From 1939 to 1941 he wrote mainly traditional verse. Yet he changed his style constantly, passing through vanguardist, vernacular, neoclassical, Surrealist, heretic, ultraist and 'exteriorist' (he invented the term, meaning a kind of revolutionary realism) periods. He started composing a projected multi-volume study of Nicaragua's history in 1962, from independence to the Somoza regime.
Coronel had first been influenced by a native Nicaraguan, the great Ruben Dario, a modernist cosmopolitan who wrote magnificent poems about his country. Coronel influenced in his turn slightly younger poets like Ernesto Cardenal and Ernesto Mejia Sanchez, who prepared critical editions of Dario.
Coronel edited a fine anthology of Nicaraguan poetry, La gran poesia de un pequeno pais ('The Great Poetry of a Small Country'). Many of the poets sang of the culture and tragedies of the Indians, using their native myths and idioms, a trend initiated by Coronel. Another leading older poet, Ernesto Cardenal, who studied at Columbia University and on his return to the United States, in 1957, joined Thomas Merton's Trappist community, became an apostle of the ecological movement in his native land and wrote fine poems on this subject, as did Coronel.
All these poets owed a deep debt of gratitude to Coronel, who yet remains one of the least-known Nicaraguan writers. This neglect arises partly, perhaps, from the poet's retreat to a remote country region on the San Juan River where he lived simply and quietly with his family, and where he died. A true revolutionary in poetry and politics, he nevertheless wrote poems of great tenderness and also of epigrammatic wit, as well as verses that celebrated the new age dawning after the Sandinista revolution, verses that have a high quality usually absent from this type of poeticpropaganda. With his slightly older poet friend Luis Alberto Cabrales, he voiced the longing for freedom of a people long oppressed by a bloodthirsty dictator.
Some of the other, intimate human quality of his poetry can be found in the long and emotional Pequena biografia de mi mujer ('Little Biography of My Wife') which begins:
My wife was tawny as a lioness
She was a basketball champion and lived by the river
On a cattle ranch that she managed single-handed . . .
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