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A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Beginning with Guantanamera: learning about José Martí

Translator’s note:  One of the great things about Martí is his ability to invest one word with a multitude of meanings.  This is a tricky thing for the translator.  I have made the choices that seem natural to me, and hoped for the best.

Yo soy un hombre sincero
De donde crece la palma,
Y antes de morirme quiero
Echar mis versos del alma.

I am an honest man/From where the palm tree grows/And before I die, I want/To pour the verses from my soul.

These are the opening lines of the Cuban poet José Martí’s Versos sencillos (Simple Verses).  They are also, usually, the opening lines of the song Guantanamera, composed or at least promoted in Cuba by Joseito Fernandez in the 1920s or thereabouts (the dates are somewhat hazy as is the authorship).

Everybody knows Guantanamera in some form, and there are many forms.  The “classical” version has lyrics entirely pulled from Martí (except for the refrain, which does not appear in the poet’s work), but even this is fluid.  You can hear the famous melody, with a range of lyrical variations, from concert halls to busking corners, from ballrooms to salsotecas, from Havana to Miami and – of course – on the football terraces, where the lyrics are most definitely not from Martí.  The song has been performed/interpreted/adapted by too many people to mention, but a few names leap to mind: Celia Cruz, La Lupe, Tito Puente, Pete Seeger, Die Toten Hosen, Demis Roussos, Joe Dassin.

I am ashamed to say that, until recently, Guantanamera was my primary contact with Martí’s poetry.  It was not that I did not know Martí.  Of course I knew Martí; you can’t get away from Martí.  Not only is he rightly regarded as an outstanding member of the Latin American intellectual canon, he was also a committed actor in the fight for Cuban national self-determination.  Like Toussaint Louverture, even the manner of his death – in a hopeless, impulsive dash against the Spanish at Dos Ríos in 1895, at the age of 42 – carries a visceral symbolic charge.  These days Martí is the subject of a fierce and longstanding custody battle between those (including Fidel Castro) who claim him for the Revolution and those who see him as a figure of opposition, while those who fall in the vast spectrum of opinion in between doubtless construct their own Martí or perhaps none at all.

Perhaps strangely for someone who spends so much time listening to songs, I am not a natural reader of poetry and will rarely reach for it unless prompted.  In this case, the prompt was Castro.  Not because I’m in the habit of looking to elderly Communists for my literary recommendations, but because I study Castro, who is fond of calling himself “martiano” (“Martí-an”, rather than “Martian”, which would be “marciano”).  A claim like that should never go un-investigated.  With an eye to Poetry Week, I started with what I knew best: Guantanamera, which led me to Versos sencillos.  I think I shall never look back.

Even this first, cautious exploration of Martí has left two strong and abiding impressions.  One is that the heat (and sometimes light) generated by the current battle for Martí is not in the least surprising.  Not only is he a tremendous poet and a rare cultural asset, but he is also inherently political, in the sense that his poems consistently invoke social, ethical and national themes.   This is not a case of posthumously politicising an author.  He is part of the current debate, although it is another thing to presume that he would naturally come down on one side or the other.

However – and this is the second impression – it would be a shame to consider Martí as solely a Cuban or even Latin American cultural asset.  I say this not in the interests of denying his cultural identity, which was central to his life and thought and a defining force in his politics, but in the interests of considering Martí as a figure of global importance.  Because even from the little I have seen, it is clear to me that Martí’s poetry, his ethos and his thought hold a great deal that would enrich the life of any reader, whatever their cultural or political identity.

I would like to end this article with an illustration in the form of my favourite (so far) of the Versos sencillos: Cultivo una rosa blanca, which sometimes appears in the lyrics of Guantanamera.

Cultivo una rosa blanca,
En julio como en enero,
Para el amigo sincero
Que me da su mano franca.

Y para el cruel que me arranca
El corazón con que vivo,
Cardo ni ortiga’ cultivo:
Cultivo la rosa blanca.

I tend a white rose/In July as in January/For the honest friend/Who freely gives me his hand.

And for the cruel one who tears out/The heart that gives me life/I tend neither thistle nor nettle/I tend a white rose.

You can read the rest of Versos sencillos, in the original Spanish, here. I am unable to comment on the various translations currently in print; recommendations are welcome in the comments.

This photograph of the José Martí monument in San Luís, Pinar del Río, Cuba by Yerandy1990 has been released into the public domain by its author.

13 comments on “Beginning with Guantanamera: learning about José Martí

  1. Melrose
    May 25, 2010

    I was completely absorbed in this article about a poet I had never heard of, though I have heard various forms of Guantanamera in the most peculiar of situations, and I approached Cultivo una rosa blanca in this absorbed manner. The ending of the verse brought me out in goosebumps, similar to the feeling you get on reading a well composed haiku, and a delicious little tingle of shock. It would take a very compassionate and forgiving person to be able to do what the poem suggests.

  2. Moira
    May 25, 2010

    I never realized that Guantanamera had such a complex history. Like (I suspect) many people, I’m most familiar with Pete Seeger’s version and never even paused to wonder who actually wrote the lyrics and the music. It’s one of those songs that’s just part of your mental luggage.

    And like Melrose, I’ve never even HEARD of Marti before, so this whole piece has been a bit of a revelation for me.

  3. Jackie
    May 25, 2010

    I’d heard the name, but had never read any of Marti’s poetry before that I’m aware of. The snippets here make me want to read more. There is a great sadness to them. Was he a melancholy man?

  4. Moira
    May 25, 2010

    I’ve had an earworm all afternoon. I’ll give you just one guess what it is …

  5. kirstyjane
    May 25, 2010

    Thanks for the kind comments, Melrose, Moira and Jackie (Moira, I have that earworm too). I’m not surprised as such, but a little melancholy myself that Martí really does seem comparatively little-known outside Latin America and its diasporas. Is this the fate of “overly” political third-world poets, I wonder in my more world-weary moments.

  6. tsalapeteinos
    May 27, 2010

    Very nice article. I am not big fan of poetry either, unless intrigued. Same as you, I was introduced to Marti via politics. Another great – and more recent – Cuban political poet was Nicolas Guillen; you might be interested in his work also. Please allow me to attach an extract from 60s film “Soy Cuba” (Cuban-Soviet production) with some verses by Jose Marti. The beggining of the poem could be translated like that in english:

    When someone is born, two paths lie ahead of him
    The path of the yoke, which enslaves
    And the path of the star which shines, but kills.

  7. Hilary
    May 30, 2010

    Oh what a wonderful piece, and what a bad case of earworm you’ve given me, too! Delighted, and excited, to find out about Marti – it had never occurred to me to wonder where the words to Guantanamera had come from.

    The word that always hits me in a tender spot from Guantanamera is sincero. Evidently an important word for Marti. Having dipped into the verses, they are indeed beautifully simple, and a lovely way for me try out my fading skills in reading Spanish.

  8. Spanish Language Books
    June 3, 2010

    It is indeed a great asset for any translator to put in multitude of meanings for a single word ad Marti used to have.

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  13. David Blomstrom
    June 8, 2016

    Wow, nice article. I’m making a note to link to it when I finish my article about Jose Marti @ https://www.geobop.com/jose-marti

    Like some of the other commenters, I was introduced to Marti via political activism. In fact, I’m running for office right now – Washington State Governor – and came up with the idea of embedding videos of political Latin songs on my campaign website @ http://www.governor5.com. Of course, Guantanemera was one of my first choices.

    It’s just sad that we’re still torturing innocent souls at Guantanamo. May Obama burn in Hell for pretending to be Cuba’s friend while secretly plotting to destabilize it, as we’ve destabilized so many other Latin American countries.

    Which reminds me of another favorite Latin American song – Hasta Siempre Comandante.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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