Poetry Facts

Panamanian Poetry: A Diamond In The Rough

Last Updated: October 22, 2022

Perhaps, in the eyes of international visitors, Panama is most famous for its engineering marvel – the Panama Canal connecting the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.

Apart from outstanding natural landscapes, this small country does have an incredible but forgotten side of culture – Poetry. This article sheds light on the forgotten history of Panamanian poetry.

A brief overview of Panamanian poetry throughout history

At its most basic, history is acknowledged as the story of humanity, while literature is the best mirror of history from the earliest times to the present day.

Nothing reveals the ethos of the culture, the process of class struggle as well as all the ills of society better than literature. The link between literature and history is so strong that just by looking at the development of a country’s poetic literature, we can imagine the main historical events of the period in which it was set.

That’s why before diving into details, let’s look through the literary movements timeline of Panamanian poetic history in 4 primary periods.

  • Before 1513: Pre-Columbian history
  • 1513-1821: Spanish colonial period – Poetry tinged with nationalism
  • 1821-1930: Independence – A strong influence of romantic nationalism and the peak of modernism in the later period
  • 1930-present

Pre-Columbian history of Panama (Before 1513)

Before the first European – Venezuela explored the Isthmus of Panama (historically known as the Isthmus of Darien), there was almost no study proving the appearance of poetic literature in Panama.

Panama, during this period, was never regarded as a country with deep cultural value as Mexico, Rome, or Samarkand in Uzbekistan, etc.

During the Colony – First Panamanian poets (1513-1821)

How was Panamanian poetry started?

Since Panama lies between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, connecting North and South America, it has a unique geostrategic and economic value.

Not long after Pamana was discovered for the first time by Europeans in 150, it was invaded. All civilians started living under the domination of the Spanish Empire for more than 300 years (1513-1821).

Usually, the impact of colonizers on their colonies can be considered in two ways: positive and negative. Colonizers conquered small countries in order to exploit their natural resources forcefully. Harsh treatment and many crimes happened.

However, this period influenced the poetic literature of Panama strongly via two aspects:  

  • The invasion gave Panamanians a flow of literature that came from Spanish. Furthermore, it was also a prerequisite for future “fights for freedom” of Panamanians, which leads to the 2nd point.  
  • War is one of the best nutrients to turn those with the gift of poetic thought and eloquence of expression into poets. Experience of war became the best “material” for Panamanian poets.

First Panamanian poets

Literature flourished under the colonialists’ repression and poor living conditions on the Isthmus of Panama. And Panamanians used poems to reflect:

  • The ills of society during that time
  • The desire to be an independent country
  • The struggles of fights with the Spanish to gain freedom

In the earlier period of Panamanian poetry, most poems focused on nationalism. Typically, the first collection of poems (found until now) was the “Llanto de Panamá a la muerte de Enrique Enríquez.” In English, it can be translated as the “Crying from Panama at the Death of Don Enrique Enríquez.”

The remaining part of the original Panama city
The remaining part of the original Panama city

Primary information about this anthology you should know:

  • Founded in the 17th century and confirmed to be written by authors born in Panama.
  • Mateo Ribera was considered the main author of the anthology, with most of his poems in the collection.
  • The collection was edited for the first time in Madrid (1642).
  • Most poems were influenced by the baroque style, which is typical of classical Spanish literature. It can be seen as evidence of the significant effect of Spain on Panama’s poetry.

For those who don’t know Don Enrique Enríquez, he was one of the most honorable governors of Panama. His death in 1638 caused an outpouring of grief and sadness for the whole of Panamanians. That emotion became the wondrous “material” for contemporary poets.

Another name considered as the “first Panamanian poet was Víctor de la Guardia y Ayala. He was the author of a stage play called “La Política del Mundo” (World Politics). This play was performed for the first time in 1809.

The rise of romantic nationalism in poetry  

Romantic nationalism (also known as notional romanticism) is a form of nationalism or a type of patriotism. The state successfully gains political legitimacy as a natural consequence of the unity it governs.

At its most basic, romantic nationalism arose in Panamanian poetry resulting from:

  • As a course of nature, self-determination nationalism, along with cultural production and political consciousness, generally turned into Romantic nationalism in Panama.
  • Influenced by the revolutionary movements of Spain’s colonies around the world, who were also seeking independence and true freedom at that time.
  • Under the harsh treatment of the Spanish as a colony for over 300 years, Panamanians finally declared their independence on November 28, 1821.

Affected by romantic nationalism, the central theme in poems was about the nation’s celebration (including language, culture, religion, spiritual value, etc.); most importantly, to prove the country’s legitimacy and justify its existence.

Furthermore, Panamanians used poetry as a method to express the desperation when facing so many lives lost in the fights with invading enemies, but still with a spirit of never giving up and national pride.

As an inspiring ideal for artistic expression, romantic poetry, tinged with notions of nationalism, became a powerful national form to encourage the patriotic spirit of the nation. It prevailed in the 17th century and lasted till the early 19th century.

Some poets of the early period of romantic poetry who went down in history were:

  • Manuel María Ayala (1785–1824)
  • Tomás Miró Rubini (1800–1881)
  • José María Alemán (1830–1887)
  • Gil Colunje (1831–1899)
  • Federico Escobar (1861–1912)

The appearance of modernism

It’s not exaggerating to metaphorically describe the Panamanian poetry as “a diamond in the rough.” A gem that was almost forgotten among the great manes of literature worldwide.

Panama Canal - One of the world’s greatest engineering marvels
Panama Canal – One of the world’s greatest engineering marvels

Panamanian poets were brought more to light only after the construction of the Panama Canal, which is now one of the wonders of the modern world.

In 1903, when Panama separated from Columbia, modernism in poetry appeared. During the first period of modernism, two important poets were mentioned most of the time were:

  • Darío Herrera (1870–1914) – Considered as the first modernist. He was a friend and also a follower of Rubén Darío – the father of the modernist literary movement.
  • León Antonio Soto (1874–1902) died through torture because he championed Panama’s freedom.

Apart from that, the popularity of modernist literature in Pamana can be seen in two famous literary magazines that disseminated modernism at that time:

  • El Heraldo del Istmo (1904–1906), directed by Guillermo Andreve (1879–1940).
  • Nuevos Ritos (1907), founded by Ricardo Miró (1883–1940) – One of the most well-known Panamanian poets with many works (especially his poem “Patria”) still discussed today.

Other influential poets represented for modernist literature in this period were:

  • Gaspar Octavio Hernández (1893–1918), author of Melodías del pasado (1915) and La copa de amatista (1923)
  • María Olimpia de Obaldía (1891–1985)
  • Demetrio Korsi (1899–1957)

Through the words of poets and contemporary authors, one can feel the passion of Panamanians, the experiences of building the Panama Canal, and the effects it had on the people.

Area of the avant-garde in Panamanian poetry (1930 to present)

After 1930, romantic nationalism and modernism in poetry were no longer as common as in earlier periods. A new generation of poets distanced themselves from the two most common concepts and approached the avant-garde.

A view of an exuberant beach in Panama
A view of an exuberant beach in Panama

A typical example of this movement in the poetic perspectives of Panamanian poets after 1930 was Rogelio Sinán (1902-1994).

  • His real name was Bernardo Domínguez Alba. Rogelio Sinán is just a literary pseudonym.
  • A poet, short-story writer, novelist, and playwright, but best known for his poems.
  • He was the first director of the Department of Fine Arts in Panama and introduced the vanguard in Panama through his poetry collections: Wave (1926), Fire (1944), Easter in the mist (1949), etc.
  • All the great experiences, when he traveled to Europe, Chile, Italy and approached surrealists in Paris, had influenced a lot to his literary perspectives and further works.

During Rogelio Sinán’s writing career, his work has been acknowledged as avant-garde, not only for his innovation in literary creation but also by opening new literature horizons in Panama.

Other major poets of this era include:

  • Ricardo J. Bermúdez (1914), whose most famous work is “Laurel de cenizas” (1951) was influenced strongly by surrealism
  • Mario Augusto Rodríguez (1917) – A short-story writer and journalist. In 1957, he published his poetry collection “Canto de amor para la Patría novia”, a popular poetic history of the Panamanian nation
  • José de Jesús Martínez, Diana Morán (1932)
  • Alvaro Menéndez Franco (1932) and so forth

3 Most Famous Panamanian Poets

A poem itself is a harmonious combination of language and music with high aesthetic and rhythmic qualities. Its creator – the poet is like a meticulous craftsman who entrances auditors by the “sweet” melody and unlimited imagination set in the poem.

It would be a waste if we don’t talk about well-known Panamanian poets who contributed significantly to the movements of Panamanian poetic history.

1. Ricardo Miró (1883-1940)

Ricardo Miró

Ricardo Miró – a national poet of Panama in the early period and also one of the most noteworthy ones due to his notable literary works that reflected the patriotic spirit and celebrated Panamanian literature. This point was represented clearly through the “Homeland” (or Patria) – Ricardo Miró’s most famous poem.

With Panamanians, the “Homeland” is even raised as their second national anthem since it reflects realistically the difficulties in the fight for freedom in his “Homeland” published in 1909.

His love and admiration for the beauty of nature in Panama were shown in every work of Ricardo Miró. It was the time when he was far from Panama. His nostalgia for his homeland became the inspiration for some of his most well-known poems like Native Land and To Portobello.

2. Rogelio Sinán (1902-1994)

The house of Rogelio Sinán in Panama

If Ricardo Miró is one of the first poets promoting the literary movement in the early stage of Panama, Rogelio Sinan shed ample light on all Panamanian writers and poets.

We mentioned this Panamanian poet once when discussing the most influential person in the era of the avant-garde in Panama. Thus, we won’t mention his biography again here.

Soundless, speechless sirens
a silent chant audible only by death
which pierced agonies into the night.

Incendio (Fire) by Rogelio Sinán

His specialty is always seeking the essence of things and demonstrating them with boldness.

3. María Olimpia de Obaldia (1891-1985)

Some important milestones of María Olimpia de Obaldia:

  • Granted the title Maria Olimpia de Panama by the Instituto Nacional de Panamá.
  • The first female member of the Academia Panameña de la Lengua in 1951.
  • Got a Commander of the Panamanian Order of Vasco Núñez de Balboa (an award for extraordinary contributions to international relations between Panama and other countries).
  • Received the award of Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice.

During her writing career, she focused on the love of family, maternity, and women’s issues. Her first book was published in 1926, and some of her most famous poems were Natore May and Parnaso Infantil (1948).

The Future of Panama poetry

More and more Panamanians whose works are acknowledged widely and have a position in the literary world. In the scope of this article, only some of the most influential poets are mentioned. But, it’s just a few of several prominent and talented individuals who come from this beautiful land.

Blue skies, ocean, river and streams
The dark green jungle, fields, and plants
The heavy rains and dry season breeze
And big fluffy clouds
and the ships that would slowly glide by

When I think of Panama by Mike Laurenzi

Over time, we can hope to see more works from talented Panamanian poets—a considerable potential for literature flourishing in this beautiful and peaceful land.

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