Some pigeonhole him into modernism. However, for others, he was the precursor of that literary movement, and yet others say that he was much more than a modernist: all of José Martí's work was an expression of the modern age.
He used—and how—the oldest and most popular forms of poetry, and demonstrated how much could be said using those moulds, which were already considered old and worn-out in his era. At the same time, he also anticipated the poetry of the future, and in his prose, he fully expressed the renaissance that would later come to the Spanish language with the arrival of Azorín, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Ortega y Gasset, and Antonio Machado…
Martí is a luxury of language. The Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno used to say that Martí wrote in a sort of protoplasmatic language, that is, one that preceded the split between verse and prose. That is why when critics refer to his poetry, they do not limit themselves to his collections of poems; they include his speeches and articles. Even in his youthful prose, “Martí demonstrates that for the integral poet, there is only one language, dominated at its origins by the beating of the heart, which is instantaneously transmitted from the pulse to the pen, and open at the top to visionary space,” Cuban critic Cintio Vitier writes.
The Argentine writer Domingo Faustino Sarmiento said that nothing existed in the Spanish language like the outpouring of Martí's roar. Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío lamented that he was unable to put into verse the luminous greatness of this Cuban. And Unamuno remarked, “The style is the man, and because Martí was a man, a real man, he had a style, a real style.” But more than a writer, he was a great prose writer, and writing for him was a way of serving. He was an essayist, a chronicler, and an orator; that is, he composed many different pieces. His letters fill various volumes of his complete works.
Martí was born in Havana in 1853. He suffered prison and exile. He made his living with a variety of occupations. His main goal was to liberate Cuba from Spanish colonialism, and to that end he devoted his greatest efforts. It was why he organized what he called the “necessary war.” He died in battle in 1895, with the war barely underway, and having spent only 17 of his 42 years in his homeland. He is known as the Apostle of Cuba's independence.
With such an intense, eventful life, marked as well by marital conflicts, Martí left behind very few organic works. He published a novel, Amistad funesta (1885), and two poetry collections: Ismaelillo and Versos sencillos (Simple Verses). Two more remained unpublished: Versos libres and Flores del destierro.
While Ismaelillo (1882) still moved within the atmosphere of the classics, it was the beginning of a poetic dawn. It is like nothing that had been done previously in Spanish poetry. Martí knew that when he recommended that the publication of his poetry begin with this book, which he dedicated to his son. None of his previous poems was worth an iota, he claimed. These, in contrast, were “like a visit from a new muse.” They are verses in a light meter that follow, with grace and ingenuity, the games and mischief of a little boy. Poems written in moments of happiness, when the father feels close to his son, despite being absent. The author unsheathes his tenderness in this poetry collection, a tenderness that appeared new to the modernists and that did not hide the poet's preoccupation with his civic and political commitments. Brief poetry, with unexpected rhymes, complex syntax, archaisms and verbal treasures, condensation and detail.
Versos sencillos (Simple Verses, 1891) is apparently simple. Cuban writer José Lezama Lima said it was the simplicity of one who, after having traveled the world, begins again, and things are reborn for him. In any case, in these verses, the most widely-read by the Cuban people, strange meanings and tragic references burn; perhaps it is the autobiographical references, his assimilation of tradition, or his unique capacity for taking words to their height.
In Versos libres (Free Verses), the life of this Cuban hero passes before our eyes. He says, “Pieces of my own entrails are these… None has come forced, feigned or recomposed from my mind, but instead as tears and blood that gush from a wound… I did not patch with this or that, but instead cut into myself. These are writings not in the ink of academia, but in my own blood.”
The poet could have said the same thing about Flores del destierro. Both poetry collections form a stylistic unity and a complete ideology. Verses of passion an agony, sweat and blood.