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Mad about Poetry: Rubén Darío and Alfonso Cortés

"Words should paint the color of sound, the aroma of a star."

-- Rubén Darío

The corner house that is now the Museo-Archivo Rubén Darío was home to not just one, but two great poets. It was the childhood home of world-famous father of Modernismo Rubén Darío, a child prodigy abandoned by his parents, who left León at 17 and traveled the world. By pure coincidence, it was also the home of the metaphysical poet Alfonso Cortés some years later. Here, Cortés lost his mind 11 years after Darío's death. He ended up chained to the window grill beside Darío's four-poster bed and was eventually committed to a mental hospital, where he spent the next 20 years in rage and despair with moments of poetic lucidity. Cortés' and Darío's lives were very different, but they shared the same city, the same zeal for words, and the same knack for tragedy. Darío is by far the more famous, whereas Cortés, though much loved in Nicaragua, is often referred to as el poeta loco (the crazy poet).

It is intriguing to compare the lives of the two poets. Rubén Darío was always famous. Born in 1867, he was a child prodigy who could read by the age of 3 and was published by the age of 13. His most influential collection of poetry, Azul, was written at the age of 21, and it changed the face of Spanish poetry, throwing off the old-fashioned baroque pretence of colonial times and making the language alive with searing lyricism and bold metaphors. Darío was a restless character who jumped from country to country acting as diplomat, journalist, and writer. He lived in Argentina, Chile, Spain, and France and met all the great literary figures of the day. Twentieth-century poets such as Lorca, Neruda, and Paz all cite him as a major influence, and he is Nicaragua's truest national hero -- thus his portrait on the 100-córdoba note. Yet his life was plagued by alcoholism and poverty, and a chaotic love life that resulted in four marriages and four children, three of whom died in childhood. He died in his León home at the age of 49.

Cortés was a recluse who never traveled. He wrote his poems in tiny, microscopic scribbles in newspaper margins. After an unremarkable youth as an impoverished poet, he finally lost his mind in 1927 and spent the rest of his life in care. Yet he managed to translate some of the greatest writers, such as Baudelaire and Edgar Allen Poe, and wrote obscure, paradoxical lyrics about space and time that make him one of the few metaphysical poets in Spanish. Now, he has champions such as Nicaragua's priest poet Ernesto Cardenal, and his lines are learned by schoolchildren. He is increasingly famous in the Spanish-speaking world for writing deeply symbolic words about our existence:

"Time, where are we,

you and I, since I live in you

and you do not exist?"

He died in 1969, nursed in his sister's home 2 blocks from Darío's home (this is now a small museum dedicated to Cortés that is unfortunately closed most of the time). He is buried next to Darío in León Cathedral. Of his rival he said: "I am less important than Darío, but more profound."

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