The revival of cordel literature

. Feb 10, 2019
cordel literature brazil

Browsing a flea market in the Northeast of Brazil, you may come across a couple of stands with what appear to be simple pamphlets, displayed across strings of twine and attached by wooden clothespegs. At first glance, they could be drawings or postcards, but a closer look will reveal one of the most traditional and longstanding forms of literature in Brazilian history: literatura de cordel.

Named after the strings (cordeis) they are arranged upon, cordel literature consists of short poems or folk novels, usually no more than ten verses and eight pages long, printed on simple paper. Usually, the cover of a cordel book contains an intricate woodcutting print to illustrate the story within.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Once popular all around Brazil, cordel literature began disappearing in the late 20th century. Now, these pamphlets are reduced to idiosyncratic relics of a time past. Cordel booklets are no longer bought for entertainment or literate value, rather for ornaments or curious mementos.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">However, a revival could be in store for this near-lost artform. The Brazilian Institute of Historical and Artistic Heritage (Iphan) has recently <a href="">recognized</a> cordel literature as Immaterial Brazilian Cultural Heritage, meaning it is now the duty of the state and civil society to work on strategies to protect the production of cordel literature around the country.</span></p> <h2>The origins of cordel literature</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Cordel literature began in the Northeast of Brazil, in the mid 19th century. The rise of printing techniques meant that popular poems and stories could be put onto paper and distributed in a form that was simple and accessible to the local population. Before long, cordel pamphlets were found in markets all over the northeastern states, particularly in Paraíba and Pernambuco.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The stories were rarely novel creations, consisting of adaptations of Bible tales and fables popular in Portugal and Spain. Often rhyming, cordel pamphlets were seldom read, instead they were enjoyed as collective activities, sung or declared among families or work colleagues, often accompanied by music.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Until today, roving street poets can be found on the streets of Recife, Olinda or João Pessoa, strumming tunes and singing poems read from cordel pamphlets.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">When internal migration came into full swing, with populations from the Northeast moving en masse to the North, Southeast, and Centre-West of the country, cordel literature went along with them, becoming popular all over Brazil.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">There were no limits to the subject matter of cordel poems. Along the years, stories were printed about famous politicians, writers, and musicians. Around the 1920s and 1930s, the escapades of the infamous outlaw Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, known as Lampião, was a particularly popular theme. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">One such story, entitled &#8220;Lampião&#8217;s Arrival in Hell,&#8221; depicted the famous bandit being barred from entering the land of the dead, before causing a fracas and destroying the Devil&#8217;s possessions. The story ends with the poet declaring that Lampião&#8217;s soul was laid to rest not in hell, nor in heaven, but in the vast backlands of northeastern Brazil.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Over time, the oral traditions of Brazil began to fade, and cordel literature became less and less popular, very nearly disappearing in large parts of the country. Its recognition as a symbol of cultural heritage aims to reverse this trend and increase awareness of the genre among younger populations.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Among the plans of the Brazilian Academy of Cordel Literature (ABLC), based in Rio de Janeiro, is to promote the archiving of cordel pamphlets around the country, facilitating research, study and exhibitions.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The importance of preserving cordel literature has been stressed by a number of academics, but no ode to the genre is more fitting than that of Carlos Drummond de Andrade (1902-1987), often regarded as Brazil&#8217;s greatest ever poet.</span></p> <blockquote><p><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">&#8220;Cordel poetry is one of the purest manifestations of the inventive spirit, sense of humor and critical capacity of the Brazilian people, in its more modest layers from the countryside. Cordel poets happily express that which his companions and those of the same economic class really feel. The spontaneity and beauty of these creations make more sophisticated urban readers dedicate interest to them, also encouraging research and analysis from academia. It is, therefore, poetry of social brotherhood which reaches a vast area of sensibility.&#8221;</span></i></p></blockquote> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">

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