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A tapestry of cordels

Historically marginalized, Brazilian leaflet literature has reached a new level of recognition and institutionalization

Augusto Zambonato

A traditional expression of Brazilian culture, cordel literature is beginning to experience a revival. After successive transformations in production and circulation throughout the twentieth century, the genre was proclaimed as dead by academics and authors at the end of the 1980s. Since the 2000s, however, other forms have been found to survive, in new formats, with other audiences and as the object of academic focus. The most recent chapter of this story is its recognition as Brazilian Immaterial Cultural Heritage by the National Institute for Historical and Artistic Heritage (IPHAN), which alerted the State and society about the need for strategies to protect the creation and work of cordel poets.

The beginnings of this literature can be identified at a moment at the end of the nineteenth century, in the Northeast, when poems shared orally were put into print. These leaflets, sold at markets in states such as Paraíba, Pernambuco, Ceará, and Rio Grande do Norte, quickly became popular—to the point that, around 1910, Leandro Gomes de Barros (1865–1918) from Paraíba established himself and his publishing house, Tipografia Perseverança, in Recife, becoming the first author and editor in the country to make a living exclusively from cordels. Beginning in the 1950s, with the migrations to the North, Southeast, and Brasília, leaflets were being distributed throughout the country, facilitating the creation of a network that today includes poets, researchers, schools, publishers, and associations—the most recognized of them being the Brazilian Academy of Cordel Literature (ABLC), with headquarters in Rio de Janeiro.

The cordel has been considered, back to its antecedents, as secular, beginning on another continent and involving a complex relationship between the culture of scholars and pop culture. “The importance of this kind of literature is historical. It was born in the sixteenth century in Europe, and was largely responsible for disgracing Greek and Latin texts and carrying news about the discoveries and imagery of the New World in Italy, France, and Spain,” confirms Francisco Claudio Alves Marques, from the School of Science and Language at São Paulo State University (FCL-UNESP), Assis campus. In Escritos e ditos: Poéticas e arquétipos da literatura de folhetos – Itália/Brasil (Writings and sayings: Poetry and archetypes of leaflet literature – Italy/Brazil; Humanitas, in preprint), he investigates the European roots of the Brazilian cordel, which began with the adaptation, into verses, of narratives brought here via Portugal. “Northeastern cordel poetry presents traces of earlier writings that have come to join the orality that has a strong presence in the region,” writes Marques, pointing out the key sources of inspiration for popular singers and poets: in addition to well-known stories of the Iberian peninsula, fables, biblical passages, and various knowledge compiled in almanacs and encyclopedias. In the book, the researcher shows how the talent of these artists, contrary to what is often considered, does not depend on their capacity to improvise, but on the way in which they adapt their existing literary repertoire: through their voices and hands, they use ancestral narratives to speak about the experience of their own audiences who are thus enchanted by them.

Produced by poets who were almost always self-taught and of humble origins, the leaflets initially had an audience of listeners, more so than readers. “In the beginning of the twentieth century, especially in the countryside, the people would listen to collective readings of cordel leaflets while they embroidered, threshed corn or beans, or rested after work,” notes Marques. Circulating in the routine of the workers in the northeastern inland region, the narratives talked in various ways about the circumstances and context of the people—often giving shape, as the researcher argues, to an awareness of the injustices, to the desire to take revenge against abuse of power, and to critiques of reality.

One of the examples studied by Marques is the myth of Cocanha, an imaginary country whose image has circulated in European pop culture since the eighteenth century, with one of its best-known representations in a work by Belgian painter Pieter Bruegel (1525–1569). In Brazil, this land of abundance gave rise to São Saruê, where everything is “good and easy.” As poet Manoel Camila sings about the Saints in the leaflet Viagem a São Saruê (Trip to São Saruê), in 1947, there “you don’t need to buy anything/ there is no hunger or disease/ people live to enjoy/ there is everything and nothing is for want/ without the need to work.” Noting the contrast between the country depicted in the narrative and the reality of those who heard it, Marques confirms: “The northeastern community lives with the twists and turns of the recurring droughts, the hostility of the climate, the lack of food. This narrative, of French origin, takes on a new role when it speaks directly about the reality of the northeastern community. It revives itself.”

The relationships of this literature with the context are also a key focus for historian Paulo Teixeira Iumatti, vice director between 2014 and 2018 of the Institute of Brazilian Studies at the University of São Paulo (IEB-USP), which provided guidance around this type of cordel for the publication of Vozes negras na cantoria: Cantadores afrodescendentes e as disputas em torno do gênero do Marco (187–1930) (Black voices in singing: Singers of African-American heritage and the disputes around the Marco genre [1870–1930]; Almedina, in preprint). It is about leaflets in which the author imagines building a castle for himself or another type of fortification—an environment that he governs like a king and which serves as a metaphor for its own poetic construction—offered as a type of challenge for other poets. And what happens, for example, in A fortaleza que levantei dentro de uma lagoa (The fortress I built within a lake; 1953), by Joaquim Francisco Santana (1877–1917), according to one of the last verses: “I already heard a poet say to me/ that he would build a wall just like mine/ if this audacity exists, it is very far away/ I believe that it has already died/ as my wall is already built/ whoever copies it has not yet been born.”

“Marco is the transposition of the challenge of going from the guitar to the written record,” explains Iumatti, emphasizing the link between this poetry and the kind of singing in which two composers compete with rigid rules in terms of metrics and rhyme. According to the researcher, this genre is a strange poetic form for the northeastern context, whose key characteristics have a connection with slavery, and especially the idea that, deep within his strength, the poet has absolute dominion over people and things. Studying poems written soon after the Abolition of African Americans, such as Joaquim Francisco Santana (1877–1917), the professor of IEB argues that the hyperbolic language of Marco, of praise for the poet for his own work, served as a symbolic struggle in a context in which it was necessary “to keep spirits up in the face of exclusion and racism.” “The black singers of whom I have record—they are few but significant—used Marco as a tool to fight and as an instrument to affirm themselves in a context of exclusion,” says Iumatti.

Augusto Zambonato

Literary production
“The great struggle fought by the poets throughout the twentieth century was for recognition of the cordel as literature,” informs historian Rosilene Alves de Melo, professor at the Federal University of Campina Grande (UFCG) in Paraíba and consultant to IPHAN. She says that, while it has always had public recognition, this literature has spent decades at the fringe, accumulating stories about the persecutions of poets and publishers, seizure and burning of leaflets, and arrests—such as that of José Bernardo da Silva (1901–1971) in Limoeiro (PE) in 1934. “The cordel is a genre that has been able to build itself up at a high cost, with much sacrifice and little money. Most poets died in misery, forgotten, impoverished, but they never gave up,” notes Melo.

The fact that it is a type of literature that originated in poor contexts and with little contact with the culture of the literate was often the source of stigmas. “Cordel literature was not often recognized by the official literature realm, even though many poets and writers admired it,” confirms Iumatti, who rejects the “popular” label for this production. “Cordel literature always played the mediator between universes: one more literate and the other of the oral culture, like a poem that came to people who never even knew how to read,” he explains. According to Iumatti, as the cordel writers seek legitimacy, they tend to identify less with pop culture, which comes to be seen as a repertoire for inspiration, study, and creation, and not as an exclusive milieu where leaflets are produced and circulated.

The ABLC, which was founded in 1988, contributes to this trajectory. “The creation [of ABCL] is a response to the Brazilian Language Academy’s lack of acceptance of the cordel,” says Melo, referring to the two applications of the cordel writer Raimundo Santa Helena (1926), which were rejected by the immortals in 1983 and 1986. The institutionalization of the cordel even brought new parameters for poem composition, which have changed over time, as explained by cordel writer Gonçalo Ferreira da Silva, president of the institution. There are three esthetic criteria: metrics, rhyme, and recitation, that is, the poets should rigorously obey the conventional quantities of syllables per verse, rhyming the entire poem, and building coherent narratives, with a beginning, middle, and end. “Cordel literature is meant to be read, sung, or declaimed, so it should have a rigorous resonance,” says Silva. He also notes the importance of language correction: “It is not acceptable that today we write and speak incorrectly. You would write incorrectly if you did not know how to write correctly. The ABLC respects tradition and safeguards in its archive the matuta language—when contractions such as ‘pruquê,’ ‘prumodi,’ and ‘pruvia’ were used. But we store it as museum material, and not as material to be used now.”

In an effort to save the cordel, poets sought, over the decades, different ways of substantiating their work. Initially, the leaflets were printed at printing houses in the capital cities and small print shops in interior towns. With the growth of newspapers and the reduction in equipment cost, some poets acquired their own machines, achieving autonomy in the production process and, consequently, in the communication of their work. Between 1910 and 1960, beginning in the Northeast and later with the circulation of the cordel in other regions of the country, a network was built for production and sales that allowed authors and publishers to make their living through the leaflets.

Today, the cordels are far from the place of their birth, the markets. The rise of supermarkets in the 1970s, hyperinflation, and the resulting increase in the price of paper in the 1980s and 1990s required these authors to completely revamp their work, resulting in them distancing themselves from their audience more and more. “In the early 2000s, the cordel was in deep crisis,” says Rosilene Melo, of UFCG. The solution was found in taking the cordel to schools. Since then, through workshops, mini courses, and presentations, poets have sought to stimulate understanding of the genre and enthusiasm for reading it. As a result of this shift, a new field was born from an editorial perspective—the educational cordel—with books written in this style that consider aspects of the National Curricular Parameters. With print runs that can surpass 100,000 copies, these works include topics such as science, history, language, as well as often adapting national and foreign classics. “This entry into the school system saved the cordel from disappearing in Brazil,” according to the researcher from UFCG. For Marques, the interest of the students in elementary schools and high schools may lead to a rise in new authors of the genre.

Another factor identified as essential for the survival of the cordel is the maintenance of leaflet archives. The ABLC today has 13,000 titles in its collection and close to 2,000 books that support research, in addition to 27 “cordel libraries” throughout the country. With the project “Seeds of poetry,” Melo plans to revive and broaden the collections at the José Alves Sobrinho Popular Literature Archive, the Center for Professor Training (UFCG) in Campina Grande, and the José Américo House Foundation in João Pessoa. Marques has focused the project “Organization, classification, and cataloguing of the cordel literature collection” on the 800 cordel leaflets donated to the Center for Documentation and Research Support (CEDAP) by ABLC. Iumatti is already working with a group of students, and with the support of IPHAN and the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), on the Cordel Literature Portal, which will be housed on the IEB-USP site ( and compiles metadata from collections of various national and foreign institutions dedicated to the cordel and that have the primary goal of research support. “If the reader does not go to reading, reading will go to the reader,” summarizes the president of ABLC.

A protected asset

A stanza of 10 verses of seven syllables opened the request made in 2010 by the Brazilian Academy of Cordel Literature to the National Institute for Historical and Artistic Heritage (IPHAN), asking to register the cordel as Brazilian Immaterial Cultural Heritage: “We, as members of academia/ of cultural gatekeeping/ ask IPHAN/ to kindly consider/ our eternal poetry/ as historical documents/ And in this request/ of trustworthy substance/ we ask that the cordel/ be registered as a cultural heritage.” In September 2018, the advisory council for the organization approved the request, recognizing cordel literature as an asset to be preserved by the State in collaboration with Brazilian society.

Between 2012 and 2017, a team of researchers developed a dossier, on the request of IPHAN, that provided grounds for the registration, documenting the national history of cordel literature and mapping out its production today in Brazil. “The registration is a decision of the Brazilian government that will remain for future generations. Thus, this inventory is necessary for the collection of information that proves this asset deserves to be registered,” explains Rosilene Alves de Melo, professor at the Federal University of Campina Grande (UFCG), who works as a consultant to the organization, coordinating the research and writing the dossier.

In order to develop the written document and the video documentary, which will be available to the public, 140 interviews were carried out throughout Brazil with poets, researchers, and owners of leaflet publishing houses. “In these meetings, we also collected suggestions for protecting the works, and that should be done by the poets themselves,” says Melo. The preservation activities are a key result of the registration process, whose purpose is to meet legal requirements for the promotion of and access to culture, in particular articles 215 and 216 of the Federal Constitution. “The history of the cordel will now change radically. Until 2018, it was poetry freely practiced by people; now, it is an asset protected by the State,” summarizes Melo, pointing out the collective dimension of the work of these poets, which should include the construction of organizational structures and articulation. She believes that, beginning this year, this organization, which protects heritage, will take steps specifically focused on the cordel.

Organization, classification, and cataloguing of the cordel literature collection “Gonçalo Ferreira da Silva” (nº 18/03453-0); Grant Mechanism Regular Research Grant; Principal Investigator Francisco Claudio Alves Marques (UNESP); Investment R$17,320.60.