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 home >> events >> literatura de cordel symposium >> about

Literatura de Cordel:
Continuity and Change in Brazilian Popular Literature

Symposium: September 26-27, 2011
Thomas Jefferson Building, Room 119
10 First Street, SE
Washington, DC

About Literatura de Cordel

Azulão (José João dos Santos) singing for a crowd of people.
Cordelista "Azulao" (José João dos Santos) sings a story-poem from a chapbook ( "canta um folheto") at the Feira de São Cristóvão Rio de Janeiro, 1967. Photo by Mark Curran. Not to be duplicated without permission.

Literatura de cordel, literally "string literature," refers to small popular books or chapbooks, predominantly from northeastern Brazil.  They were often suspended from cords or strings, hung across marketplace stalls belonging to local poets during the late 19th and 20th centuries. Today, cordel chapbooks are still sold and performed on street corners and in markets throughout Brazil, but are more readily circulated through the Internet. Literatura de cordel (sometimes known colloquially simply as "cordel") is a complex and vibrant expressive form that continues to reflect the popular voice of the Brazilian people.

The literatura de cordel tradition integrates multiple strands of inspiration and tradition found in Brazilian history and culture. Identifying the specific origins of cordel, which developed in the late 19th century in northeast Brazil and continues to evolve, reveals a complicated nest of influences. An earlier poetic form similar to cordel, a one-page flyer of printed verse, was brought from Portugal to northeastern Brazil in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Other sources of the genre include Brazilian improvised verse dialogues (desafios) or contests (pelejas), which can be traced to song traditions of the medieval troubadours. In addition, there are threads that link cordel with the centuries-old Iberian ballad and romance traditions, found both in oral and printed form. Finally, literatura de cordel contains characteristics and themes found in biblical stories, in exempla (tales used to express moral points of view), and in African and Brazilian-Indian narrative traditions. 

Apolônio Alves dos Santos at his poetry stand.
Apolônio Alves dos Santos at his poetry stand, Feira de São Cristóvao, Rio de Janeiro, 1978. Photo by MarkCurran. Not to be duplicated without permission.

From the late 19th century into the mid-20th century, literatura de cordel became a distinctive, regional northeast Brazilian form of popular oral poetry. Cordel poetry was created and performed by semi-literate poets for a predominantly non-literate public in open-air fairs and markets. Crowds and passers-by congregating to hear cordel poets recite or sing their verses in performance were enticed to buy cordel items for very little money and take them home. Drawing on local themes, using colloquial language, and describing worlds familiar and fantastic, cordel appealed to a wide popular audience, which it still does.

Cordel pamphlets, called folhetos, are small booklets of eight, sixteen, thirty-two, or sixty-four pages that usually measure approximately eleven centimeters wide and sixteen centimeters tall.  Often published on inexpensive, uncut paper, the folhetos have eye-catching cover illustrations, most frequently woodblock prints. Poets' and artists’ names and sometimes their publishers are frequently printed on the cover, title page, or back page of the pamphlet. 

The wide-ranging themes covered in cordel poetry include descriptions and critiques of current international and local events, humor and satire, adventure, romance, sensational or moralistic narratives, religion, the exploits of heroes and bandits, environmental concerns, educational topics such as medical and child-care advice, and more.

J. Borges with his cordel and larger block prints.
José Francisco Borges, at his poetry stand with his larger format block prints on the wall behind him at the 100 Anos de Cordel event, São Paulo, 2001. Photo by MarkCurran. Not to be duplicated without permission.

Significant economic, political, and social transformations have occurred in Brazil during the past few decades that reflect and are closely intertwined with the cordel of today. Currently, in addition to being printed in traditional chapbook fashion, cordel is also found widely on the Internet, with a lively traffic on cordel-specific blogs. Where a few decades ago, the predominantly male creators of cordel were often both woodblock artists and poets, today they may be women, and may specialize in either the poetry or the cover illustrations. Further, in recent years, unschooled cordel poets and their more or less rural public have frequently been replaced by university-trained poets, world-famous woodcut artists, and urban middle class audiences. Cordel still retains regional ties to Brazilian northeast heritage and identity, as migrants continue to move to urban centers such as Rio and São Paulo, in the South. At the same time, this distinctive and lively poetic and artistic form is finding creative expression in new and dynamic ways in a fast-paced, increasingly wired, modern Brazil.


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   September 10, 2015
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