José Garcia Villa 1904–1997
Philippine poet and short story writer.
José Garcia Villa was an award-winning poet in both the Philippines and the United States. In 1973, he became the first Philippine writer in English to be declared a National Artist, earning a lifetime pension. American awards include the Shelley Memorial Award and numerous fellow-ships. Villa's poems, which are marked by technical innovation and rich imagery, have been the subject of heated debates among critics who have widely different opinions regarding their artistic value. The majority agree with Dame Edith Sitwell, however, who wrote that Villa's best poems are "amongst the most beautiful written in our time."
Villa was born in Manila on August 5, 1904. His father was a doctor and Army chief of staff in the Philippine revolution against Spain. Villa attended the University of the Philippines for a short time, but was suspended for writing subversive poetry. While there, he and fellow writers founded the UP Writers Club—the oldest existing literary club in the Philippines. In 1930, Villa immigrated to the United States and attended the University of New Mexico, where he earned a B.A. in 1933. He began publishing short stories during this period, earning immediate recognition; Edward J. O'Brien's Best American Short Stories of 1932 was dedicated to Villa. Though his interests soon turned to poetry, it was 1939 before Villa completed his first collection, which was published in the Philippines. Villa attended graduate school at Columbia University before marrying Rosemarie Lamb in 1946. Highly respected in his native land, in 1968, Villa became advisor on cultural affairs to the President of the Philippines. He died on February 7, 1997, in New York City.
Villa's first book of poetry published in the United States, Have Come, Am Here, won widespread critical acclaim and was in contention for the Pulitzer Prize. In this volume, he introduced a new method of rhyming, which he termed "reversed consonance." This rhyming mode requires that consonants be reversed through word choice from one line to the next, such as "said" and "days." In Villa's Volume Two, he included "comma poems," which make use of a symbol shaped like a comma that is attached without space to the words on either side, thus
providing a weighted pace to the moving line. Despite such innovative techniques, Villa prefered traditional stanza forms of couplets, triplets, and quatrains. The content of Villa's poetry does not provide any identifiable cultural content, but instead contains romantic and visionary images intended to be universal and to convey the sense of a liberated spirit ascending. His poems are primarily concerned with essence, or, as Villa once claimed, with "the search for the metaphysical meaning of man's life in the Universe."
Critical response to Villa's poems has varied significantly over the length of his career. Early critics, such as Edith Sitwell, wrote of Villa's poetry with unassailable praise. Sitwell observed that his "poetry springs straight from the depths of the poet's being, from his blood, from his spirit, from his experience …" Such critics often compared Villa's poems to those of William Blake, Emily Dickinson, and e. e. cummings. Several, pointing to the religious content of Villa's works, have compared him to the Metaphysical poets. Later critics have been more scrupulous. L. M. Grow considered the majority of Villa's poems "prosy, pretentious, and contrived," adding that "Villa, like Wordsworth, would benefit from a selective fire, one which would consume a fair portion of his published work." Even so, Grow was unduly impressed by Villa's visual imagery in certain poems, especially "Clean,like,iodoform,between,the,tall," "Because,thy,smile,is,primavera," and "The,caprice,of,canteloupes,is,to,be." According to Grow, "If any poet has ever been blessed with the visual acuity, the instinct for uncluttered composition, and the historical consciousness to make the genre viable, Villa has been."
Many Voices 1939
Poems by Doveglion [as Doveglion] 1941
Have Come, Am Here 1942
Volume Two 1949
Selected Poems and New 1958
A Doveglion Book of Philippine Poetry [editor as Doveglion] 1962
Poems 55: The Best Poems of José Garcia Villa as Chosen by Himself 1962
Poems in Praise of Love 1962
The New Doveglion Book of Philippine Poetry [editor] 1975
Other Major Works
Philippine Short Stories [editor] 1929
Footnote to Youth (short stories) 1933
A Celebration for Edith Sitwell [editor] (essay collection) 1946
Selected Stories 1962
SOURCE: "Have Come: A Good Poet," in The New Republic, Vol. 107, No. 16, October 19, 1942, p. 512.
[In the following review of Have Come, Am Here, Deutsch praises the collection as "a group of poems that, for all their obscurity, which is sometimes witty, sometimes profound, are luminous and vibrant with the quality of crystal. "]
The title and even more the dedication of these poems lead one to expect the unexpected. And indeed, paradox and ambiguity leap out of the pages like so many rare and strange animals. What fascinates the observer, however, is not the difficulties that these lyrics present, though they are as singular as the work of Emily Dickinson or of Hopkins, but rather their pure intensity. There is not one, however faulty, that lacks the burning signature of the poetic imagination. José Garcia Villa belongs to the small company of religious poets who have been able to communicate their vision. He belongs to the still smaller company of those who have not needed to cry out their doubt.
This may be because his "Divine Poems" are variations on a theme of Blake's:
Thou art a Man, God is no more,
Thy own humanity learn to adore.
Villa goes further than Blake: he announces that God is his miracle, his work, his creation, wearing the poet's head upon His shoulders, and, therefore, perhaps capable of immortality. But, Villa insists, only when His divinity is humanized will God be perfected. Where Emily Dickinson addressed the Diety with gentle raillery as "Papa Above," and Auden respectfully apostrophizes Him as "Sir," this young poet, rejecting the authority of the awful Father and Arch-Disciplinarian, adopts toward Him the attitude of an intimate and a peer. Nowhere is this clearer than in the poem about how he wrestles with his God:
The way my ideas think me
Is the way I unthink God.
As in the name of heaven I make hell
That is the way the Lord says me.
And all is adventure and danger
And I roll Him off cliffs and mountains
But fast as I am to push Him off
Fast am I to reach Him below.
And it may be then His turn to push me off,
I wait breathless for that terrible second:
And if He push me not, I turn around in anger:
(The entire section is 999 words.)
SOURCE: Preface to Selected Poems and New, by José Garcia Villa, McDowell, Obolensky, 1958, pp. ix-xiv.
[In the essay below, Sitwell declares: "The best of these poems are amongst the most beautiful written in our time. "]
In the late summer of 1944, I received a book of poems from America, by an author hitherto unknown to me.
I learned afterwards that the young poet in question hailed from the Philippines, and is at present living in New York. I learned, also, that this book had been acclaimed by the principal critics of America as a work of genius, and had had, in America, an enormous success. But this I did not know at the time, and even had I...
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SOURCE: "A People of Many Pasts and Complex Parts: José Garcia Villa," in New Writings from the Philippines: A Critique and Anthology, Syracuse University Press, 1966, pp. 103-10.
[In this excerpt, Casper provides an introducton to Villa's stories and poems.]
Although five of his earliest tales were reproduced in the Selected Stories of Jose Garcia Villa (1962), in tribute to the first prolonged revisit by the distinguished expatriate in nearly thirty years, the fiction of Villa is mainly an academic curiosity today. When Scribner's published his collection, Footnote to Youth: Tales of the Philippines and Others, in 1933, Villa had already committed...
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SOURCE: "José Garcia Villa: The Poetry of Calibration," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 27, No. 2, Autumn, 1987, pp. 326-44.
[In the following essay, Grow explores Villa's shortcomings and eccentricities as a poet, as well as his talents.]
Certainty and uncertainty
Two sides of the same flame.
["A Certain Morning Is"]
Jose Garcia Villa is, without question, "the premier poet of the Philippines" [Leonard Casper, New Writing from the Philippines, 1966]. He has been praised by Filipino, American, and British critics for both short stories and poems since his...
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