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."