Viva Villa
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - August 3, 2019 - 12:00am

The birthday of the late National Artist for Literature, Jose Garcia Villa, falls on Aug. 5 and it’s a good a time as any to talk about his legacy. Penguin Classics published his Doveglion: Collected Poems in 2008, on the occasion of the centenary of his birthday.

The books of Villa burst upon the American literary scene like firecrackers. He published Have Come, Am Here (Viking Press, 1942), which received glowing praise from both sides of the Atlantic. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Peter Monro Jack called Villa’s works as “an astonishing discovery. . . This is a poet of instinctive genius who creates knowingly his own communication.” Villa first showed his manuscript to the English writer Sylvia Townsend Wanner. In a letter to B.W. Huebsch of the Viking Press, she said: “It is like seeing orchids growing wild to read him. . . Since I met him he seems to have met God, but a God so much in his own image that I am sure no harm can come of the encounter.”

For her part, the influential poet and critic, Babette Deutsch, wrote of Villa in the New Republic in 1942 as belonging to “a 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.” The grande dame of American poetry, Marianne Moore, wrote for the Nation in the same year and chimed in that the works of Villa are “bravely deep poems,” where “final wisdom encountered in poem after poem merely serves to emphasize the disparity between tumult and stature.” In this book, Villa also introduced a new method of rhyming called reversed consonance, which was overlooked by reviewers except Deutsch, who included it in her influential Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms.

This is all high praise, and Villa deserves every single one of them. But I would like to add that the publication year of the book – 1942, the early days of World WW II – was also an important factor in the reception of the text. The United States had plunged into a war in the Pacific with Japan, when the Asian power bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 8 of the previous year and then attacked the American colony of the Philippines on the same day. There were thousands of American soldiers on Philippine soil, and American interest in the country was at its peak. Another expatriate Filipino writer, Bienvenido Santos, who was caught by the war in the US while studying there as a pensionado, was hired by the State Department to go on a speaking tour around the United States, to introduce the Philippines and its “lovely people” to the aggrieved public whose sons and husbands were fighting in a war 8,000 miles away.

The plainly titled Volume Two came out in 1949. Here, Villa introduced his controversial comma poems, where a comma is placed after every word, with no space between the word and the comma. As he puts it, “The commas are an integral and essential part of the medium: regulating the poem’s verbal density and time movement: enabling each word to attain a full tonal value, and the line movement to become more measured.”

The poet Richard Eberhart hailed this unorthodox use of the comma, writing to Villa on June 26, 1949: “The arbitrary and perfectionist technique (so that not once does the machinery not click or work) of the comma is somehow, I don’t know, enlivening; it is a trick that refreshes, you know it is a trick and accept it, and in spite of yourself you read right through the commas, so to speak. . . You do not employ trickery for trickery’s sake, in verbal play, but your tricks are a delight to the eye and to the senses: plenty of sense to back up the startlingness.”

But for his part, the young American poet Randall Jarrell wrote a scathing review, implying it was pretentious. You can understand where it’s coming from, because Jarrell wrote poems that were conversational, quotidian, and prose-like – the very antithesis of what Villa deemed to be poetry.

Villa’s last major publication was Selected Poems and New in 1958. In her preface, Dame Edith Sitwell said, “I knew that I was seeing for the first time the work of a poet with a great, even an astonishing, and perfectly original gift,” and that his works “are amongst the most beautiful written in our time.”

It’s all wonderful praise, indeed, heaped upon our National Artist, but these were words said more than half a century ago. How now to look at Villa, the “Pope of Greenwich Village” in New York City, where he lived in exile estranged from his rich Hispanic-Filipino family in Manila?

In an essay published in the Spring 2004 issue of Melus, ”Jose Garcia Villa and Modernist Orientalism,” Timothy Yu said that American critics wanted to put Villa “squarely in the Anglo-American poetic canon,” the way he was shown in an iconic photo at the Gotham Book Mart in 1948, surrounded by Tennessee Williams, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell and, perched on a ladder, W.H. Auden. Yu said this was to satisfy “Eliotic demands by positioning his individual talent with regard to a tradition,” which is then considered as universal.

Critics have said that Villa was influenced by the Metaphysical poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and E.E. Cummings – all Western. But a closer reading of Villa will show  images of church spires and angels, pink monks and antique ants, crosses and skulls, Genesis and the Apocalypse. These are Christian and Gothic images that must have been mined from Villa’s unconscious. That, plus his vividly melodic lines and the sheer musicality of his verse reminding you of Spanish and Tagalog, show that after all was said and done, Jose Garcia Villa was also a great Filipino poet of his time.

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