Villa, José Garcia
José Garcia Villa
Although José Garcia Villa (1914–1997) is largely known as a Filipino poet, he spent 67 years of his life in the United States. His work has been praised as innovative and talented. A contributor to the Dictionary of Oriental Literature observed of Villa that "His craftsmanship and skill remains unchallenged among Filipino poets."
Born in Manila, Philippines, on August 5, 1914, Villa was the son of Simeon Villa, a doctor who was Army chief-of-staff during the Philippine revolution against Spain, as well as personal physician to revolutionary leader Emilio Aguinaldo; his mother was Guia Garcia, a wealthy landowner. Villa attended the University of the Philippines in 1929. He first studied medicine, and then switched to law, but he was always interested in writing, and as a law student he wrote short stories and poetry. Some of his writing, notably a series of erotic verse titled "Man Poems," was so controversial that the authorities at the University of the Philippines expelled him. In that same year, however, Villa won a prize from the Philippines Free Press for the best short story of the year.
Immigrated to United States
Villa moved to the United States in 1930, seeking a more congenial and liberal literary scene. Although he remained a Philippine citizen, he spent the rest of his life in the United States, only rarely returning to his home country. He enrolled in the University of New Mexico, earning a B.A. degree in 1933. While at the University of New Mexico, he founded a literary magazine, titled Clay, which published the work of several young American writers who later became famous. Villa attended Columbia University for graduate study in 1942.
Villa began writing short stories while he was still an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico. He published these and his poems in American literary magazines to almost immediate praise. He received far more publicity than his seemingly obscure origins would bring, largely because of the work of critic Edward J. O'Brien, who saw in Villa an incredible talent. In 1932 O'Brien dedicated his edited collection Best American Short Stories of 1932 to Villa. Villa also won the Shelley Memorial and Rockefeller awards, received a Guggenheim fellowship for writing, and was given membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Although he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, he did not win, as his work was considered too experimental.
O'Brien was so successful at bringing literary attention to Villa that when a collection of Villa's stories, Footnote to Youth, was published in 1933, a reviewer in the New York Times was already familiar with Villa's life and reputation. According to Timothy Yu in an article on the Meritage Press Web site, the New York Times reviewer wrote that "For at least two years the name of Jose Garcia Villa has been familiar to the devotees of the experimental short story.… They knew, too, that he was an extremely youthful Filipino who had somehow acquired the ability to write a remarkable English prose and who had come to America as a student in the summer of 1930." This comment points out two streams of commentary on Villa's work that would persist throughout his career: some critics saw him simply as a genius, while others focused on his identity as a speaker, and writer, of English as a second language. This second group of reviewers often seemed surprised that a Filipino could learn to write so well in English, revealing their own prejudices.
Switched from Short Stories to Poetry
After publishing Footnote, Villa abandoned short-story writing and turned all his attention to poetry. Between 1933 and 1942 he published very little. Yu speculated that he made the switch from short stories to poetry because most fiction writers are judged by their presentation of the cultures and social settings they are familiar with in their own lives. If Villa had continued to write fiction, he would have been constrained by these expectations to write about the Philippines and, as Yu wrote, "Any attempt by Villa to present 'American' content would likely … have been dismissed out of hand. By turning to poetry, he was able to turn his foreignness into an asset, a brand of exoticism that appealed to the orientalist strain in American modernism while still allowing Villa to take his place among the 'great' American writers." Yu noted that another critic, Salvador P. Lopez, had a simpler explanation for Villa's switch from one genre to another: "He is simply a better poet than he is a prose writer." Lopez also implied that "There is simply less competition in the field of poetry, as there may be fewer accomplished Filipino poets writing in English."
In 1942 Villa's first book of poetry to be published in the United States was released. Have Come, Am Here introduces a new rhyming scheme, which Villa called "reversed consonance." Babette Deutsch wrote in the New Republic that the collection reveals Villa's concern for "ultimate things, the self and the universe. He is also on visiting terms with the world. He is more interested in himself than in the universe, and he greets the world with but a decent urbanity." She noted that, although his range is somewhat narrow, Villa "soars high and plunges deep." British poet Edith Sitwell wrote in her preface to Villa's later book, Selected Poems and New, that when she read Have Come, Am Here she experienced "a shock." She described one poem in the collection, "Number 57," as "a strange poem of ineffable beauty, springing straight from the depths of Being. I hold that this is one of the most wonderful short poems of our time, and reading it 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."
Invented "Comma Poems"
In his Volume Two, Villa presents a second form of his devise, which he dubs "comma poems." He writes in the preface to the collection, "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 fuller tonal value, and the line movement to become more measures." In these poems, Villa inserts a comma after nearly every word. Some critics were irritated by this technique, viewing it as a gimmick. Leonard Casper wrote in New Writings from the Philippines that Villa's use of commas "is as demonstrably malfunctional as a dragging foot" and that ten years later, Villa "still uses the 'commas' with inadequate understanding and skill."
However, Villa's structural approach had many supporters, including Sitwell, who wrote in The American Genius, "This poetry springs with a wild force, straight from the poet's being, from his blood, from his spirit, as a fire breaks from wood, or as a flower grows from its soil." Villa's work was also praised by other well-regarded poets, including Marianne Moore, Mark van Doren, Horace Gregory, and Richard Eberhart.
In 1946 Villa married Rosemarie Lamb; they had two sons, Randall and Lance, before divorcing ten years later. He worked as an associate editor at New Directions Publishing in New York from 1949 to 1951 and was director of the poetry workshop at City College of the City University of New York from 1952 to 1960; from 1964 to 1973, he lectured at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Villa also served as cultural attaché to the Philippine Mission to the United Nations from 1952 to 1963, and beginning in 1968, he was advisor on cultural affairs to the president of the Philippines.
"The Anchored Angel," first published in the Times Literary Supplement in 1957, serves as the foundation of a collection of about 80 of Villa's "comma poems" published in 2000 as The Anchored Angel: Selected Writings of José Garcia Villa. The poem considers the theme of man wrestling with the divine, a recurring interest of Villa's. The commas following each word in the work are intended to "anchor" the reader and focus attention on each word in an almost meditative way. According to Luis Francia in Asia Week online, this poem was hailed as Villa's "greatest work."
Turned to Teaching
In the late 1950s Villa decided to stop publishing his poetry, preferring silence to self-repetition, according to Francia. The critic explained that Villa had observed that many other notable poets became repetitious as they achieved fame, and he wanted to avoid that pitfall. After leaving the literary scene, Villa devoted his energies to his teaching in New York. He also held workshops at his apartment, where he critiqued students' poems, repeatedly stating, according to Francia, that real poetry is "written with words, not ideas." He opposed narrative poetry and told his students not to read fiction, so that their poems would not be contaminated by narrative elements.
Villa was highly regarded in his home country, and writers in the Philippines competed to be included in the anthologies of poetry in English that Villa edited. These anthologies were published under the pen name Doveglion, a combination of dove, eagle, and lion.
Villa suffered from ill health as he aged, and in an attempt to hide his condition he saw fewer and fewer visitors, eventually restricting contact with the outside world to a tight circle of students and friends. Discovered unconscious in his New York City apartment in early February of 1997, he was taken to a hospital where he died on February 7, 1997, from complications of pneumonia and stroke. Two years later, The Anchored Angel was published and was praised by Booklist reviewer Ray Olson, who called Villa's work "a most welcome rediscovery." In Publishers Weekly, a reviewer commented that the poems show that Villa was influenced by poets "as diverse as Hopkins, Dickinson, Blake and Cummings."
Villa was instrumental in founding modern writing in English within his native Philippines. As Francia explained in Asia Week, "In a world of English-language poetry dominated by British and Americans, Villa stood out for the ascetic brilliance of his poetry and for his national origin." And according to Yu, the Filipino literary critic Salvador P. Lopez described Villa as "the one Filipino writer today who it would be futile to deride and impossible to ignore … the pace-setter for an entire generation of young writers, the mentor laying down the law for the whole tribe, the patron-saint of a cult of rebellious moderns."
Casper, Leonard, New Writings from the Philippines: A Critique and Anthology, Syracuse University Press, 1966.
Contemporary Authors New Revisions, Volume 12, Gale, 1984.
Encyclopedia of World Literature, St. James Press, 1999.
Prusek, Jaroslav, editor, Dictionary of Oriental Literature, Volume II: South and South East Asia, Basic Books, 1974.
Sitwell, Edith, The American Genius, Lehmann, 1951.
Villa, José Garcia, Selected Poems and New, Obolensky, 1958.
—Volume Two, New Directions, 1949.
Booklist, December 1, 1999.
New Republic, October 9, 1942.
Publishers Weekly, February 7, 2000.
"Asian/American Modernisms: José Garcia Villa's Transnational Politics," Meritage Press Web Site,http://www.meritagepress.com/yu.htm (January 2, 2004).
"Death Comes to Doveglion," Asia Week,http://www.asiaweek.com/asiaweek/97/0228/feat5.html (January 2, 2004).
"Pinoylit: José Garcia Villa," Pinoylit,http://pinoylit.hypermart.net/filipinowriters/garvilla.htm (January 2, 2004).