BY Danton Remoto
The Business Mirror Front Page
November 17, 2008
That was the pseudonym of Jose Garcia Villa, our first National Artist for Literature, who wrote luminous poems in English in the first half of the 20th century. The qualities of the three animals he conflated into one word – Doveglion – and blazoned his poetry as among the century’s best.
Penguin Classics has just published the Collected Poems of Garcia Villa, to commemorate his birth centennial. The Pope of Greenwich Village, as Villa was known, belonged to the modern literary giants of the 1950s. This global poet set the standards for fiction and poetry in English in the Philippines, through his yearly list of the best and the worst works, notable for the acidic wit of his annotations. Such iconic American poets like Marianne Moore only had awe “for the reverence, the raptness, the depth of concentration in [his] bravely deep poems.” For her part, the grande dame of English poetry, Dame Edith Sitwell, wrote: “[Villa is] a poet with a great, even an astounding, and perfectly original gift. . . . The best of his poems are among the most beautiful written in our time.”
Who was Villa and why did he make a splash on world literature? His mother was a teacher and his doctor-father a colonel in the 1898 Revolution. He was separated from them by language (they spoke Spanish, he spoke English) and by a century (they were still in the 19th, he was moving on into the Jazz Age). He turned his back on a medical, and later, legal studies, and pursued his art with ferocity of vision.
When he was 17 years old, he wrote “The Coconut Poem,” where he compared the coconuts to a woman’s nipples, followed it up with ellipses as a visual mirror to the shape of both coconuts and nipples. And then he ended with this line: “I shall kiss a coconut because it is the nipple of a woman.” Shocked, the administration of UP suspended him, and the courts fined him for obscenity. The young literary lion never went back to school. After he won first prize in the Philippines Free Press short story award for “Mir-i-Nisa,” he used the P2,000 prize money to book passage for the United States.
And thus began his life as a writer in exile. In 1930, he enrolled at the University of New Mexico and started a literary magazine, Clay. It published the masters of American literature: Erskine Caldwell, William Saroyan, Williams Carlos Williams. His own stories also captured the attention of Edward J. O’Brien, who included several of Garcia Villa’s stories in his annual Best Short Stories. He even dedicated the honor roll of 1932 to our Filipino poet. A year later, the prestigious Scribner’s published Villa’s Footnote to Youth and Other Stories. This was to be his first and last book of prose, for after this, he devoted himself completely to poetry.
Poem after poem he wrote, in the cold sadness of exile in New York. And in 1942, Viking Press published Have Come, Am Here. The title alone is a bold declaration of his intention – and he succeeded. The New York Times called Villa’s poems “an astounding discovery . . . . This is a poet of instinctive genius who creates knowingly his own communication.” Writing as a confidential evaluator of his poems for Viking, the English writer Sylvia Townsend Warner 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.”
The other arbiters of literary taste chimed in. In the New Republic, Babette Deutsch said 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.” Even e.e. cummings, who was the idol of Villa, said upon publication of Have Come, Am Here: “and I am alive to find a brave man rediscovers the sky.” Villa also developed the rhyming scheme of reversed consonance in this book.
In his next book, Volume Two (1949), Villa introduced the comma poems. And in his last major book, Selected Poems and New (1958), he introduced Adaptations, or prose pieces cut up to achieve the tightness and lyricism of poetry. In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, Luis Francia summed up Villa’s life and work.
“Villa’s English . . . was not the English of the colonial masters, but it was English nonetheless, or as critics of postcolonial literature describe it, English with a small e. In claiming an imperial language as his own – as such writers as Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov had done — Villa demonstrated how linguistic ownership had nothing to do with borders. There was an accent, sure, but it was that of a prophet. “
This essay was commissioned by the British insurer Pru-Life as part of its Planet English, a project to promote the use of English and English literature in the Philippines.