Doveglion: Collected Poems (Penguin Classics)

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9780143105350: Doveglion: Collected Poems (Penguin Classics)

The centennial edition of major Filipino writer José Garcia Villa's collected poetry

Known as the "Pope of Greenwich Village," José Garcia Villa had a special status as the only Asian poet among a group of modern literary giants in 1940s New York that included W. H. Auden, Tennessee Williams, and a young Gore Vidal. But beyond his exotic ethnicity, Villa was a global poet who was admired for "the reverence, the raptness, the depth of concentration in [his] bravely deep poems" (Marianne Moore). Doveglion (Villa's pen name for dove, eagle, and lion) contains Villa's collected poetry, including rare and previously unpublished material.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.

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Introduction

I knew of him, of course. In Manila, he possessed an outsized reputation both for his bohemian ways and, more importantly, his pronouncements on the state of Philippine letters. His selections of stories and poems that he judged worthy of notice had all the weight of papal encyclicals. When Filipino writers referred to José Garcia Villa as the “pope of Greenwich Village,” they were only half joking. And here I was, one spring evening in the early 1970s, at Smith’s Bar, a nondescript watering hole in the Village. Once a week, he and his poetry-workshop students from the nearby New School for Social Research would walk over to Smith’s for drinks (a very dry martini in José’s case) and animated, all-night conversations.

New to the city and to the wide precincts of America, I was living with Henry, my oldest brother, now deceased, and his lovely wife, Beatriz. It was they who had brought me to meet José. Nothing remarkable marked that night. Needless to say, I was disappointed. Like any other impressionable young writer meeting a legendary figure, I expected the poet to display verbal pyrotechnics. After all, he was notorious for his withering put-downs, which made me understandably wary, for much as I wished to hear his mots justes—and I did quite often later on—my desire lacked any trace of masochism. He was unfailingly polite that night, no doubt owing to the presence of my brother who, being a filmmaker, had no need for José’s imprimatur and could therefore banter with him. And he was very fond of Beatriz, herself a writer but not a poet.

I don’t remember what I said, or replied, to the questions José put to me—the same sort of questions any fellow expatriate would have asked, out of politeness and friendly curiosity. The following year, I enrolled in his New School course, and having completed that (or “graduated,” a favorite Villa term), I then signed up for the workshop at his apartment in the West Village, and studied with him for close to two more years. To survive and even flourish in José’s workshop, you had to have a strong ego or cultivate one. Little time was spent on niceties. Works that deserved to be killed got killed unceremoniously; words were often exchanged, and not only with fellow students. One got a tangible sense of what worked and what didn’t—above all else, José made clear what rendered lines poetry rather than just chopped-up prose. I didn’t always agree with his critiques, but they were well thought out, even provocative. Moreover, I was a novice; and he, the master. He could be a goad, but mostly he was a catalyst. He had, in sum, a whole lot ofthere there.

José’s apartment was a different story. Unlike the elegance and sensual spareness of his poetry, the flat on Greenwich Street revealed a pack rat. Books, papers, magazines, bric-a-brac of uncommon variety, claimed ever-dwindling space. At one end was a bust of Saint Thérèse, “the Little Flower” of Lisieux. At another was a self-portrait by E. E. Cummings, lending the workshop proceedings a magisterial grace. By the time I studied with him, José had for the most part stopped writing poetry—a fact that didn’t bother me. What he had accomplished and, more importantly, his critical powers were what mattered. Like Laura Riding, whom he greatly admired and who had ceased to write poems shortly after her Collected Poems came out in 1938, he realized that he had reached his poetic limit around the time hisSelected Poems and New was published in 1958. Not wishing to fall into the trap of repeating himself, as, he kept reminding us, he saw other poets doing, he devoted himself to creating a philosophy of poetry and imparting his insights through the workshop. As suddenly as he had burst onto the literary scene, he retreated into relative obscurity, renouncing, as it were, the pomp of the papacy for the ascetic joys of monkhood—except for his daily martini.

Even before he electrified the New York poetry world, Villa had, as an enfant terrible, already blazed a trail through the literary landscape of Manila, scandalizing its bourgeoisie with a series of poems titled Man Songs. It’s easy to see how, for instance, “The Coconut Poem” (written when the poet was seventeen years old) shocked a conservative, heavily Roman Catholic society with its sexual imagery:

The coconuts have ripened,

They are like nipples to the tree.

(A woman has only two nipples,

There are many women-lives in a coconut tree.)

Soon the coconuts will grow heavy and full:

I shall pick one…many…

Like a child I shall suck their milk,

I shall suck out of coconuts little white songs:

I shall be reminded of many women.

………………………………

I shall kiss a coconut because it is the nipple of a woman. [239]1

Considered too erotic, such poems got the novice writer tried and fined by the courts for obscenity and suspended from the state-run University of the Philippines—founded, coincidentally, in 1908, the year of his birth. At the time he was also writing fiction, well enough to win first-prize money in a short story competition, which he used for passage to the United States. In 1930, he enrolled at the University of New Mexico to study medicine and promptly started a literary magazine, Clay. Among the writers he published were Erskine Caldwell, Witter Bynner, William Saroyan, and William Carlos Williams. Villa’s own stories quickly gained the attention of Edward J. O’Brien, who included him in several of his annual Best Short Stories and dedicated the 1932 honor roll to him. In 1933, Scribner’s published a collection of Villa’s stories, Footnote to Youth: Tales of the Philippines and Others. The collection was generally seen as the work of a poetic temperament, with the New York Times noting that Villa “is essentially a poet who has, perhaps, chosen the wrong mode in which to express himself.”

Indeed, shortly after Footnote saw print, Villa decided to concentrate on poetry. (For a time, the young writer had even considered a career as a painter. He would occasionally tell his workshop students that he had had a passion for painting but, unable to afford paint and canvas, dropped the brush in favor of the pen.) By 1933, according to his 1954 application for a Guggenheim Fellowship (which he received), “I delved intensively and extensively into English and American poetry, writing a great deal but not publishing any of my works at all.” In retrospect, the defection was inevitable: the best of his stories declare the poet rather than the prose writer, serving as precursors to the poems.

When, in 1942, Viking Press published Have Come, Am Here, marking his American poetry debut, critical praise was immediate and generous. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Peter Monro Jack described Villa’s works as “an astonishing discovery…This is a poet of instinctive genius who creates knowingly his own communication.” In a letter to B. W. Huebsch of Viking Press, the English writer Sylvia Townsend Warner—who, according to Villa, was the first person to whom he showed his poems—commented, “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 influential critic Babette Deutsch anointed Villa in the New Republic in 1942 as part of 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.” Writing in the Nation that same year, Marianne Moore described the works as “bravely deep poems,” where “final wisdom encountered in poem after poem merely serves to emphasize the disparity between tumult and stature.”

Have Come, Am Here introduced a new method of rhyming that was mostly overlooked by reviewers—except for Deutsch, who included it in her Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms. Villa named his innovation “reversed consonance”—used in six of the poems—and explained in a note: “The last sounded consonants of the last syllable, or the last principal consonants of a word, are reversed for the corresponding rhyme. Thus, a rhyme for near would be run; or rain, green, reign. For lighttell, tall, tale, steal, etc.” The opening lines of the first poem in both the original and this edition are a fine example:

It is what I never said, (a) What I’ll always sing— (b) It’s not found in days, (a) It’s what always begins (b)

Have Come is dedicated to Mark Van Doren and E. E. Cummings. The former judged the poems ready for publication when Villa, who had transferred to Columbia University where Van Doren was teaching, showed him the manuscript, while Cummings had written the aforementioned Mr. Huebsch: “It appears through a letter from Mr. Mark Van Doren that you’d like my confidential opinion of a certain manuscript. I very privately do not doubt that Vikings are blueeyed fools if they pass up José Garcia Villa’s cargo.” On publication of Have Come, Am Here, Cummings is reputed to have exclaimed, “and I am alive to find a brave man rediscovers the sky.” By then, Cummings and Villa had been friends a little over a year, Villa a regular visitor to Patchin Place, where Cummings had his pied-à-terre in the Village. According to Villa’s account, the two met because the younger poet wrote to Cummings faithfully, starting in 1938, shortly after he had read Cummings’s Collected Poems. The book led to Villa’s abandonment of the short story to “make poetry my primary instrument.” Though Villa wrote Cummings yearly, the latter never replied until Villa wrote in 1941 “with the threat that, if he did not reply this time, I would never write to him again.” This got the desired response: later that year Villa finally met the poet whose works had meant so much to him, the “man who opened up the world of poetry to me—without the inspiration of his work I probably would never have become a poet.”

Volume Two followed in 1949, in which Villa introduced his “comma poems.” In them, 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 fuller tonal value, and the line movement to become more measured.” The result, he says, is a “lineal pace of quiet dignity and movement,” with the comma demanding to be, as it were, read between the words. It would be a mistake therefore to think the poems read the same way sans commas—a mistake predicated on the notion that only words can constitute a poem. (In this reissue, the usual space after the comma has been omitted in keeping with Villa’s original design, which had been overlooked in Volume Two and, later, in Selected Poems and New.) To prove his point, Villa included comma-less versions of two poems. Here is the first stanza of one poem, with and without commas:

Much,beauty,is,less,than,the,face,of,

My,dark,hero. His,under,is,pure,

Lightning. His,under,is,the,socket, [130]

Much beauty is less than the face of

My dark hero. His under is pure

Lightning. His under is the socket [(130)]

The poet Richard Eberhart endorsed this unorthodox use of the comma, writing 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 how, 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.

Villa’s last major publication was Selected Poems and New, in 1958. (There would be other books, notablyParlement of Giraffes and Appassionata, but these were mostly reprints of poems, chosen by Villa himself.) In her preface to Selected Poems, Edith Sitwell states, “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 among some of the most beautiful written in our time.”

That Villa succeeded in carving out a space for himself at a time when the New York literary scene was dominated by white writers is nothing short of amazing. A famous Life magazine photograph, taken in 1948 and much remarked upon, concretizes the Asian poet’s arrival in Western literary circles. Celebrated British and American writers pose among the stacks of the Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan, among them Tennessee Williams, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, and, perched on a ladder, W. H. Auden. On Auden’s right is Villa, peering out calmly at the world. In an essay published in the spring 2004 issue of Melus, “José Garcia Villa and Modernist Orientalism,” Timothy Yu points out that American critics wanted to situate Villa “squarely in the Anglo American poetic canon”—just as the photo did—“satisfying Eliotic demands by positioning his individual talent with regard to a tradition,” one that was then regarded as universal. Indeed, critics remarked on his influences, his antecedents, from the Metaphysical poets to Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Cummings—all of whom the poet readily acknowledged, with pride of place given to E. E.

Is there an Orientalist subtext here? Perhaps; Yu certainly thinks so and argues, provocatively and with reason, that “the presence of Villa, an actual Asian subject, as a modernist writer is quite a different kind of subversive Orientalism; he threatens to overturn the Orientalist hierarchy at the heart of modernism, in which classic Asian art and literature provide passive inspiration to a vibrant Western modernism.” There was certainly the awareness that Villa was not native to these shores. For instance, in a March 15, 1946, letter to Villa, after expressing admiration for his poems, Henry Miller wrote, “What amazes me, since you were born in the Philippines, is your deep grasp of English.” In her review cited earlier, Deutsch remarked: “The fact that he is a native of the Philippines who comes to the English language as a stranger may have helped him to his unusual syntax.” Deutsch errs, of course, in believing Villa a “stranger” to the English language—he was, like others of his social class in Manila, multilingual, fluent in Tagalog, Spanish, and English. It would be a mistake, however, to ascribe Deutsch’s comment to anything other than a case of plain ignorance, especially since Deutsch follows that observation with, “But no accident of birth can account for his performance save the ancient ‘poeta nascitur, non fit.’ Even then the adage must be qualified, for though he was undoubtedly born a poet, he has obviously and wisely labored at his art.”

Villa’s English, as with that of writers in India and the Caribbean, 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. Besides, the syntax of poetry is neither the syntax of ordinary conversation nor that of pr...

Review:

a Villa seems to me to possess one of the purest and most natural gifts discoverable anywhere in contemporary poetry.a
aMark Van Doren
a [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.a
aEdith Sitwell

Villa seems to me to possess one of the purest and most natural gifts discoverable anywhere in contemporary poetry.
Mark Van Doren
[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.
Edith Sitwell

? Villa seems to me to possess one of the purest and most natural gifts discoverable anywhere in contemporary poetry.?
?Mark Van Doren

? [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.?
?Edith Sitwell

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