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The "Universality" of the Poetic Art

In his Introduction to the Penguin Classics 2008 edition of Villa's Collected Poems, Luis Francia makes the following observation: "Taken to task for his insistent desire to be regarded as "universal" – he was, after all, a creature of his age – wherein "universal" was synonymous with the Western tradition, still [Villa] felt no obligation to display in his art overt signs of his situation in the world, believing that that was irrelevant and, moreover, lay in the province of prose."

Villa, born in the Philippines in 1908, emigrated to the United States in 1930 and thereafter returned to the Philippines for only brief visits, declining lectureships and a government pension in favor of his small apartment in Greenwich Village. Although he was throughout his life highly regarded in the Philippines as one of the founding fathers of Filipino American literature and in 1972 designated by the Marcos government as "National Artist of the Philippines," he was and is widely criticized by Asian American scholars as not being "ethnic" enough. It has been asserted that: "It is Villa's very allegiance to the universalizing aesthetic dicta of high modernism and the Anglo-American literary cannon that has prevented him, up to now, from being considered under the rubric of American ethnic writing." Timothy Yu, Asian American Modernisms: José Garcia Villa's Transnational Poetics. To the extent that this was intended as criticism of Villa, it misses the point. 

Villa was insistent that he wanted to stake his reputation on his place in the Anglo-American tradition of high modernism and did not want to place himself in the realm of being simply a Filipino ethnic poet. He resisted all entreaties that would have placed him in the latter realm, such as offers of positions in the Philippines, offers to purchase his literary papers so that they could be returned for display in the Philippines, and offers to be buried in the Philippines where he had been born. This had nothing to do with lack of gratitude for the honors afforded to him by Asian American scholars during his lifetime, but with fundamental principles of his theory of poetry, namely, that poems should not be "about anything," that tying poems to ethnic politics or any other concrete subject matter violated the principle that "If you can say it in prose, don't write it as poetry," that "self constraint and impersonalization . . . make for more durable art," and that "what makes poetry a visionary labor [is that] it dissolves the particular into the general and universal."

 I was reminded of the foregoing when I read the obituary in The New York Times of March 29, 2012 of Adrienne Rich, in which she was described as "a poet of unswerving vision at the forefront of feminism," and a follow-up article the next day by David Orr, who writes a column on poetry for The Times Book Review, which speaks of "the defiant political stands for which she became famous." As I find typical of Orr's writings, he frequently raises the right question in this case: "How do we read her work not as social history, but as poetry?" and then fails to provide an answer that makes any sense. 

Had Orr addressed his own question, the answer could only be that, in the 1960's, along with her contemporary Allen Ginsberg, Ms. Rich chose to abandon what she regarded as "formalist rigors" (namely, what makes poetry an art) and to become a polemic to promote her political views on feminism, lesbianism and women's domination by men. I am not anti-feminist or anti-lesbian, but one does not write poems to express or promote a point of view. Villa said: "[A]lthough art is impersonal, it is never depersonalized. It will bear the stamp of the author's personality." But he also stated: "Even if a poem springs from feeling, this feeling should be objectified into an art object, for a poem first of all is an art object. An art object can be achieved only by paying attention to the medium and to form, not to the ego. Engagement with the medium and form in poetry means acquiring a sense of language and technical control." Good poets maintain a superb indifference to subject matter, because they are writing without knowing the subject matter. The poet only is to discover the subject matter when the poem is finished. T.S. Eliot wrote: "The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates."

It would be easy for one, reading the foregoing, to conclude that Villa's theory is a defense of formalism in poetry. Such a conclusion would be wrong. Villa did not advocate several of the trappings of formalism such as attention to metrics, rigid adherence to arbitrary or fixed forms, imagery, and necessity for rhyming. Villa's theory does not consist of rules, which are inflexible, but of principles made to be broken so long as the poet understands, and is faithful to, the overriding principle that a work of art is not what it is about but what it is: its qualities of writing which make us experience the art. 

Tagged in: Jose Garcia Villa
Vocation: Wall Street Trial Lawyer (Retired)
Avocation: Poetry and Poetics
Studied poetry with Jose Garcia Villa 1970-1997
Writer and Publisher of Poetry


  • Guest
    Asian Tuesday, 01 October 2013

    I read this I felt instantly Villa is a truly master of poetry theory. Poetry concerns universal feeling instead of individual muse, which can be included merely through the medium of art though. That's to say, personal voice has been found in a poem something related with the vehicle of art whereof the poem is made while the true feeling in the poem found is seen more common and universal? is it right?
    The blog is very beneficial and nutritional to me a lover of true poetry.

  • Bob King
    Bob King Wednesday, 02 October 2013

    Villa taught that "What is necessary in art is not self-expresssion, but self constraint and impersonalization. It makes for more durable art. And yet, although art is impersonal, it is never depersonalized.. It will bear the stamp of the author's personality."

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