MONICA MANOLACHI Reviews
Poetry Is: José Garcia Villa’s Philosophy of Poetry (2015), edited by Robert L. King
(Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2015)
In the autumn of 2015, poet Eileen R. Tabios sent me a parcel of books. One of them is the wonderful Poetry is: José Garcia Villa’s Philosophy of Poetry (2015), edited by Robert L. King and published by Ateneo de Manila University Press. José Garcia Villa (1908-1997) was a Filipino American poet, literary critic, short story writer and painter, who emigrated to the USA in the 1930s and had a notable literary influence in the Philippines throughout the twentieth century.
In Poetry Is, his former student and friend, Robert L. King, gathered and structured Villa’s numerous lectures on various aspects related to poetry: Poetry Workshop I (1952-1960) at New York City College and Poetry Workshop II (1964-1973) at The New School for Social Research. While the first fourteen chapters are aimed at teaching what poetry is and what poetry is not, the next eleven chapters provide a step-by-step analysis of the specific problems encountered in the composition of a poem. Essentially, Villa’s advice is: “After reading a poem, the question to ask is: ‘How did the poet do it?’ – not: ‘What did he say?’” Although aware that “the lyric spirit cannot be taught,” he approaches poetry as someone who cares about an artistic tradition that has been with us since the era when the first songs were heard on the planet. His work is not simply didactic. It rather works like an unconventional guide, an intersection of poetry, philosophy and the history of poetic thought. It is also engaging, full of insights, with schemes, drawings and cartoons, now serious and demanding, now humorous and epiphanic.
The chapters corresponding to the first workshop include a theory of poetry, a taxonomy of poetry, a work in progress with clarifications on a series of differences: between poetry and self-expression; between poetry and prose; between lyric poetry, verse, free verse, prose poetry and poetic prose; between narrative and dramatic poetry; between poetry as spirit and poetry as art; between pure poetry, great poetry, general poetry and abstract poetry; or between truth and poetic truth. For example: “The best definition of poetry – when it is pure – is magical song. However, since poetry is seldom pure and almost always impure, the best definition of poetry that is impure is memorable speech (Auden’s definition). If that definition is shifted slightly in emphasis to noble speech, then we have moved into the realm of great poetry.”
Drawing on what great poets, novelists and thinkers of the past said about poets and the art of poetry, Villa also presents the specifics of poetry (internal and external characteristics, and popular misconceptions), cogently states that meaning is always secondary to language, music and form (“in poetry, what you don’t know can hurt you”), and highlights the utility of poetry (it is a “distillation of life”, which serves solving problems of unfamiliar causes, such as mental disturbances or socio-political troubles). In these ideas, the experienced reader might recognize previous conceptualizations, which Villa quotes and comments at length: T. S. Eliot – “no verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job”; Paul Valéry – “the subject of a poem is as foreign to it and as important, as his name is to a man”; Wallace Stevens – “poetry is not a literary activity – it is vital activity – a part of life itself”; or Stéphane Mallarmé – “poetry is the language of a state of crisis.”
Convinced that “good poets make words better than they are in the dictionary,” Villa’s focus of the subsequent chapters is predominantly on craft and on the theory of the poem: poetic language (how the spirit of play is used to convey meaning); technique (which can be low, medium or high, according to the intensity and number of aesthetic events created through language play); the first lines of a poem (what makes them strong) and the problem of inspiration; the musical, verbal and semantic aspects of poetic force; the craft of versification; poetic tension; poetic abstraction; or the role of the last line of a poem. Villa also offers a long useful list of “don’ts of the art of poetry” – some of them may be debatable in some circles, which makes his theory even more thought-provoking.
My mother once told me: you have a mystery. Later I thought: yes, I have. We all have a mystery, in a sense, we are all mysteries. Man is a mystery of the universe. If we knew everything from the beginning, would life be the same? In this book addressed to anyone interested in the essence of poetry, José Garcia Villa suggests poetry is… always mysterious, conveying apparently distant or veiled realities, ungraspable, yet powerful when they become recognizable. We are primarily drawn to poetry because of its harmonious choice of words and structure, but Villa warns that the art of poetry is not easy. On the contrary, it involves years of study, practice, faith, discipline, and commitment to produce what he calls “self-defending poems, poems that defend themselves against time by virtue of their craft.”
Monica Manolachi is a lecturer at the University of Bucharest, where she teaches English in the Department of Modern Languages and where she completed her doctoral thesis, Performative Identities in Contemporary Caribbean British Poetry, in 2011. Her research interests are American, British and Caribbean literature and culture, postcolonial studies and contemporary Romanian and Eastern European literature in translation. As a poet, she has published two collections in Romanian and was awarded a prize for poetic eloquence by the American Cultural Center in April 2005. She is also a translator and editor, contributing to the multilingual literary magazine Contemporary Literary Horizon.