A reader wrote that “after one hundred years of Jose Garcia Villa, maybe it’s time to say goodbye and move on.” This sentiment of course is not shared by the literary “heirs” and admirers of Villa. In fact, what Villa had achieved—world recognition as a literary artist—has been compared to what Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo in the art salons of Europe with their prize-winning paintings (e.g. Spoliarium and Las Viergenese Christianas Expuestas al Populacho) in the late 19th century.
Jonathan Chua’s book The Critical Villa (Ateneo Press) has put in context and perspective the achievement of the poet. Chua’s assiduous research and insightful introduction to critical essays of Villa provide the reader a better appreciation of the poet’s struggles to “elevate the English language to the highest pedestal,” the avowed purpose of Villa and a few others in founding the UP Writers Club in 1927. This passion to raise Philippine standards of writing in English drove him to America where he made his mark, first as a “minor American poet” (at a time when Filipinos were American nationals), and recently as a Penguin Classic.
Starting in 1926, UP student Villa began compiling “the best” stories and poems up to the outbreak of the war. He also issued a “criminal record” of “the worst” in short fiction and poetry. Hitherto unpublished essays like “The Status of Philippine Poetry” and “Literary Criticism in the Philippines,” now included in Critical Villa, enable the reader to track the development of Villa’s aesthetics.
In 1937, Villa, in answer to Salvador P. Lopez’s comment about the former’s “ivory towerism.” wrote:
“My friend Mr. Lopez wants social criticism in his literature, he wants the writer to be a social doctor, he wants social content in what he reads.
Now, when I first arrived in New York in 1932, practically everyone that I came to know was a Communist – from Mr. Crichton of Scribner’s Magazine down to the young writers in Brooklyn and in Greenwich Village. So that it should have been very easy for me to change from ivory (my ascribed color) to red or pink . . .In New York I have been continually subjected to the Marxian principles and ideologies, but as Mr. Lopez deplores, I have been unchanged; that is to say, I have expressed no social ideas whatever in my writing. Personally, I should say that I have kept my head, and that I do not lament my neutrality. Although I am a Left literally (which is to say, I have digressed from the conventional Right path of writing, and believe in experimentation) and (here is where Mr. Lopez is wrong), this fact he never presaged, although I am inclined to the Left politically and economically, still I do not mix my politics and economics with my art . . .
“However let this not be understood as meaning that the inclusion of the social element into a literary work necessarily damns it. The thing to remember is that literature is literature. If it is first of all, literature. if after having achieved this, it also achieves social criticism— then well and good. . . There have, indeed been some excellent stories revealing social conditions—but in these stories the portrayal of the social order or disorder has been secondary and not at all the reason for the story’s value.”
Included in Villa’s “best” listings are some “proletarian” stories of Commonwealth writers like Manuel Arguilla, Hernando Ocampo, Delfin Fresnosa, Salvador P. Lopez, Arturo B. Rotor and others.
Our reader above said he wanted to honor Villa by applying relevant theories from cognitive science in a study of Villa’s poems. A poet himself and former literary editor now studying in Scotland, Paolo Manalo said the “more I read Villa’s poems it is clear to me that the man’s poetics is problematic and his strategies really won’t work from a cognitive perspective.”
Still, Epifanio San Juan Jr. who once described the poet as afflicted with “the malaise of alienation, cynical individualism, elitist vanity, and other excesses of imperialist culture,” later saw Villa’s narcissism ceasing to be “merely his will to apotheosize the bourgeois illusion of individual freedom” but rather an act of resistance against the commodifiying effects of colonialism. (cf.Chua). Villa was seen by Fil-Americans as “an ethnic writer in the US amid the Civil Rights struggles of the seventies.” (San Juan)
Villa stopped writing poetry in 1958 because he sensed that he was beginning to repeat himself. “That’s the most embarrassing thing that can happen to any writer,” he told Luis Cabalquinto. Randall Jarrell once said, “One reads a poem [by Villa]and asks oneself, isn’t this the poem before?” I wonder if only Villa had followed Lopez’s advice.