Interview with Jose Garcia Villa

The following excerpt is an interview with the poet Jose Garcia Villa. In this interview, he is asked to explain "Lyric 17." You should find it very interesting to compare your interpretation of each of the seven couplets to the poet's personal interpretations.

If you find that your interpretations differ from Villa's, do not feel that your ideas were necessarily incorrect. Note how both the interviewer and the poet admit that it is not an easy task to give an exact prose interpretation of a poetic expression, particularly because poems are not explicitly stated; the interviewer, at one point, admits: "I have always found the next lines difficult to comprehend":

It must have the wisdom of bows
And it must kneel like a rose

Focus here on the poet's response: "You must remember," Villa said, "some lines and some poems cannot be explained. But let me try..."

Once you have finished reading the interview, compare his interpretations with your own and with the interpretations made by members of your cooperative group.

The Interview

Villa's lyrical and exquisitely crafted poem, "Lyric 17" (Villa, 1942), can serve as the basis for discussing his techniques of poetry. Although the poet did not set out to achieve this end, he does so, gracefully and economically. As you shall see, this beautiful poem leads to a unique definition of what a poem should be.

In a taped interview, Villa provided me with an explication of this poem. Of the first two lines,

First, a poem must be magical
Then musical as a sea-gull

Villa said, "These lines mean exactly what they say: That a poem must have magic, and it must be musical."

I asked the poet, "What meaning would you ascribe to the next lines?"

It must be a brightness moving
And hold secret a bird's flowering

Villa explained, "There are some brightnesses which are stationary and static, but a poem, like a bird, must fly. This is the difference between prose and poetry. Prose is flatfooted and stationary; poetry soars, flies like a bird. The stationary bird, when first seen, appears like a rosebud. When it begins to fly, it opens up and spreads its wings and blooms like a flower."

I asked him to explain the images in the fifth and sixth lines,

It must be slender as a bell
And it must hold fire as well

To these lines, Villa responded, "A poem is economical; it's slender as a bell, it has no adipose tissue; it's lean and clean. Poorly written poems should, of necessity, go on a diet, to rid themselves of excess verbiage and adjectives. And by 'fire' in the next line, I simply mean that a poem must have a spirit."

"I have always found the next lines difficult to comprehend," I confessed:

It must have the wisdom of bows
And it must kneel like a rose

"You must remember," Villa said, "some lines and some poems cannot be explained. But let me try. I am speaking of the archer's bow. A good bow is one that knows when to shoot, and one that directs the arrow to its mark. Just as a good poem, it never goes astray. To 'kneel like a rose' is a metaphor for humility. All fine people are humble and a poem should also be humble, however beautiful it is."

For the seventh and eighth lines,

It must be able to hear
The luminance of dove and deer

"There's a good man behind every fine poem. A good poet is usually a good person. 'Luminance' naturally means brightness. When I see a good face, it's a good face and I respond. When I see a bad face, it is the face full of crime, even though he doesn't proclaim his crime. His face proclaims it out loud."

"In other words," I asked, "the poet knows things instinctively?"

"Yes, naturally," Villa answered.

And for the meaning of the next couplet, I prodded Villa to discuss,

It must be able to hide
What it seeks, like a bride

Villa, without hesitation, began, "A poem must not explicitly state meaning. The reader is supposed to sense it out, feel it. The language itself doesn't tell you, but the substructure behind that language is the real meaning. It is not explicit and declarative. That's why when I say, 'It must have the wisdom of bows,' you must guess at what I mean, and children love to guess at meaning. That's why they love riddles. I used to love riddles as a child."

The final couplet of this rather unorthodox sonnet,

And over all I would like to hover
God, smiling from the poem's cover

is possibly one of the most beautiful ever written. "The last line has a masterfully dramatic effect. At the same time, this couplet is, to me, the most mystifying one in the poem," I commented.

Villa nodded and offered this explanation: "When you see a blessed creature, God shines and hovers over that saintly creature. The poem itself creates a God-hood, and the poem radiates Godness. At the same time, God is hovering over it, acknowledging the Godness radiating from the poem, itself, which embodies the spirituality existing in a poem and, at the same time, radiates it to others."

Indeed, there is a Godness to this poem; and there is a God-hood within this poet. Poet Richard Eberhardt understood this, too, evidenced in a review of Villa's work in which he states:

A pure, startling, and resounding body of poetry, informed with so much legerity and fire, remarkably consistent in its devotion to spiritual reality. The subject matter is formidable, the author a God-driven poet. He arrives at peaks without showing the strenuous effort of climbing; the personal is lost in a blaze of linguistic glories.... (Eberhardt, 1958)

The poet concludes that reading poetry might be compared to enjoying riddles, and that children enjoy solving riddles. Since poetry is neither explicit nor declarative, children must be taught through sheer joy to sense out and feel the meaning. Is there not much of this that goes on when we are "sensing" or drawing conclusions, or making an inference? Perhaps we should become more concerned about providing children with joyous language experiences that will enable them to better understand poetry.

  1. Compare and contrast your interpretations of "Lyric 17" to Villa's.

  2. Discuss Villa's comments with your cooperative group to explore other interpretations.

  3. Were you surprised by any of Villa's explanations? Explain.

Final Product

Interview one of the students in your cooperative group about his or her definition of poetry. Write down these views and follow the same interview format as that used with Villa.

Excerpted from English Teacher's Portfolio of Multicultural Activities.

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