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Interview with Jose Garcia Villa

Students read the interview with Garcia Villa and answer questions.
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The following excerpt is an interview with the poet Jose Garcia Villa. In thisinterview, he is asked to explain "Lyric 17." You should find it very interesting tocompare your interpretation of each of the seven couplets to the poet's personalinterpretations.

If you find that your interpretations differ from Villa's, do not feel that yourideas were necessarily incorrect. Note how both the interviewer and the poetadmit that it is not an easy task to give an exact prose interpretation of a poeticexpression, 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, "somelines and some poems cannot be explained. But let me try..."

Once you have finished reading the interview, compare his interpretationswith 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 setout to achieve this end, he does so, gracefullyand economically. As you shall see, this beautiful poem leads to a unique definition of what apoem should be.

In a taped interview, Villa provided me withan explication of this poem. Of the first twolines,

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

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

I asked the poet, "What meaning would youascribe 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 differencebetween prose and poetry. Prose is flatfootedand stationary; poetry soars, flies like a bird.The stationary bird, when first seen, appearslike a rosebud. When it begins to fly, it opensup and spreads its wings and blooms like aflower."

I asked him to explain the images in the fifthand 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 adiposetissue; it's lean and clean. Poorly written poemsshould, 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 apoem must have a spirit."

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

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

"You must remember," Villa said, "somelines and some poems cannot be explained.But let me try. I am speaking of the archer'sbow. A good bow is one that knows when toshoot, and one that directs the arrow to itsmark. 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 poemshould 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 finepoem. A good poet is usually a good person.'Luminance' naturally means brightness.When I see a good face, it's a good face and Irespond. When I see a bad face, it is the facefull of crime, even though he doesn't proclaimhis crime. His face proclaims it out loud."

"In other words," I asked, "the poet knowsthings instinctively?"

"Yes, naturally," Villa answered.

And for the meaning of the next couplet, Iprodded Villa to discuss,

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

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

The final couplet of this rather unorthodoxsonnet,

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 dramaticeffect. 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 shinesand hovers over that saintly creature. Thepoem itself creates a God-hood, and the poemradiates Godness. At the same time, God ishovering over it, acknowledging the Godnessradiating from the poem, itself, which embodies the spirituality existing in a poem and, atthe same time, radiates it to others."

Indeed, there is a Godness to this poem; andthere is a God-hood within this poet. PoetRichard Eberhardt understood this, too, evidenced in a review of Villa's work in which hestates:

A pure, startling, and resoundingbody of poetry, informed with somuch legerity and fire, remarkablyconsistent in its devotion to spiritualreality. The subject matter is formidable, the author a God-driven poet.He arrives at peaks without showingthe strenuous effort of climbing; thepersonal is lost in a blaze of linguistic glories.... (Eberhardt, 1958)

The poet concludes that reading poetrymight be compared to enjoying riddles, andthat children enjoy solving riddles. Since poetry is neither explicit nor declarative, childrenmust be taught through sheer joy to sense outand feel the meaning. Is there not much of thisthat goes on when we are "sensing" or drawingconclusions, or making an inference? Perhapswe 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 formatas that used with Villa.

Excerpted from English Teacher's Portfolio of Multicultural Activities.