10 June 2009

Culler and Jose Garcia Villa

Here is a summary of Culler's idea of literary competence:

"Jonathan Culler, in his Structuralist Poetics, moves away from the idea of the underlying competence of literary works, and considers instead the literary competence of readers. Culler argues that this literary competence, regarded as a kind of grammar of literature, is acquired in education institutions. In his later work, On Deconstruction, he develops the idea further, drawing on diverse critical responses to institutions, and questioning the foundations of a literary competence that surreptitiously promotes the doctrines and values of specific traditions."

What is being "surreptitiously promoted" by the usual way of reading works by multilingual authors as though they were monolingual is the dubious primacy of the second language. For example, by reading Jose Garcia Villa's poems as though the poet spoke English from childhood, we fall into the silly trap that my American graduate school teacher in Survey of American Literature fell into when he pronounced Villa as a "minor American poet." He (and most other readers) failed to see that the line "Then musical as a sea-gull" in Villa's famous "Lyric 17" makes full sense only when we realize that Villa is writing in Tagalog, using English words.


  1. Is the second language (English) of Jose Garcia Villa in Lyric 17 a case of a “surreptitiously promoted dubious primacy”?

    Trying to find out whether his Lyric 17 exhibits any “literary evidence” of its first being “imagined/thought-of/conceived” in Tagalog before it was written in English, I tried to translate Villa’s “Ars Poetica” in Tagalog using the closest possible literary equivalent of his American-English oxymorons and conceits. For instance,

    First, a poem must be magical,
    Then musical as a sea-gull.
    It must be a brightness moving
    And hold secret a bird's flowering.

    (Translation mine)

    Unang-una. maengkanto* ang isang tula,
    At kasing parang musika ng ibong magdaragat.
    Dapat ito’y isang kumikilos na kaningningan,
    At hawak ang lihim ng pamumulaklak ng ibon

    *Could also be “maengkantado”.

    Assuming the translation hews close to Villa’s “vision”, I found it difficult to imagine that the English lines were first conceived in Tagalog.

    The rhyme scheme is calculated to be “musical” (as in the bell-like sounds of “musical” and “sea-gull” and the ring of “moving, flowering.” That just could not be done in Tagalog since there is no sound equivalent of the words “magical”(maengkanto), “sea-gull” (ibong magdaragat), “moving” (kumikilos), “flowering” (pamumulaklak).

    Had it been conceived by the poet in his first language -- (assumed as Tagalog by Dr. Cruz; Villa did speak Tagalog, but he preponderantly conversed in American; there were occasional pleasantries in Spanish when I had the experience of conversing with him at a 70’s International Writers Conference held in Manila) – the intention of the rhyme scheme in Lyric 17 would not be achieved in Tagalog.

    Neither would Tagalog succeed in using the oxymoronic conceits “musical as a sea-gull”, “brightness moving”,“bird’s flowering” – close reading would need these to objectify the poem’s being magical – the monotonous “ek-ek-ek” of the sea-gull becomes “musical”; the poem’s brightness could either literally be a kaleidoscopic sparkle or an “enchanting, moving brightness” perceivable only in the ken, conceivable only in the mind; and the mystery of “bird’s flowering” could be the magical flight of the go-soon avis off the encumbering nest, or it could also be Villa’s erotic version of the magic of tumescence, the magic of the sensual/sexual arousal.

    Assuming that these are not mnemonic irrelevancies in “interpretation”, the Tagalog mother-language plainly cannot come up with the literarily acceptable use of the conceits and oxymorons, as well as the sounds making sense as “objective correlatives” of the poem being magical.

    Then, again, this textual hermeneutics may simply be over-reaching. Maybe Villa did not even consider this. But that is beside the point. The achieved content of Lyric 17 must be the sole bases for analysis. It is helpful to know that Villa was a formalist, and that he wrote erotic poetry.

    Culler, of course, is au courant in postulating literary competence as a reader’s equipment for an educated appreciation of a work of literary art.

    While literary critics must, indeed, possess “literary and linguistic competence” in judging multi-lingual work (second language work as influenced by first language/mother tongue), there remains the risk of “missing the many-splendoured thing” in assuming that the second language is inferior to the mother language in literary expression, therefore, one must dig into the mother tongue quarry for a "poetic mother lode".

    The “language of the blood” may altogether be wanting in expressing a cosmopolitan world view that may be better limned in a “mastered” second language – preferably the “lingua franca” of the artist at the time of creation. – ALBERT B. CASUGA

    (See http://ambitsgambit.blogspot.com/

  2. This is the published Tagalog translation of the lines by Hilario Francia, done in consultation with Villa:

    Una, ang isang tula ay dapat maging mahiwaga,
    Pagkatapos malambing tulad ng isang gobyota.

    There is rhyme, and if the "ay" is allowed to slide, the syllable count follows Tagalog prosody.


  3. This poem exudes what a poem is. I'm not so much into

    linguistics and literary criticism, but I could feel the


    I know that art is not just meaning because it is craft as

    many famouse writers say. I dont mind it.

    For me, the texts speak and I understand. I could remember

    here in Lyric 17, the "Ars Poetica of A. Macleish."

    Lyric 17 is God, smiling from the poem's cover.

    A poem for me is enjoying oneself. The expressed feeling of

    the texts and metaphors makes the body and the poem fuse

    together. Actually, the breathing patterns, phrases, and

    rhymes do matter - but sometimes it feels strange when the

    melody is out of tune because of the need to rhyme. It's

    like a clanging cymbal.

    I know I have to learn much about poetry and literature and

    craft. It is a tedious process and so bloody especially when

    you dont have the guns. Literally nothing. Like you are Tom Hanks in Cast Away.

    Sir Albert Casuga and Sir Isagani Cruz prod me to speak and

    then write about what I don't know and what I have much

    inside. Their postings supply my hungry mind and turn my

    brains into a running engine....turning so hot, and driving with no brakes.

    IN anyway, I thank them for all they share to us in their

    blogs. I benefit.

    LYRIC 17

    First, a poem must be magical,
    Then musical as a sea-gull.
    It must be a brightness moving
    And hold secret a bird's flowering.
    It must be slender as a bell,
    And it must hold fire as well.
    It must have the wisdom of bows
    And it must kneel like a rose.
    It must be able to hear
    The luminance of dove and deer.
    It must be able to hide
    What it seeks, like a bride.
    And over all I would like to hover
    God, smiling from the poem's cover.

    -Jose Garcia Villa

    My respect to you Teachers.

    Good night.