This 1980 photo includes Jose Garcia Villa (with hands folded), editor Robert L. King (to Villa's immediate left) and John Edwin Cowen, currently Villa's Literary Trustee (in the black hat) and three other members of Villa's poetry workshop, on the occasion of the publication of Bravo 1, a poetry magazine edited by Villa and published by King and Cowen.
The claim to presentation of the only organized and structured theory of poetry in existence is indeed a brave claim, and if anyone is willing to come forward publicly and take issue with the claim Mr. King is willing to give that person a forum for doing so. There are innumerable books about poetry, but they yield only random observations on what makes poetry poetry, a facet here, an aspect there, another aspect somewhere else. The best of these books is Paul Valéry’s “The Art of Poetry,” Bollingen Series XLV 7 (Princeton U. Press, 1958). Some more recent books of this nature are: (1) Dana Gioia’s “Can Poetry Matter?” (Graywolf Press, 1992); (2) Jay Parini’s “Why Poetry Matters” (Yale U. Press, 2008); and (3) David Orr’s “Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry” (Harper, 2011). Of these, only Valéry’s book can in good conscience be recommended for readers genuinely interested in pursuing the subjects of what poetry is, what it can and cannot do, and how it (if one is concerned with poems as art and not merely a popular pastime) is written. Gioia’s book, however, is notable for (in Gioia's Introduction to a later edition) documenting the stir caused by Gioia’s 1991 essay (reproduced in the first chapter of his book) that presented “assumptions that seemed to [Gioia] utterly beyond argument – especially the notions that poetry had once been popular in the United States, that a larger and more diverse audience might be good for the art, and that contemporary poetry might occupy a meaningful place outside the university.” Gioia’s book documents well some of the causes of poetry’s decline as an art in the past half-century, but fails in its prescriptions of how to accomplish rebirth of the art.
This photo, taken in the late 1970s, shows Villa sitting at the head of the table at his Greenwich Village apartment around which his students gathered. One can see why Luis Francia in his Introduction to the 2008 Penguin Classics book of Villa's Collected Poems stated that the apartment "revealed a pack rat," adding that "books, papers, magazines, bric-a-brac of uncommon variety, claimed an ever dwindling space."
Anyone can, without study or training, write a novel, paint a painting, form a sculpture, but at what point can that person claim to be an artist? It seems to be a controversial proposition these days, although it would seem almost self-evident, that if one truly aspires to being an artist, one must study and learn the basic and fundamental principles of the art that one aspires to, just as the fundamental principles of the study of medicine are important to a doctor’s education. Villa maintained that “the education of an art object – a poem – begins with the education of the artist himself.” Villa’s theory of poetry was thus developed to illuminate the fundamentals of the nature and craft of poetry to the extent that these subjects can be taught.
If one follows the “poetry” currently being written and published in the United States, say in publications such as Poetry Magazine and The New Yorker, the need for a coherent theory of what poetry is becomes immediately apparent. If one reads what purport to be critical reviews of that “poetry,” the need becomes even more apparent. How in good conscience can one purport to be a “poet” or a “poetry critic” without an understanding of the fundamental principles that make poems art and without knowledge of one’s poetic inheritance in order to lean upon and be guided by its achievements?
To the uneducated public, poetry today has become an umbrella word – it can shelter anything you throw in it or under it and is receptive to quixotic, personal interpretations. This website, and now the published book, are devoted to rescuing the art of the poem from a case of mistaken identity and to giving it one very definite and specific meaning. Let the debate continue!