It’s said that the measure of a man can be ascertained from the company he keeps and also that a picture is worth a thousand words. To mix metaphors in the interest of brevity, we can perhaps remove some of the dustbin of obscurity from Villa by examining a picture taken November 9, 1948 upon the occasion of a celebration held at the Gotham Book Mart in New York City (no longer in existence) for Dame Edith Sitwell and her brother Osbert who were then visiting from England.
And so in the picture to the right Villa (standing in the back to the left of the ladder) was keeping company with some of the most important poets, authors and critics of the 1940s. Dame Edith and Osbert are seated in the center to the left of Villa. On Villa’s right are W.H. Auden (seated on the ladder) and, moving clockwise around the Sitwells, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, Charles Henri Ford (seated, cross-legged on the floor), William Rose Benet, Stephen Spender, Marya Zaturenska, Horace Gregory, Tennessee Williams, Richard Eberhart, and Gore Vidal.
By clicking on the picture, you can enlarge it on a new screen.
To put the picture in context, it should be mentioned that Villa had become a striking presence in American poetry due to the publication in 1942 by Viking Press of his first book of poems – titled “Have Come, Am Here” – which became an instant critical success. A Sunday New York Times Book Review article by Peter Monro Jack proclaimed Villa’s work “an astonishing discovery . . . This is a poet of instinctive genius who creates knowingly his own communication.” Marianne Moore, in the Nation, characterized Villa’s works as “bravely deep poems,” where “final wisdom encountered in poem after poem merely serves to emphasize the disparity between tumult and stature.” Villa’s second book of poems – “Volume Two” – was soon to be published by New Directions in 1949 and a year earlier Villa had edited a volume, also published by New Directions, honoring Dame Edith Sitwell. Ten years later, Sitwell reciprocated by writing a Preface to Villa’s selected poems and new, stating that in 1944 when she first read “Have Come, Am Here”: “I knew that I was seeing for the first time the work of a poet with a great, even an astonishing, and perfectly original gift,” and that “the best of these poems are among some of the most beautiful written in our time.”
Despite renewed attention to Villa following his death in 1997, including notably a Penguin Classics edition of his Collected Poems (published in 2008 on the centennial anniversary of Villa’s birth in 1908), Villa is little known today. But then, so is true lyric poetry which Villa wrote and championed, not only through his poems but through his teachings at New York City College and The New School for Social Research and in poetry workshops he conducted at his apartment in Greenwich Village. The Introduction to the Penguin book is a perceptive and penetrating account of Villa’s life and accomplishments written by Luis H. Francia, a poet, writer, and teacher at the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program at New York University and a former Villa student.
There are many reasons for Villa’s relative obscurity as respects today’s poetry landscape. Villa ceased to write poems in or about 1957. His expressed two reasons for doing so: He believed he had reached his poetic limit and did not want to fall into the trap of repeating himself, a fault he attributed to several “geriatric poets” who will remain nameless. And, at the same time, he also felt a higher calling – one that drew upon his intelligence and no longer depended so heavily upon his vision, intellect, imagination, and poetic language, music and craft. In a letter to his close friend E.E. Cummings describing a Guggenheim project he was to apply for in 1951, Villa wrote: “Although I would rather write poems instead, the project somehow pleases me for it is about our kind of poetry, which is the True Poetry – though everybody else be to the contrary.”
Villa was ready to graduate to the philosophy of poetry, and from this new project evolved his theory of poetry which for the next 40 years was to consume a major part of the remainder of his life. The work product of that project Villa characterized correctly as the only organized and structured theory of poetry in existence (then or now). It is a learned treatise on what poetry is, what it can and cannot do, how it (as art) is written and how much of it can be taught. Villa further characterized his theory as “the esthetics or science of poetry, an analytic conception of what poetry is, a technical as well as psychological study of poetry.” As a result of editorial work of Bob King, a long-time Villa student, assisted by other of Villa’s students, the full sweep of Villa’s theory is now explained in Villa’s own words in a book now awaiting publication.
Elements of Villa’s theory are presented in the blog postings of Mr. King elsewhere on this website. However, notwithstanding the Penguin book mentioned above and other posthumous publications of Villa’s poems and works, the “hope” expressed by Luis Francia that the reissuance of Villa’s poems will accelerate the growing revival of interest in his work has been far from realized. This is true not only of Villa; many of his contemporaries with the notable exception of Robert Frost also are virtually unread today in this era of free verse, self-expression, and confessional poetry in which even many gems of lyrical poetry have been discarded in the name of what Susan Sontag in the 1960s characterized as “an art of subjective expression.”
Those interested in more information about Villa’s life works may, in addition to reading the Luis Francia Introduction to the Penguin book, read the material on him here on Wikipedia and here on Answers.com, among other sources.