The cultural and artistic ecosystem of Greenwich Village has provided us with no shortage of literary giants to admire, study, and honor. Prominent among them, yet hardly ever mentioned in the canon of 20th century American poets, is José García Villa, an acclaimed Filipino poet lovingly referred to as the “Pope of Greenwich Village.”
Villa was born in the Singalong district of Manila to an affluent family just ten years after the Philippines won its independence from Spain in 1898. His mother’s family were wealthy landowners and his father was a personal physician of Emilio Aguinaldo, the Filipino revolutionary who led the country to initial freedom from Spain and served as its first president through its subsequent tumultuous struggles against American colonial interests.
After graduating from high school, Villa enrolled at the University of the Philippines, taking courses on the pre-medical and then pre-law tracks but finding himself yearning for something different. He soon realized his true passion was in the arts, trying his hand at painting before a transformative reading of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio awoke his talent for creative writing.
In 1929, Villa was expelled from the University of the Philippines after publishing a series of erotic poems titled “Man-Songs” in the Philippines Herald Magazine. His undeniable talent, however, had already won him simultaneous acclaim across the Filipino literary scene. Villa won a short story contest held by the Philippines Free Press that same year, and the prize money afforded him the chance to emigrate to the United States.
After earning his bachelor’s degree from the University of New Mexico in 1932, Villa set his sights on the literary world of New York City. He enrolled in a graduate program at Columbia University and moved downtown to Greenwich Village to pursue his “extracurricular” literary interests. There he became the only Asian poet in a community of celebrated, celebrity writers and artists. His 1933 collection of short stories entitled Footnote to Youth: Tales of the Philippines and Others was the first book of fiction by a Filipino author to be published by a major American press, catapulting him into the upper echelons of American literary circles.
Villa became an especially good friend of poet ee cummings, and they remained close until cummings’ death in 1962. Villa only began to write poetry after reading cummings’ Collected Poems in 1938. He wrote to cummings annually to express his fervent admiration and share his thoughts on the art form, but cummings did not return his letters until 1941 when Villa threatened to stop sending letters should he not receive a response. Not only did cummings return his letter, the pair met in person later that year and embarked on a journey of friendship that spanned two decades. Cummings even wrote a poem about Villa titled “Doveglion,” after Villa’s pen name which was chosen to reflect the “gentle as a dove, free as an eagle, and fierce as a lion” spirit of poets.
Villa’s community expanded to include some of the most celebrated poets of the 20th century, including W.H. Auden and Randall Jarrell. He was a key figure at the 1948 Gotham Book Mart cocktail party held to honor literary royalty Dame Edith Sitwell, a gathering immortalized in a photograph known for depicting one of the century’s most remarkable gatherings of poetic minds. Villa can be seen tucked below Auden’s ladder-climbing figure, surrounded by fellow trailblazers such as Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal.
Villa’s poetry was known for its cerebral, delicate exploration of the relationship between human life and the mystery of divine Creation, perhaps leading to his being named the “Pope of Greenwich Village.” His personal and spiritual musings touched readers and fellow poets alike, and were compounded by his unique use of commas and pioneering development of reverse consonance. Villa’s first poetry collection, published in 1942, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Despite not winning, numerous honors and fellowships followed including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Philippines Heritage Award, a Poetry Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, and a Shelley Memorial Award. In 1973 he was named a National Artist of the Philippines, and he also served as a cultural advisor to the Philippine government.
Filipino by birth, poet by craft, and Greenwich Villager at heart, Villa resided in the neighborhood until his death in 1997.