Lyric 17: a Poem by Jose Garcia Villa (1942)

Lyric 17
by Jose Garcia Villa

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.

Notes and Analysis:

In this poem, Villa puts forth what he believes are the characteristics of a poem. He qualifies these characteristics with the word "must" which means these characteristics are essential to the life of the poem. Villa uses both direct adjectives (i.e. magical, musical) and metaphors (i.e. bird's flowering, slender as a bell) to describe these characteristics.

Although Lyric 17 is a very well-written poem, it can be very difficult to understand because of the metaphors and vague descriptions. It can be a challenge to digest especially for young people and students trying to understanding its message.

Fortunately, Villa has explained in good detail during an interview what he's trying to convey in the poem. John Edwin Cowen, an American poet and professor of literacy and education, taped an interview with Villa. The contents of the interview was published as part of his book titled English Teacher's Portfolio of Multicultural Activities (Ready-to-Use Lessons and Cooperative Activities for Grades 7-12). The book was published in 1996.

Book description for English Teacher's Portfolio of Multicultural Activities: "Seventy-five literature-based lessons with complete reproducible reading selections, including short stories, poetry, folklore, novel excerpts, and other genres written by talented authors of African, Asian, Latino, Native American, and European descent."

Here's a rundown of the interview and Villa's comments on the lines in Lyric 17:

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

Villa: These lines mean exactly what they say: That a poem must have magic, and it must be musical." 

It must be a brightness moving 
And hold secret a bird’s flowering. 

Villa: There are some brightnesses which are stationary and static, but a poem, like a bird, must fly. This is the difference between prose and poetry. Prose is flat footed and stationary; poetry soars, flies like a bird. The stationary bird, when first seen, appears like a rosebud. When it begins to fly, it opens up and spreads its wings and blooms like a flower." 

It must be slender as a bell, 
And it must hold fire as well. 

Villa: A poem is economical; it's slender as a bell, it has no adipose tissue; it's lean and clean. Poorly written poems should, 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 a poem must have a spirit." 

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

Villa: You must remember, some lines and some poems cannot be explained. But let me try. I am speaking of the archer's bow. A good bow is one that knows when to shoot, and one that directs the arrow to its mark. 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 poem should also be humble, however beautiful it is. 

It must be able to hear 
The luminance of dove and deer. 

Villa: There's a good man behind every fine poem. A good poet is usually a good person. 'Luminance' naturally means brightness. When I see a good face, it's a good face and I respond. When I see a bad face, it is the face full of crime, even though he doesn't proclaim his crime. His face proclaims it out loud. 

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

Villa: A poem must not explicitly state meaning. The reader is supposed to sense it out, feel it. The language itself doesn't tell you, but the substructure behind that language is the real meaning. It is not explicit and declarative. That's why when I say, 'It must have the wisdom of bows,' you must guess at what I mean, and children love to guess at meaning. That's why they love riddles. I used to love riddles as a child. 

And over all I would like to hover 
God, smiling from the poem’s cover.

Villa: When you see a blessed creature, God shines and hovers over that saintly creature. The poem itself creates a God-hood, and the poem radiates Godness. At the same time, God is hovering over it, acknowledging the Godness radiating from the poem, itself, which embodies the spirituality existing in a poem and, at the same time, radiates it to others.
Jose Garcia Villa, Filipino Poet