A critical analysis of Villa's classic wordless poem.
The Emperor’s New Sonnet
Just a background on the author. Jose Garcia Villa was a Filipino poet, short-story writer, painter, and literary critic who was awarded the National Artist of the Philippines for literature in 1973. He was known for being one of the renowned “artsakists” of his time who believed that art should be for art’s sake. And although he advised his students that poems are “written with words, not ideas,” he released poems such as The Bashful One, which consists only of a comma, and of course, The Emperor’s New Sonnet, which contains nothing at all, other than the title.
On normal circumstances, I would go through a poem line per line in analyzing one, and see how every line would contribute to the overall meaning. However, the poem to be tackled has no meter, no extended metaphors, no symbolisms, nor any text whatsoever. All we are banking on is its title, which alludes to the popular children’s story The Emperor’s New Clothes, which was written by Hans Christian Anderson.
The story is an attack on snobbery and pretension, and makes fun of people who do not have their own say on what is beautiful and tend to rely on other people’s judgments before making their own. It tells its readers that sometimes, we need to view things as innocent as a child would so that we could plainly see what true beauty is, free from all social conditioning that often warps their perspective on things.
With this in mind, let us now tackle the poem by Jose Garcia Villa, which has no words at all. What we have here is something that tells readers that it is a poem, although in reality, there really is nothing. There is no beautiful weaving of words, and it seems like the poet is mocking the reader by telling them to accept the blankness as poetry, in the same way that the weavers the emperor in the story hired expects him to accept his invisible suit as one of the most beautiful in the world.
In all objectivity, there really is no poem in The Emperor’s New Sonnet, although it calls itself one. Although there are literary critics and intellectuals who can extract some meaning from the blankness, there would undoubtedly be that child in us that wants to shout out that this is not a poem, and that it is only a blank page.
We can probably borrow the moral lesson in the story and put it into the context of this poem. There are probably times when, like the characters in the story, we have felt the need to convince ourselves that a work of art is beautiful, just because some ruling body deemed it so, even though we ourselves did not genuinely appreciate it. There must have been some time when you came across some abstract painting and thought that it was something a child could have done, and yet you just kept mum about it, because it was supposedly created by a world-class painter. Or a time when an artsy-fartsy friend asked you what you thought about this foreign film you totally found boring, and answered that it was nice. Or a time in English class where you were forced to nod and say that you liked a certain short story, even though you did not understand a single thing from it.
Oftentimes we are too quick to suppress our own judgments, for fear that other people may find us “less-cultured” or even downright stupid if we would not agree with them. In effect, we no longer practice our critical thinking, thinking that anyway, there are authorities who can decide for us, and we wouldn’t mind being enslaved to their judgments because we can readily dismiss that they are right.
However, this shouldn’t be the case, and The Emperor’s Sonnet tells us this in its own eccentric way. It plays on how readers would think of it, on whether the blank space is a poem or not, while reminding them of the message in the story The Emperor’s New Clothes.
On why Jose Garcia Villa wrote this (if you would call that writing), I could make a guess. He was known to be one of the harshest critics of Filipino poetry in English in his time, and has angered many of those who received his critiques. And I wouldn’t exactly blame the subjects of his critiques for their reactions. To one literary collection, for example, he wrote: “The poetry you print is unforgivable. It stinks. My God, if I had judicial power, I’d throw you in jail for publishing such rot and exemplifying them before the public as good poetry, thus submerging the public still more.”
In one essay, he wrote that there wasn’t anyone who was educated enough in poetry in the Philippines. The country, according to him, was “deluged with poet-simpletons—triflers in verse, poets without crania—the producers of featherweight poetry.”
Perhaps it was his frustration with Philippine poetry in English that drove him to create The Emperor’s New Sonnet. Frustrated, or maybe even disgusted, with the praise that some of the Filipino poets were getting from the critics, he may have written the poem to target those who readily accept the so called “featherweight” poetry of his time, who were, perhaps, reading poetry in the same way that the emperor’s ministers and the townspeople were looking at the emperor’s “suit.” Perhaps with this poem of his, he sought to serve as the child in the story to challenge what he felt was a sorry state of Philippine poetry in his time.
Whether you’re still debating with yourself if this is a poem or not, it is undeniable that Villa’s The Emperor’s New Sonnet shall continue to provoke and baffle its readers for many years to come.
The Critical Villa: Essays in Literary Criticism by Jose Garcia Villa, compiled and edited by Jonathan Chua