Monday, May 12, 2008

The Poetic Revelation in Language and Culture: The Vision of Sonny Villafania

“Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.”
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes

Manila Bulletin (Lifestyle section, pp. F1-F2, May 12, 2008)

Poetry, according to a German philosopher Martin Heidegger, is the foundation of truth. As a foundation of truth, it employs aesthetic symbols to reveal realities that concern the historical, cultural and socio-political conditions of man in his society.

The use of metaphor or allegory, for instance, is a symbolic device to magnify the objective reality and establish a rational basis in understanding the truth.

As a foundation of truth, poetry reveals what is hidden in such a way that the general readers or public will know it, and the most effective tool to reveal such symbolic reality is the use of language and linguistic expression common to a particular culture and society.

One of the greatest poets who had achieved such magnificent feat is a British-Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, whose poetry transformed, not only the lives of Bengali people, but also the Bengali literature and culture in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Tagore’s poetry like the famous collection of Gitanjali (Song Offerings), which was translated into several languages, has been sang and spoken by the common Bengali people such as farmers, fishermen, the monks, the townsfolk and the intellectuals.

In the local Philippine literature, there is one visionary, who is about to achieve such poetic revelation to the common people in his region, a multi-awarded Pangasinan-born poet Santiago “Sonny” Villafania.

His remarkable achievement, in the standard of anlong tradition (Pangasinan Poetry), defies the conventional use of Filipino literary languages, which are English and Filipino, by creating a suite of highly structured sonnets and villanelles in his native lingua franca.

In his book 364-page “MALAGILION: Sonnets tan Villanelles”, one of his poems “Rekindled”, which is included among the collections of poems written in Pangasinan, Villafania takes the reader into a sensual journey of bucolic life that reflects his origin and culture.

“There is a rice-pounding song tonight playing…” he wrote in a simple introductory line, yet the imagery is filled with sensual meaning that is only decipherable among the ordinary people in his region.

The “rice-pounding song” evokes the rhythmic sound of pounded rice on lusong or wooden hollow echoing amid the rising moon and the silences of the night. One could imagine the smell, the sound and the taste of unripe rice being fried on a cauldron and then pounded to make them crunchy.

As the poem continued in the second paragraph, Villafania introduces and defines the rice-pounding not only as an ordinary activity, but also as a ritualistic gathering of young men and women to celebrate the offering to the goddess of earth and harvest.

The poet reveals the symbolic meaning of rice-pounding as offering and ritualistic celebration. In the same way, as he uses a subtle allegory to signify the fruition and harvest of poetry in his own native language. “They will hear me scream my poems of hunting…”, thus, says Villafania with magnificent force and passion in his native language.

There is something mysterious and magical in the language or any language for that matter, that only a poet could fashion, magnify and unveil its hidden message through a unique linguistic expression of symbols and meanings.

A poet is like a messenger and, at the same time, a shaman, who conjures up the spirits to magically transform the language with unassuming meaning and become the common source of understanding among those who write and speak about it.

A good poet lifts up the soul of his or her reader to the symbolic and metaphysical meaning of reality so that his message can be understood and applied by the common people in their daily lives.

In the first paragraph of Sonnet 158, for instance, Villafania mesmerizes his readers with the use of sound and the fluidity of language that even a non-Pangasinan could feel the sensual rhythm and elegance of written words:

Panon takan aroen Pinabli?
Ipetek ko man ira’y sonata
Anlongen ko man ira’y sonito
Ag iraya onkana anganko
Ed puson agto amta’y ondengel
Ed saray Dangoan na panangaro


“How can I love you, dear?/ Even if I sing these sonatas/ Even if I write these sonnets/ These are nothing it seems/ To a heart who knows not how to listen/ To the Songs of Love.”

Villafania addresses that concern with urgency in such a way that his particular readers do not only feel and understand his sentiments, but also live and speak about it. He is like a chameleon immersing and identifying himself with the anguish of his people by gathering them toward a common understanding of reality.

In a sense, Villafania is not only a visionary poet; he is a linguistic philosopher who codifies the origin of language and culture. He dissects and juxtaposes the literary tradition against the modern influences by dialectically infusing them with his poetic revelation of truth.


To understand and appreciate the literary content of Villafania’s 364-page “MALAGILION: Sonnets tan Villanelles” as an important contribution to Philippine literature, it is noteworthy to discuss the derivation of title, the literary content, style and structure.

The book’s title “MALAGILION” is derived from “malapati” (dove), “agila” (eagle), and “lion” (lion), an allusion to the alter ego of a Filipino-American poet Jose Garcia Villa, who called himself as Doveglion (Dove Eagle Lion). A title of the poem from which the famous 20th century American poet E.E. Cummings wrote as a tribute to his Filipino friend, Jose Garcia Villa (Adventures IV 5; CP 904).

In essence, “Sonnet” is derived from “sonetto”, an Italian word for little song from which, in the 13th century, became a poem signifying fourteen lines following strict rhymes and specific procedures. It is fundamentally a dialectical structure with contrasting ideas, emotions, beliefs, images, etc., allowing the poet to resolve the tensions at the end of the poem.

The “villanelle”, on the other hand, is a poetic form originating from French literature and was employed in the English-language poetry in the 1800s. It is composed of two rhyming lines. The first and third lines of the first stanza are rhyming refrains that alternate as the third line in each successive stanza and form a couplet at the close. Composed of 19 lines, 5 tercets and 1 concluding quatrain, the villanelle is a complicated poetic form compared to sonnet.

One could imagine the regimen and artistry that Villafania underwent in conceiving and delivering his aesthetic creation, integrating these poetic forms in his own native language. The result of his painstaking labor is, impeccably, a magnificent work of art comparable to one of the Shakespearian opus in the 16th century.

Funded and published by the Philippine government’s Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino and Emilio Aguinaldo College, the book, among the very few written in native languages, is an ambitious attempt to bring literature to the masses, albeit a minute victory over the 170 Filipino languages spoken by the 80 million Filipino people inhabiting the 7,107 Philippine islands.


As a visionary Filipino poet, Villafania advocates the use of native language. He also encourages other writers to weave their craft in their native tongues so that literature will become accessible to the ordinary people, the same poetic vision, which the famous poet Tagore envisioned for his people. Villafania online publication of Dalityapi, for example, is a venue for all international and regional writers, who write in their respective languages.

To sum, in his regular column “The Breaking Signs” at Panorama Sunday magazine, a multi-awarded Filipino poet, writer and columnist Cirilo Bautista hailed Villafania’s book as “a source of rejoicing for readers of regional literatures... Villafania has created 300 sonnets and 50 villanelles in his own language that attempt to reflect the primacy of native culture and return the poet to the central stage of social life.”
© Danny Castillones Sillada
Above photos: (1) Book Cover, (2) The Author, (3) Poster of the book.

1 comment:

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