Nick Virgilio, My Haiku Hero
By happy serendipity Rick Black, publisher of Turtle Light Press, learned at the 2009 Haiku North America conference that a large archive of Nick Virgilio's unpublished haiku had been left with the English department of Rutgers University in Camden, N.J. His admiration of Virgilio's work, combined with editor Raffael de Gruttola's review of some 3,000 unpublished haiku, has fortuitously resulted in Nick Virgilio: A Life in Haiku.
Dedicated to Virgilio's brother Tony, the Nick Virgilio Haiku Association members and all those who have helped keep the poetry alive, Nick Virgilio: A Life in Haiku is aptly described on the cover as "a collection of newly discovered haiku gems by one of America's most beloved haiku poets (with a handful of old favorites, some essays, an interview and some photos thrown in, too)." It contains an introduction by de Gruttola, a selection of newly discovered, previously unpublished haiku mixed with well-known haiku (124 all together), Kathleen O'Toole's "Afterword: An Echo in Time," Marty MossCoane's "An Interview With Nick," Michael Doyle's "A Tribute to Nick," as well as essays by Virgilio himself, including "A Journey to a Haiku, On Haiku in English" and "A Note to Young Writers." The book rounds out with photos, acknowledgments and an appendix of original manuscript pages.
Virgilio and his many wonderful haiku held a prominent place in the haiku community from the 1960s until his death and this new book is a wonderful chance for anyone who has more recently embraced the form to recognize the brilliance of his work and his life. Nick Virgilio: A Life in Haiku offers exceptionally poignant information and insight about the man's passion for poetry and how hard he worked to perfect his own haiku as a "way of life."
Virgilio was born in Camden, N.J. on June 28, 1928 and, tragically, died of a heart attack in Washington D.C. on January 3, 1989 while taping a CBS-TV Nightwatch segment that was to feature his love of haiku. In his beautiful tribute to Virgilio, Father Michael Doyle of Camden's Sacred Heart Church shares the incredible story of how they met through a special Mass he led to commemorate 300 soldiers from South Jersey who had been killed in Vietnam. Father Doyle handed out an index card for each soldier so that, as he called out the names of the dead, whoever held the card might rise. The card Father Doyle ended up with bore the name Lawrence J. Virgilio, Nick's younger brother. Four years later Virgilio's parents requested that Father Doyle conduct a Mass for their son. Father Doyle remembered the name from his card and eventually met Virgilio through this meeting with his parents. The rest of the story details how Virgilio found a welcoming community at Sacred Heart and how he devoted himself to a daily practice of haiku and the enthusiastic sharing of what he wrote with friends and family—and now, us.
This book is simply and absolutely indispensable reading for anyone interested in the life and work of a genuine haiku visionary. We learn in these pages about Virgilio's daily round of experience and how he took the tragic loss of his brother and his own personal losses in work and love and forged them into a lasting body of powerful haiku. Absorbing what has been collected in Nick Virgilio: A Life in Haiku is also to recognize how haiku can become a way of life. As a poet and a man, Virgilio is an inspiration for all of us who, too, would find meaning and enhanced living with a haiku focus.
When I discovered haiku in the late 1980s and fell in love with it, it was impossible to know that 25 years later the haiku and the poets that enchanted me then would continue to speak to me the most today. "The first cut is the deepest" (from a song by Cat Stevens) is an entirely apt expression for how I feel about the poets and haiku that moved me then to internally vow that I'd
be reading and trying to write haiku for the rest of my life. Selected Haiku of Nicholas Virgilio, published by Black Moss Press in 1988 and edited by Rod Willmot, was one of the first haiku books I purchased after dipping my toe in the haiku pond way back when. Looking back on that purchase I am so grateful for the wonderful examples that came to me then and continue to be an inspiration and touchstone to the possibilities that haiku still offer today.
In his substantial introduction to A Life in Haiku, de Gruttola pinpoints the source of Virgilio's masterful sensitivity as oc- curring around the time his family "went from hope to despair in confronting [his brother] Larry's loss . . . it was devastating to them to deal with the ultimate sacrifice. It was about this time that Virgilio's haiku became solemn and elegiac. He at- tempted to deal with this tragedy by writing haiku as a healing process." De Gruttola further writes, "The pathos, if you will, becomes a constant reminder for Nick that one's life can be transformed if there is a will to believe in yourself and in your art. It's through this search and belief that Nick became the great haiku poet that we know today. As we read his haiku today in this first American edition of his work, we find an almost monk-like approach in pursuit of the deepest moments of his life. His unique haiku written in 1963:
out of the water . . .
out of itself
captured a subtle awareness that the great Japanese haiku poets, from Bashō to Santōka, knew all along. It was possible to say more with less."
Perhaps the haiku that first hit me with the real power of Virgilio's profound simplicity was this:
into the blinding sun . . .
the funeral procession's
I remember reading this and not knowing what exactly to "think" about it, but feeling some type of mesmerized fascination with "seeing" that procession and those headlights and that sun and realizing that as it is with death there was something "beyond" in what this haiku was suggesting.
I continue to be mesmerized by this and almost all of Virgilio's haiku. There are the many lasting tributes to his younger brother Lawrence:
telegram in hand,
the shadow of the marine
darkens our screen door
dazed, all I heard from the Major
". . . killed in Vietnam . . ."
sixteenth autumn since:
barely visible grease marks
where he parked his car
There are the poems that sear the mind, like this indelible one written in 1967:
the sack of kittens
sinking in the icy creek
increases the cold
In the WHYY-Philadelphia interview included in this book, Virgilio commented extensively on this haiku:
I can remember the instant shock I felt when I first read this haiku. I love cats and kittens and this elicits such a challenging visceral reaction that to this day the poem remains for me uncomfortably sad.
Death in life is a much-repeated theme in Virgilio's haiku. His life was weighted not only by personal losses, but by the losses he saw in his day-to-day walks around Camden and in the daily news.
On the cardboard box
holding the frozen wino:
Fragile: Do Not Crush
at the mine entrance,
on time cards beneath the clock:
the names of the dead
on the petition
condemning Agent Orange:
the names of the dead
Given how memorable are Virgilio's haiku related to loss and death it is rewarding to see as well how he chose to express his love of life. Many life affirming and beautiful tributes to nature, celebrating its eternal cycles, may also be found in this collection:
above the cloud peak
below the summer moon—
a flight of snow geese
rising and falling . . .
a blanket of blackbirds feeds
on the snowy slope
a bittern booms—
the harsh cry of a marsh hawk,
the crescent moon
after the spring storm . . .
the farm girl washes her hair
in the rain barrel
Virgilio's vast collection of haiku holds room enough and more for readers of many kinds and persuasions—each picking and choosing not only among the very great poems, but among the lesser known as well. Of Virgilio's haiku that I have related to the most there are a few that I just love— among these,
the wreath on the door
lifts in the wind
for its beautiful and subtle sense that allows the reader to imagine being quietly at this door witnessing this moment alone and touching on a feeling for something that exists within us and beyond us at once. The poem captures the eternal in a brief yet clear moment.
I have also loved "over spatterdocks" for the one word that has resonated and appealed to me since the day I first read it:
turning at corners of air:
I must admit I had never heard of spatterdocks before reading this haiku and yet intuitively the idea of "corners of air" "over spatterdocks" delighted me. At first I imagined that spatterdocks was an actual dock but then sheepishly discovered it was a plant! (Spatterdock is a perennial plant with leaves that arise from a large spongy rhizome.) Always a pleasure when we learn more about our world, especially in haiku!
I have loved, too, the inimitable witty wink of solemn satori:
ordering eggs and toast
in an undertone
For me, Nick Virgilio has been and remains a splendid mentor, an American sage, a true master and pioneer of the haiku form. Those well acquainted with his earlier Selected Haiku and with his work in periodicals and anthologies will certainly want to purchase a copy of this book. Anyone unfamiliar with Virgilio will want to do so, too. The marvelous selection of previously unpublished haiku, the essays and the wonderful radio interview beautifully bring to life his zeal, his character and his vision. To visit with his haiku and his illuminated life is truly to recognize his heroic qualities. Virgilio, like many of us, arrived at haiku as a life calling almost accidentally, but his immersion in the form and devotion to its creation leaves no doubt that there was nothing accidental about the passion and precision he poured into his love for it:
my spring love affair:
the old upright Remington
wears a new ribbon
on the manuscript
the shadow of a butterfly
finishes the poem
1. de Gruttola, Raffael, ed. Nick Virgilio: A Life in Haiku. Arlington, VA: Turtle Light Press, 2012, 137 pp., perfect softbound, 5.5 x 8.5. ISBN 978-0-9748147-3-5, US $14.95 <http://www.turtlelightpress.com>.
2. Ibid., p. xi.
3. Ibid., p. xii.