Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Life in Haiku

Out of a large archive of unpublished poems found in the files of the English department of Rutgers University in Camden NJ comes Nick Virgilio: A Life in Haiku, a collection of haiku poems by a pioneer of American haiku poetry in the 1960s and one of America’s most beloved practitioners of the art.

There are poems about Camden, NJ, the city where Virgilio was born, and Philadelphia, PA, where he went off to attend Temple University, as well as poems about nature and his friends and family, and, most especially, poems about the loss of his younger brother in Vietnam.

The archive's poems, typed and hand-written on reams of legal-size papers, were all in various stages of drafts and in different forms, from haiku and sonnets to poems in longer verse, with Virgilio’s handwriting scrawled in the margins.

“Most of his haiku reflect his daily routine,” writes the book's editor, Raffael de Gruttola, in the introduction. “He usually rose early and had breakfast at the Elgin Diner, then went for lengthy walks along various paths and trails, sometimes late into the night to record those moments in time that he wrote about in his haiku.”

A haiku poet and former president of the Haiku Society of America, as well as a longtime admirer of Virgilio’s work, de Gruttola sifted through the poems and found those that he felt were “as alive and vibrant today as when he first penned them–and, incredibly, just as relevant.”

Here are a few samples from the 130 poems in this collection:

my brother and I
in the old cemetery
reading epitaphs

sitting on a jetty...
watching a seagull
float on a thermal

my father and I
with no footprints to follow
step into deep snow

on my father’s wrist,
keeping time and eternity:
my dead brother’s watch

above the cloud peak
below the summer moon–
a flight of snow geese

It could take Virgilio years to find the words that he needed to complete a poem. That’s because the secret to writing, according to Virgilio, is rewriting. “Most of ‘em is rewriting and rewriting. My brother’s poem, his funeral, took 15 years." His brother was killed in 1967, but it wasn't until 1982 that Virgilio wrote:

flag-covered coffin:
the shadow of the bugler
slips into the grave

But sometimes, admits Virgilio, the line or word of a poem could strike unexpectedly: “... I was near Robins’ Bookstore where it used to be on 13th and, you know, where’s it... Filbert. And I was talking to somebody and all of a sudden the last line came right through my mind and it completed the poem.”

In addition to de Gruttola’s introduction and Virgilio’s haiku, the book includes a 1988 interview with Virgilio conducted by Marty Moss-Coane that aired on her show, “Radio Times,” a handful of essays by Virgilio on writing and haiku, photos and samples of original manuscript pages, as well as tributes to Virgilio from some of his colleagues and friends.

For more information about Virgilio and his work visit:

And for information about Nick Virgilio: A Life in Haiku, visit:

1 comment:

Heather said...

Thanks for sharing. I love Haiku. The simple form entices, briefly, creating scene-flashes. It's flash fiction in poetic form!