Nick Virgilio and Haiku II

A Journey to a Haiku
By Nicholas A. Virgilio

In a corner of an old graveyard in Camden, N.J., there is a small lot of bare, hard ground trampled by trespassers. One day while passing by on a bus, I was impressed with this lot which triggered a poetic experience that, in turn, started trains of thought concerning the destined anonymity of most human beings. One of the early attempts to express the experience was:

The grassy graveyard . . .

   not a blade where children played,

      near the battleground.

This graveyard is not really “grassy.” And “near the battleground” is a construct of the imagination. Some months later, I imagined a poem with a plantation setting:

The plantation ruins:

   a bulldozer levels

      the slave quarters.

Somehow, a short time thereafter, the Camden graveyard experience began to fuse with efforts to compose “plantation” haiku. After several versions, I composed:

Near the battleground

   where children play in the grass:

      the graveyard of slaves.

Then the ‘poem,’ with one foot in Camden, N.J., and the other on a southern plantation, planted both feet south of the Mason-Dixon line:

Near the battleground,

   where cattle graze in the grass:

      the grave mounds of slaves.

After a few attempts to strengthen the weak second line with “where cattle graze in bluegrass,” “where cattle graze in waving grass,” “where cattle graze in flowering grass,” or “where cattle graze in crab grass,” I decided it was impossible to really strengthen this line. I tried rearranging the lines. As the poem evolved, I sensed that “battleground” and “grave mounds” should be near each other. This occurred after the change from “the graveyard of slaves” to “the grave mounds of slaves.” The major relationship is “Battleground” – “grave mounds,” “cattle” – “slaves” is of secondary importance.

This, I think, is the best version; the “picture” and the poem are improved:

Where cattle graze

   near the grassy battleground:

      the grave mounds of slaves.

The second and third lines suggest what is truly important:

near the grassy battleground:

   the grave mounds of slaves.

“Where cattle graze” justifies itself when the reader compares “cattle” to “slaves”; this line also introduces the peaceful mood of the poem.

Now consider the version that begins with “Near the battleground.” This line is vague, since it really doesn’t put the reader in a particular place. And it could mislead the reader into thinking the war is still going on. “Where cattle graze in the grass” is trite, compounded by the unnecessary “in the grass.”

This second line acts as a barrier over which the reader must leap in order to connect “grave mounds” with “battleground.” In this version, the third line “the grave mounds of slaves” practically carries the entire load, and makes the poem. Of course, any poem should not depend for its very life on one line; the reader may lose interest before he gets to it.

Let us reexamine what I consider the best version:

 Where cattle graze

   near the grassy battleground:

      the grave mounds of slaves.

We began with a real graveyard experience in Camden, N.J., and transformed it into an imagined American historical “picture” haiku with a setting somewhere in the South. We end the journey: from a small lot of bare, hard ground to “the grave mounds of slaves,” and destined anonymity.

This essay has been excerpted from, Nick Virgilio: A Life in Haiku (Turtle Light Press)

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