Nick Virgilio and Haiku

Nick Virgilio and Haiku
By Rick Black

It was at the Haiku North America conference in 2009 that I first learned of a large stash of unpublished haiku by Nick Virgilio. I had admired Nick’s work for years. Having been a reporter for The New York Times in the Middle East, I found that his poems resonated deeply and helped me deal with all of the violence that I had encountered. I found particularly meaningful his haiku about the death of his youngest brother, Larry, in Vietnam.

Soon after the conference, I contacted Tony Virgilio, Nick’s brother, in order to introduce myself and talk to him about publishing a new collection of Nick’s poems. He liked the idea and, a few months later, I took a first look at Nick’s papers, which were being kept in the English department of Rutgers University in Camden, N.J.

In a black metal filing cabinet, I discovered reams of legal-size papers, all covered with drafts of poems in various forms: haiku, sonnets, and some longer verse. Notes were scribbled in margins. Randomly, I took out a handful of papers and started reading the poems:

New Year’s morning . . .
among many in the drawer,
a few bright pennies

And a Vietnam haiku that I had never seen:

summer nightfall:
dazed, all I heard from the Major
“. . . killed in Vietnam . . .”

As well as  various versions of this poem:

over the city,
the shadow of the falcon
follows the pigeon

A pioneer of American haiku poetry, Virgilio started writing in the early 1960s and composed some of the most elegiac haiku ever written in America. He had a huge impact on the way in which haiku were thought of and written, and he pretty early on broke with the 5-7-5 form that was considered sacrosanct back then, penning a poem that has become a classic:

out of the water . . .
out of itself

It’s rare that a haiku poet traces the trajectory of a poem and how it is rewritten to arrive at its final form, but Virgilio did just that in the essay, A Journey to a Haiku, which I found in the Rutgers archives along with hundreds of unpublished poems. Last year, I published this essay in the book, Nick Virgilio: A Life in Haiku. Edited by Raffael de Gruttola, the book gives readers a portrait of Virgilio’s life as well as his poetry through poems, essays, a radio interview, photos and more.

I will post this essay in full tomorrow because it touches on some of the issues that we have been discussing about haiku and the imagination, and in general gives us a peek inside a master’s considerations of form.



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