A Life in Haiku
by Nick Virgilio
Edited by Rafael de Gruttola
Turtle Light Press (2012)
A Review by Robert D. Wilson
out of the water . . .
out of itself
When I hear the name, Nick Virgilio, I think of the above haiku, which, in reality, is not a haiku but a hokku, an activity-biased poem reflecting a depth and perception rarely found today, evoking a surplus of meaning reminiscent of Yosa Buson's hokku.
Previous to the reading of A Life in Haiku, I'd read only a few of Virgilio's haiku. Most resonated with me, lingered in my mind after reading them. He was not a poet-politician hungering for the limelight. His quest wasn't to make a name for himself. He took writing haiku seriously like the old masters. In a sense, Virgilio can be compared to a monastic monk. He'd spend hours daily in his cellar composing poetry, re-writing, fine-tuning, and ruminating. He wasn't one to write a quickie haiku and submit it to a publication. Nick Virgilio respected the medium and paid his dues as a poet. The result, as this new book will show, is a volume of haiku and hokku that soars above the mediocrity prevalent in today's haiku circles worldwide, a star deserving of study and perusal.
Most of the poetry in Nick Virgilio's book has never been published. They were stored with his belongings and, thanks to Rick Black, the book's publisher, and the Virgilio family, they have come to light, introducing the poet's poetry to new readers and a broader audience thanks to the computer age.
above the cloud peak
below the summer moon ---
a flight of snow geese
Wrote Raffael de Gruttola, the book's editor, to me in a personal missive about Nick Virgilio:
"Nick was an American original. He doesn't sound like the five or six great Japanese masters, i.e. Basho's worldliness, Buson's figurative feeling for nature and people, Issa's sentimentality (Nick does have a certain amount of this feeling), Shiki who opened the Japanese feeling to the West and was instrumental with his haiku and tanka to express a certain honest empathy because of his sickness, and Santoka, who lived a beggar's life and the stark reality of what it means to live a beggar's life and see reality without sentimentality. There are others, but the above haiku poets for me represent the greatness of the Japanese tradition.
Nick differs from them in the sense that he developed a feeling for words that was uniquely a Western literary orientation in how he described his life. He also liked to experiment with the form which the above poets did with the haiga form which Nick didn't use.
Nick's greatness is relating a certain pathos about life which expressed itself in an elegiac's feeling because of his upbringing in a poor Italian-oriented family and, more so, in the loss of his younger brother, Larry, who was killed in Vietnam. The affects this incident had on his personal and family life was all consuming. In a sense Whitman and Hart Crane had these feelings, but from a completely different perspective. Nick also had a good ear for sound and knew how to revise his feelings to get at the essence of an emotion. It was not a revision of words, but of feeling.
Nick was also a teacher and loved to be with people of all ages. He listened to their thoughts and how it affected their lives. Elizabeth Lamb and John Wills had these feelings also, but from a different background. Also remember that Nick was trained as a radio announcer, and understood how to appeal to listeners possibly within dialogues.
Finally, Nick could criticize his own life as well as others, but without extreme malice, but critical awareness. The exception of this was his haiku against big corporations and how they had ruined Camden from its heyday as an up and coming town after the Civil War.
In conclusion, Nick led a monastic life in the cellar of his house where he would sit for hours every day working on his haiku. He was a full time poet as opposed to poets who make their living within the academic confines. He also would send his haiku everywhere to be published without chagrin. He never married and probably would have lived a longer life if he hadn't been sick at an early age with heart disease.
Also the Nick Virgilio Haiku Association has kept his legacy alive. It's a group of wonderful people who understand to this day that Nick's uniqueness as a poet, albeit a haiku poet, must not be minimized.
in and out of a sunbeam:
Although Nick Virgilio's poetic voice was a Western voice, the wisdom exuding from his spirit when he composed haiku calls to mind Matsuo Basho, Doho, and Yosa Buson. Virgilio respected the medium, understood aesthetics, the importance of meter and sparseness. Haiku to him was more than a word picture. Said Virgilio in an interview with Marty Moss-Coane, recorded in his book:
"It is this linking of human nature to all nature, this illumination of our being through a simple experience expressed in simple images that endow haiku poetry with unique depth and meaning. This is very important because of the ecological problems that we have. That we're not in touch with nature and it's high time we did."
Nick Virgilio was a driven man. Composing haiku for him was not an option. It was who he was. Posited Virgilio in the aforementioned interview:
"I was turned on by the 'lily' poem. People said, "Man, you're good, you've got talent," you know. And it becomes like a disease after a while --- you keep writing, and you become good at it, here you are --- you build a better mousetrap, and people beat a path to your door, you know, so --- So what's it all mean really? What can you be? A tight little package of humanity. You can explore this provincial you and become the universal. And that's all. And then if you become this tight little package of humanity, you have something to offer. You really have something to offer --- yourself, and that's all you have to offer anyway. I try to do that through my work."
Writes Rick Black, A Life in Haiku's publisher:
"From an instinctual, gut level, Virgilio's poems always resonated deeply for me. I was a war reporter for three years with the NYT in Israel and saw enough of war, violence and terrorism to last a lifetime. I needed a way to respond to that emotionally and I turned to haiku when I encountered Nick's poems. If he could use the form to deal with the grief of losing his youngest brother in Vietnam, then perhaps it could work for me, too.
And it has -- incredibly so, allowing me to regain my balance and to accept life in all its complexity, its beauty and ugliness. I am not always at peace with the world. I still question why the world has been created as it is, why people need to kill each other in the name of one thing or another, but haiku have allowed me to put down my protest at least for a short while.
Working on the Virgilio book has increased my awe of his use of writing to come to grips with his loss. Of course, he wrote about other things very beautifully, too. He had a unique way of telescoping his experiences, of distilling them into haiku. I was simply lucky enough to be in a position to put together and publish this book."
A sampling of gems inside Nick Virgilio's A Life in Haiku:
and the spring rain . . .
one in the other
the shadow of the bugler
slips into the grave
on the earthen floor,
tying the umbilical cord:
from rose thorn
to rose thorn:
the long road:
walking with myself ---
the summer heat
bitter cold wind
carving a frozen snowdrift ---
the crescent moon
Nick Virgilio passed away in 1989. His haiku towers above that written by other English-language haiku poets, dead or alive. His poetry is worthy of study and academic examination.