A Hundred Gourds 1:4 September 2012
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Nick Virgilio (1928-1989): An American Haiku Master Revisited

Kathleen O’Toole

| Introduction | page 2 | page 3 | page 4 | page 5 |

When Nick Virgilio discovered a copy of Kenneth Yasuda's a pepper pod in the Rutgers University Library in 1963, a door opened that would lead to his becoming one of the most influential masters of English language haiku in the United States. Born in Camden, N.J., he earned a communications degree from Temple University and worked as a sports broadcaster. He gained some renown locally as "Nickaphonic Nick," the irrepressible sidekick to Philadelphia radio personality and sock hop disc jockey Jerry Blavatt.

Ultimately, though, Nick found his voice in the elegant, Japanese poetic form of haiku. Over the course of 25 years, he refined his art, cultivating a wide audience for haiku and, more importantly, developing an authentically American iteration of the haiku form through his unique sensibility, his use of imagery, and the music of his haiku. He became one of the most well-known and beloved haiku poets of the 20th century. Through his efforts to introduce haiku to the general public, first in his beloved city of Camden and then nationally through his appearances on National Public Radio, numerous haiku poets were nourished and got their start.

His death in 1989 at age sixty, was a great loss to the haiku movement. Despite his renown, a US edition of Virgilio's work was still lacking. In April of this year, Turtle Light Press published a new volume of his work, Nick Virgilio: A Life in Haiku. Edited by Raffael de Gruttola, a former president of the Haiku Society of America, the book contains 30 old favorites as well as 100 previously unpublished haiku, two essays on the craft of writing haiku, a radio interview with Nick, photos and much more.

Early Success

According to those who knew him, it was characteristic of Nick to dive wholeheartedly into whatever he did. No surprise, then, that after that first encounter with the haiku form, he immersed himself in it so thoroughly that he published several of his most well-known haiku within two years. His first published haiku (which Nick referred to as "the mother of all the poems"), appeared in the first issue of American Haiku in 1963:

spring wind frees
   the full moon tangled
      in leafless trees

While this haiku skillfully captures the illusion-like quality of many early English language haiku here, Nick was already experimenting ─ using fewer than seventeen syllables and going against the grain with the use of rhyme whenever he thought that a poem demanded it. More astonishing, his famous "lily" poem took first prize in the very next issue of American Haiku (here reproduced in its original form):

      out of the water…
                  out of itself.

It was soon followed by another poem cited by many writers of haiku as an early influence:

picking bugs
off the moon.

Photo by J. Kyle Keener