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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 |

An Urban Poet Grounded in Place

Nick's fidelity to his hometown of Camden, NJ, which hit hard times when its industry collapsed, is apparent in the following haiku about city life:

shadowing hookers
after dark:
the cross in the park
barking its breath
into the rat-hole:
bitter cold

Much has been written about Nick as an "urban" haiku poet and his ability to redefine "nature" as in his oft quoted definition of haiku: "…a moment of connection between nature and human nature" in urban terms. But perhaps the most significant influence that helped him to refine his most iconic haiku was his being deeply grounded in a community within a web of close relationships. Thus, his poems evoke the harsh realities of urban decay in Camden, but also beauty and great poignancy that can be found there:

the old neighborhood
falling to the wrecking ball:
names in the sidewalk
the blind musician
extending an old tin cup
collects a snowflake

While it is well known that Virgilio sought out feedback, critique, and affirmation from haiku poets and poet laureates from New York to Tokyo, his primary audience was always his local community. Critics, including deGruttola, editor of the new collection, and Cor van den Heuvel, have noted Nick's desire to bring haiku to the common person, and his instinctive use of the cadences of spoken American English, jazz and popular song.

Two decades after his death, his memory is kept alive by priests and former City Hall reporters, diner clientele and fellow church members in Camden and Philadelphia, all of whom vividly remember him "accosting" them with new haiku: "How does this one grab ya'?"

His rootedness ─ living all but a few years that he spent in the Navy and Texas as a sports broadcaster ─ in Camden and his intimate connection to that landscape, that history, those contradictions, enabled him to mine a small geographic space for seemingly endless veins of depth and imaginative ore.

city skyline in haze:
the stench of the river ─
August dog days
the sack of kittens
sinking in the icy creek
increases the cold

"Some people think you have to wear a robe and slippers to write haiku. You know ? Be true to your experience! I feel that since I did not study in a Zen monastery like Basho, I could not even attempt to write like Basho and I wouldn’t. It would be a phony thing. So I’m a city slicker poet-artist-musician type poet. That’s where I’m comin’ from…

If I don’t keep working on my own hypocrisy, what the hell good am I? Really!  And that means to grow and become more aware. But some people ... they live in Chicago and they write about the mountains and the seashore. It’s all an escape. Poetry should not be an escape. It’s an 'escape into reality'. I think T.S. Eliot said that."

            Nick Virgilio, December 22, 1988, Painted Bride Art Center, Phila., PA

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Photo courtesy of Monsignor Michael Doyle

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