Celebrating Camden’s Master of Haiku

From his home in Camden, Walt Whitman often composed lines of poetry that reflected the cruelties of war and the beauty and struggles of simply being human. As Memorial Day approaches, it’s a good time to look at the work of another celebrated (if far less famous) Camden poet, Nick Virgilio.

Like Whitman, who wrote about the effects of the Civil War, Virgilio spent countless hours in his Camden home hammering out verses on his Remington typewriter, composing some of this country’s most moving elegies after his youngest brother, Larry, was killed in Vietnam. But unlike Whitman, who specialized in lengthy, sweeping verse, Virgilio was a master of haiku, a Japanese form of poetry that is often written in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables or less.

“What strikes me the most is the way he could pack so much emotion and power into just three lines of poetry,” says Rick Black, founder of the New Jersey-based Turtle Light Press, which recently published a new collection of Virgilio poems called Nick Virgilio: A Life In Haiku. “There are poets who write on for ages and never get anywhere near this type of quality. He was truly one of the best haiku poets in the country, if not the world.”

deep in rank grass,
through a bullet-riddled helmet:
an unknown flower

flag-covered coffin:
the shadow of the bugler
slips into the grave

Virgilio, who died in 1989, wrote thousands of poems over the course of a career that spanned more than 20 years. And while he never became a household name, Virgilio was well known in Camden and beyond.

In addition to writing, Virgilio helped to found the Walt Whitman Arts Center, where he served as artistic director and poet-in-residence. He was also a long-standing member of the Haiku Society of America and was co-director of the First International Haiku Festival, which took place in Philadelphia in 1971.

“Within the haiku community, he was incredibly well known and respected,” says Black. “And while he was a good promoter of his work, he also had this monkish nature, taking long walks through the city and spending hours in his basement working.”

A Life in Haiku offers some interesting glimpses into Virgilio’s somewhat cloistered aesthetic. In addition to 30 classic Virgilio poems and 100 previously unpublished haikus, the book includes two of his essays on the art of haiku, a transcript from an interview he did on WHYY’s “Radio Times” with Marty Moss-Coane, a moving tribute by Sacred Heart Church’s Monsignor Michael Doyle, family photos, and reproductions of some of his original manuscript pages.

“So what’s it all mean, really? What can you be? A tight little package of humanity,” Virgilio told Moss-Coane in 1988. “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—yourself, and that’s all you have to offer anyway. I try to do that through my work.”

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