NICK VIRGILIO AND AMERICAN HAIKU:
CREATING HAIKU AND AN AUDIENCE
by Cor van den Heuvel
Ogiwara Seisensui, the onetime follower of Hekigod? and teacher of H?sai and Sant?ka, once described haiku as a circle, one half of which is completed by the poet while the other half is supplied by the reader. Such collaboration, he felt, is essential in haiku to a far greater degree than in any other kind of literature or art.
This aspect of haiku results in a serious dilemma for haiku poets outside of Japan. In Japan you have a nation of readers ready to supply the other half of the haiku you write–not only because they are familiar with the genre and its traditions, but because in most cases these readers have actually tried to write haiku themselves. In the rest of the world, where haiku has only recently been introduced, besides the work of creating fine haiku, the haiku poet has also the task of educating his or her potential audience–so that there will be readers of sufficient sensibility to be able to supply that other half of the haiku. I would like to explore this problem a little with you now, in the limited time we have available, by focusing primarily on the life and work of one American haiku poet: Nicholas Virgilio. He was one of the leading poets in the North American haiku movement from its beginnings in the early sixties right up to his untimely death in January of 1989 at the age of 60, and his work continues to inspire and encourage that movement.
In the process of talking about this poet, I hope I will also be able to give a sense of that wider world of haiku in North America of which he was such a vital part–to show how it has developed in the past thirty or more years, how it appears now, and where it seems to be headed. For it is a very wide and varied world, with haiku poets of extremely divergent styles and agendas, and of various levels of accomplishment. Often they are far apart geographically as well as ideologically, but a sense of community has developed nonetheless, through modern means of communication such as computers, telephones, and the mails and through a tolerance and respect for differences of opinion.
With such variety it should come as no surprise that Nick Virgilio was not a “typical” haiku poet–poets of top rank rarely fit such a role. He stirred up a lot of controversy in his wake and there were some in the movement who considered him egotistical, self-serving, and worst of all–a bad poet.
He got such labels as “egotistical” and “self-serving” from the zeal with which he promoted haiku, especially since this often took the form of promoting his own haiku, which he of course knew best and was most immmediately concerned about. He was a tireless pursuer of editors of newspapers and magazines and of producers and hosts of radio and TV shows. He could sometimes seem a pest in his persistence. However, he always tried to be good-humored in his approach, and though some people resented his “bothering” them, most were fond of him in spite of himself.
There were people who considered him a poor poet because he sent out so many bad haiku with his good ones–leaving the job of picking out the good ones to the person to whom he was writing. He sent hundreds of his haiku out to haiku editors, and other haiku poets, but also to scholars, critics, and authors important in the mainstream literary world, a world that for the most part still feels itself elevated above and beyond the small field of English-language haiku.
When I read the paper Professor Donald Keene presented in Matsuyama at the Shiki-Kinen Museum during the 1986 symposium on “The Internationalization of Haiku and Matsuyama,” I came across a passage in which Professor Keene says that he “used to recieve a batch of haiku every week from an American [he] had never met.” I guessed immediately that the American was probably Nick Virgilio, and as I read further I was convinced of it. Professor Keene went on to say that in those “batches” there were so many bad haiku about butterflies and frogs–imitative of Japanese haiku–that he began to toss them away unread. At that time he doubted that it was possible to write original haiku in English anyway. One day he recieved a new batch of haiku from this “American” and his eye happened to catch an unusual title on one of them. “I was astonished to see,” he writes, “that it was dedicated to the poet’s younger brother who had been killed in action in Vietnam. It would be a profanation if the poet offered to his dead brother anything less than his true feelings. He could not have concentrated solely on achieving a pretty effect. I read the haiku. It did not impress me much, but I could not doubt its sincerity. From this time I changed my ideas about the writing of haiku in English. I realized that it was indeed possible for an American to write his most deeply felt thoughts in this Japanese form.”
In the discussion that followed this talk, Professor Kazuo Sato, another member of the symposium, after referring to Professor Keene’s experience, read the following haiku:
Deep in rank grass,
through a bullet-riddled helmet:
an unknown flower
which is, of course, a haiku by Nick Virgilio that he dedicated to his younger brother who died in Vietnam.
Now the significance for me in this story is that Nick Virgilio had been, in spite of sending a lot of bad haiku to Donald Keene–and I’m sure there were a lot of bad ones, because I myself received a lot of them in the mail from Nick over the years–in spite of this, he had been instrumental in changing the opinion of a great scholar of Japanese literature about the possibilities for English language haiku. And he influenced many others–to not only see the possibilities for the genre but to appreciate the fine work that was being created in America, by others as well as by himself. This illustrates in a small way how the advancement of art can be a reciprocal phenomenon between scholars and artists–though they may sometimes seem to be at odds with each other.
Scholars like Donald Keene, Harold Henderson, R. H. Blyth, and Kenneth Yasuda provided the poets in North America, including Nick Virgilio, with translations of, and critical insights into, the Japanese haiku, thus enabling them to adapt the form into English. The poets in turn, by combining that knowledge with fresh inspiration, may demonstrate to the scholars what new possibilities the genre posseses for English literature. Regrettably, this reciprocity usually has to wait to be passed on to a later generation–but sometimes it happens more quickly. Scholars of Japanese literature have been much more attuned to the importance of haiku in English than have scholars of English and American literature, as we shall see presently.
But first let me read a few more haiku by Nick Virgilio about the death of his younger brother, Larry:
into the blinding sun . . .
the funeral procession’s
at the open grave,
mingling with the priest’s prayer:
honking of wild geese
the wreath on the door
lifts in the wind
Before I leave the subject of Nick’s haiku about his brother let me say something more about the first one, the “unknown flower growing through the helmet.” That haiku was originally published in 1968 in Leatherneck Magazine, the official magazine of the United States Marine Corps. That is quite early in the history of the haiku movement, but what is even more interesting is that Nick wanted the poem to appear first in the Marine Corps magazine, not a literary magazine. Although in Japan there is nothing unusual about warriors and poetry going together, in America poetry has to fight hard to gain respect as a “manly” pursuit. Nick was not afraid to take his poetry to the common man and woman, or the soldier and athlete, even the poor and uneducated–he felt anyone could appreciate haiku if they only would listen and be aware. He actively sought out opportunities to read his poetry to anyone who would listen. He is reported to have been seen standing in a park in his home town of Camden, New Jersey, reading to an audience of only two people.
In 1968 there were already several haiku magazines in existence and he had published in most of them. In fact his work had appeared in the first issue of the first haiku magazine to appear in North America, American Haiku. That was in 1963.
When he got out of the navy in 1948, which he had entered after finishing high school, Nick worked around the country as a radio announcer before returning to Camden in 1958. In 1962 he discovered haiku when he came across a collection of English-language haiku by Kenneth Yasuda, A Pepper Pod. He devoted his life from then on to haiku. He read Harold G. Henderson’s and R. H. Blyth’s books on haiku and was soon corresponding with Henderson, who lived in New York.
Nick Virgilio never married. He lived in his family home with his parents and his other brother, Tony, working on his haiku at a battered old upright Remington typewriter in a workshop in the basement, not far from his mother’s ironing board and washing machine. He had very close ties to his local community, especially with nearby Sacred Heart Church, where he helped out with charitable activities. He was always bombarding his friends, including the parish priest, Father Michael Doyle, with new haiku, often prefacing each one with the phrase “What do you think of this one?”.
He began giving organized readings of his poetry in 1967. Besides the local park and the church, he read at schools, colleges and to community groups throughout the Philadelphia area, of which Camden is a part, being just across the river from that large city. He also read on the radio and on local TV. His haiku were largely about his family and the place in which he lived. In his early years, Camden was a pleasant town to live in and there were still a fair number of spots of unspoiled nature. Nick had favorite retreats nearby where he wrote haiku such as this:
lone red-winged blackbird
riding a reed in high tide–
but he also remembered the hard days of the depression in his poetry. People were so poor then that when kittens were born, no one could afford to take care of them:
the sack of kittens
sinking in the icy creek,
increases the cold
Towards the end of his life, hard times came to Camden again, air and water was polluted, factories closed down, people were out of work, and drugs and crime became a serious problem. Nick began to write with a consciousness of impending environmental and social disaster.
But back in the mid 1960’s when Nick could still find plenty of nature’s beauty in the Camden area to write about, he was already one of the leading poets of the a small American haiku movement. And when Harold Henderson published his book, Haiku In English, in 1965, he chose to discuss the work of Virgilio and James Hackett as leading representives of two different approaches to writing English-language haiku. Virgilio, he felt, was in the aesthetic tradition of Buson, while Hackett was closer to the spiritual traditions of Bash?. Hackett had won the 1964 Japan Air Lines English haiku contest, which attracted 40,000 entries. Japan Airlines sponsored another English haiku contest in 1988. This time each contestant was allowed to enter only one haiku each. Over 40,000 people sent in their haiku. The grand prize was won by New York poet Bernard Lionel Einbond for his “frog pond–/a leaf falls in/without a sound.” JAL also helped to bring haiku critic Yamamoto Kenkichi and haiku poet Mori Sumio to the United States in 1978 to speak about Japanese haiku in New York City–the event was co-sponsored by “The Haiku Society of America” and “The Japan Society.” The airline has sponsored a number of other events around the world to help popularize haiku. James Hackett was also honored by another scholar. R. H. Blyth included a selection of Hackett’s haiku at the end of the second volume of his History of Haiku, published in 1964, to show that the genre could be written in English.
One of Nick Virgilio’s most famous haiku was the following which first appeared in the second issue of American Haiku:
out of the water . . .
out of itself
It has been one of the most discussed haiku ever written in English, and had a significant effect on the development of haiku form by helping encourage the writing of haiku in a more minimalist style. Though Virgilio wrote most of his haiku in or close to the three line 5-7-5 syllable pattern, he was always flexible, and occasionally wrote very short haiku such as the above.
The “lily” haiku has appeared in many newspapers and magazines around the world and even came to the attention of the present Emperor of Japan when he was still the Crown Prince. It is said he was pleased by it. Nick, needless to say, was delighted by this attention. He was very happy, too, when the poem appeared in an article on the haiku movement which I wrote for The New York Times Sunday Book Review (March 29, 1987). This literary review is one of the most important in the United States, and the article’s appearance in 1987 marked one of the very few times that the haiku movement has received serious consideration in a “mainstream” publication. In it I tried to show the importance of the haiku movement’s contributions to English language literature, mentioning that William J. Higginson’s The Haiku Handbook and the second edition of The Haiku Anthology had both recently been published by major American publishers–and that Hiroaki Sato’s Eigo Haiku (Haiku in English) was soon to appear in Japan. Besides Nick Virgilio, I discussed the work of nine other English language haiku poets quoting one haiku or senryu from each. Haiku poets in America sometimes write senryu also. George Swede (of Canada), Alan Pizzarelli and Alexis Rotella are all skilled senryu poets, as well as top haiku poets. Besides these three and Nick, I quoted poems by Marlene Mountain, Gary Hotham, John Wills, O. Mabson Southard, Robert Spiess, and Anita Virgil. I also mentioned the work of Michael McClintock, Foster Jewell, and Raymond Roseliep. These are all major figures in English-language haiku. Jewell and Roseliep have passed away, but like Nick’s their work lives on.
Another of Nick Virgilio’s very short haiku had a significant influence on John Wills, who is one of America’s most important haiku poets. Wills often writes his haiku in around ten to fourteen syllables. He has said that he was first inspired to try writing haiku after reading the following haiku by Nick:
off the moon
Wills, who wrote many of his best haiku in the mountains of Tennessee, now lives in Florida. [Wills died in 1993.] His haiku are so close to nature they seem to have grown right out of the earth. Here is one of my favorites. It is written in one line:
dusk from rock to rock a waterthrush
The way he evokes the sound and sight of a mountain stream without even mentioning one is a marvelous accomplishment. He does it, of course, through the name of the bird, which contains the word “water.” This is a good example of the wordlessness of haiku. It is my belief that the power of haiku comes from the fact that nature is presented directly–the words do not call attention to themselves as words. They become in a sense invisible as they lead the way to the image they evoke. They cease to exist and so we say the poem is wordless.
Eric Amann, the Canadian haiku poet, and editor of two of the most important haiku magazines in the North American haiku movement, Haiku and Cicada, wrote a small book about haiku called The Wordless Poem, in 1969. He took the phrase from Alan Watts, the writer on Zen Buddhism who related haiku to Zen. R. H. Blyth also emphasized haiku’s “Zen connection” in his books.
This might be a good place to point out that from the earliest years the haiku movement in North America has involved both the United States and Canada. Poets interact as easily between the two countries as they do between their respective states and provinces. Though there is an organization called “Haiku Canada” and another called “The Haiku Society of America,” many poets belong to them both.
“The Haiku Society of America” was started in 1968 in New York City by Professor Henderson and Leroy Kanterman, editor of the magazine, Haiku West. Nick Virgilio traveled up to New York for the first meeting and so became a charter member. However he could not afford to come to many meetings after that. Though he co-directed the First International Haiku Festival at the University of Pennsylvania in 1971, occasionally helped arrange readings for other poets on Philadelphia television, and in later years as poet in residence at the Walt Whitman Center in Camden was able to invite some other haiku poets to read there, he did not get to meet personally with his fellow poets very often. This inability to discuss his work directly with his peers, may have been one reason for his habit of flooding friends and editors–and others like Professor Keene–with hundreds of haiku good and bad, usually accompanied with only a scrawled note: “What do you think of these?”
Nick Virgilio was not the only good haiku poet to turn out a lot of bad haiku, nor the only one to circulate them or even publish them. It seems to be a problem with a number of poets. It may be partly due to the fact that unlike the Japanese haiku poets we do not have a system of haiku masters and disciples to help weed out our bad works. Or could it be something built into the process of creating haiku?
With so few words to work with, the writer may tend to see in the words he has written the image, or effect, he is trying to evoke, while for others the same words may create nothing but a trite banality. Also, when a poet writing in longer genres produces a poor work, there still may be aspects of the work that can be admired–a few striking lines, or a well-organized theme–but when a haiku fails there is no room for redeemable value. A poor haiku is totally bad.
On the other hand, perhaps a successful haiku, for similar reasons, presents us with the essence of literature–since every word has to be just right and there cannot be one word too many or too few. This may have been what Seisensui had in mind when he said that haiku was the pinnacle of art. These differences between haiku and other forms of literature may also hold a clue to where Kuwabara Takeo went wrong in his infamous essay on haiku as “Second-Class Art.”
In any case, time and his readers, including his various editors, helped Nick to determine what his best works were, and when they appeared in the second edition of his Selected Haiku, which came out in 1988, the result was one of the most important books ever published by an American haiku poet. By that time Nick was fairly well known and admired by several people important in national public radio. For a while, his poetry readings were broadcast nationwide in three or four minute “spots,” on an almost regular basis. When his book came out these people helped arrange for him to appear on a CBS network TV show called “Nightwatch” in January of 1989. It is one of the most important serious talk shows on late night television. While getting ready to tape the show, Nick suffered a heart attack in the studio and died at a hospital a few hours later.
He had been on the brink of stepping into a wider spotlight than he had ever known. But it was not to be. And we will never know how many more fine haiku might have come from his battered typewriter if he had been given more years. But I’m sure that his work will continue to inspire readers and other poets for as long as English is read. In fact shortly after his death, a group formed in Camden called “The Nick Virgilio Haiku Association” made up of people he inspired with his readings and talks. The organization continues to grow and it publishes a newsletter called From the Lily Pad.
This phenomenon of forming haiku groups is one that has been repeated all over the country, though this is the first I know of to be named for a particular poet. There is a loosely organized group in the midwest that gets together for haiku meetings and conferences. They have been largely inspired by the person and haiku of Father Raymond Roseliep, who died in 1983, and they have held memorial celebrations in his honor. Other small groups have popped up in California, North Carolina, Oregon, and elsewhere. Most of them keep some kind of contact with “The Haiku Society of America” but retain their independence. I think it is these small, enthusiastic groups who hold the most promise for the continued growth of haiku in America. And it is the work of such poets as Nick Virgilio that helps to inspire them.
Nick is buried in the same cemetary in Camden which holds the tomb of the great American poet, Walt Whitman. Nick who loved Whitman, has a spot just a few yards down the path from the older poet. It overlooks a small pond. The people of Camden have planned a memorial to be built there in the shape of a granite podium. It is designed to encourage poets to gather at Nick’s grave and to look out over the pond and to read and write
haiku . . . or just reflect.
I’d like to close by reading the last haiku in Nick’s Selected Haiku:
on my last journey
alone on the road at dawn:
first sight of the sea
—Cor van den Heuvel is the editor of The Haiku Anthology. The third edition was published by W. W. Norton in 1999. The above essay is © 2002 by Cor van den Heuvel.