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#2413 - Tuesday, March 7, 2006 - Editor: Jerry Katz
"We have our worst thoughts in church." Here's an interesting article about a guy named Nick Virgilio.
Haiku poet revealed worlds within the art of few words
By SARAH GREENBLATT
A well-worn path in Camden's Harleigh Cemetery leads past a tombstone that speaks softly and eloquently to South Jersey's literary circles.
Many travelers pass the tomb, unwittingly, on their way to Walt Whitman's grave.
Shaped like a podium, the granite marker bears the words of poet Nick Virgilio, a Camden native who died in 1989, on the very cusp of fame.
It bears his words:
out of the water. . .
out of itself
Like much of Virgilio's writing, the poem was modeled in the haiku form, which packs contemplative observations of nature into tiny literary buds.
Virgilio devoted himself to the traditional Japanese form, which most often features 17 syllables in three lines.
Born in 1928, Virgilio worked as a radio sports announcer in Texas and Pennsylvania before returning to his hometown of Camden.
He stopped working and began writing poetry full time in about 1980, said Geoffrey Sill, a professor of English at Rutgers-Camden and a friend of Virgilio's.
"He produced thousands of haiku poems on his Remington typewriter at his Fairview home," Sill said.
The typewriter became the subject of at least one of Virgilio's poems:
my spring love affair:
the old upright Remington
wears a new ribbon
Virgilio often stopped passers-by on the street to ask their opinions of his newest poem, Camden poet and teacher Rocky Wilson said.
"They were always good," Wilson said, "so you didn't have to lie to him."
Virgilio's enthusiasm for haiku rubbed off on Wilson in unexpected ways.
"The one line that got me was, "We have our worst thoughts in church,' " Wilson recalled. "It saved me a lot of guilt feelings."
Virgilio's fellow parishioners at Sacred Heart Church treasured his skill in spinning the dross of life in the bleak city into jewels of hope.
"He mined those desolate things that we all shudder from," Monsignor Michael Doyle said in his 1989 eulogy.
While the Camden of Whitman's day bustled with wharfs and ferryboats, Virgilio inhabited a city "poor as a plucked chicken, and he elevated its tragedy in kernels of beauty that will be the stars of our future," Doyle said.
Just one volume of Virgilio's poems was published before he died of a heart attack, while preparing to be interviewed by talk-show host Charlie Rose. The January 1989 interview would have marked Virgilio's first exposure to a national audience.
The poet's admirers -- some of whom gather at his grave every June to celebrate his birthday -- are determined to expand his audience.
The Nick Virgilio Haiku Association plans to assemble a new volume of his poems.
The English department at Rutgers-Camden has sketched plans to open a Nick Virgilio house to accommodate visiting writers, Sill said.
In the meantime, the department, the association and the Camden County Cultural and Heritage Commission will co-sponsor the first Nick Virgilio Conference, "A Haiku Eye on Camden," on March 25.
The event will focus on teaching haiku writing in elementary and secondary schools.
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