Rutgers-Camden, a haiku haven
Archived article from Apr 26, 2004
Camden has long been associated with Walt Whitman, who is known for his rather lengthy poems. But there is another Camden poet whose work is prized for its brevity: Nicholas Virgilio. The life and work of Virgilio, an internationally known haikuist who died in 1989, is the subject of a graduate English class in Camden.
Taught by poet David Floyd, “Studies in Poetry: Nick Virgilio, American Haiku, and Formal Unity,” includes original haiku writing — traditionally three lines comprising 17 syllables — and scholarship inspired by the Virgilio archive, a collection of more than 20,000 haiku donated by the Virgilio estate to Rutgers–Camden in 1999. Thousands of his haiku have yet to be published.
The graduate students have done their part to keep Virgilio’s work circulating by selecting unpublished haiku from the archive to be included in a new book. The collection of poems and essays will be posted on the Nick Virgilio Poetry Project Web site, managed by the Camden Online Poetry Project, a Rutgers–Camden department of English effort, and found at http://www.nickvirgilio.rutgers.edu .
Virgilio’s archive, housed in the Paul Robeson Library on the Camden campus, challenges the notion that composing haiku is easy, which Floyd’s students learned from weeks practicing the form. But it can also be calming. “Haiku isn’t like anything else, especially in an academic environment, when you’re constantly trying to say more and more. It’s incredibly refreshing to write haiku, which is a way to synthesize what you think into as few words as possible,” says Karen Deaver, a first semester graduate student and freelance writer.
Before teaching the class, Floyd admits he wasn’t a practicing haikuist. But he was a poet aware of the importance of precision. “Every poet should try to learn better compositional strategies. Haiku is a different form and aesthetic in the Western mind,” he says.
Floyd called on his mentor, Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Stephen Dunn, and other guest lecturers to join the discussion on haiku and Virgilio’s place within the context of the Japanese tradition as well as within American poetry. A group outing to both Whitman’s and Virgilio’s graves at Harleigh Cemetery, and the Elgin Diner in Camden, where Virgilio was a regular, were course requirements. “In addition to studying his haiku,” Floyd says, “it’s also important to get a feel for where Nick hung his hat.”
-By Cathy Karmilowicz