Observer vs. Participant:
A Study of the Haiku of
Nicholas Virgilio and Alexis Rotella
When Nicholas Virgilio died in January of 1989 at age sixty,
he was on the brink
of becoming the first to achieve "celebrity" status
in the American haiku community.
The countless readers who were introduced to haiku through
his work with National
Public Radio lost an individual whose poetry, in the words
of Cor van den Heuvel,
"continues to illuminate the shadows of death" (li).
His poems about the death of his
brother Lawrence, who died in Vietnam, are among the most
quietly poignant in all of
English-language haiku. With these gently heart-wrenching
images, Virgilio manages
gracefully to step away from the moment and take on the role
of observer. At the same
time that he invites the reader to share in his fond reminiscence,
the poet embraces the
ideas of Basho and Shiki in reminding the reader that the
imagenot the emotional
reaction to the imageis at the center of the haiku.
The image, for Virgilio, comes first and foremost: it speaks
for itself. For this reason, Virgilio's relatively objective
haiku lend themselves to a contrast study with the work of
Still an active member of the haiku community, Rotella infuses
her haiku with "vivid exposures of her personal life"
(van den Heuvel xxiv). Although Rotella, like any skilled
haiku poet, acknowledges the central importance of the image
in each of her poems, she clearly is a participant in the
moment. Her own mood and emotions are integral to the reader's
interpretation of the haiku. Rotella's intensely personal
poetry represents an approach to haiku that contrasts beautifully
with the subdued voice that pervades Virgilio's work.
A small sample of Rotella's and of Virgilio's haiku illustrates
the distinction between the role of observer and that of participant.
In the two haiku that follow, both poets invite the reader
to imagine a light, tranquil snowfall. The mood that each
poem evokes is undoubtedly one of serenity.
the cathedral bell
is shaking a few snowflakes
from the morning air
This image immediately convinces the reader of Virgilio's
astute powers of
observation. The mellow toll of the church bell, the quivering
snowflakes, and the
fragrant morning air all combine to remind the reader of the
comforting freshness of an early morning snowfall. Despite
the immediacy and accessibility of the image, the poet remains
unquestionably absent from the moment. He is essentially like
the Impressionist artist: his primary concern is to capture
the moment as it occurs, to make reality stand still for the
Alexis Rotella approaches this task in quite a different
Against his coat
I brush my lips
the silence of snowflakes
With this rather sensuous haiku, Rotella steps outside the
"observer mode" and
relates her own emotion to the soporific rhythm of a quiet
snowfall. Here, the reader is
asked to make a "perceptive leap": it is for her
to imagine the connection between
Rotella's subtly erotic moment with her significant other
and the protective silence of the snowfall. The palpable presence
of Rotella's voice in the poem makes that leap fairly easy.
She encourages the reader to imagine herself as the "I."
At that point, the reader need only recall her own experiences
to understand the intangible link between a comforting, romantic
encounter and a snowy afternoon.
A number of Rotella's haiku seek to bring to life a fleeting
but erotically charged
moment between herself and a male companion. As Rod Willmot
explains, "[Rotella's] special gift is for the revelation
of moments in her emotional relationships with others"
(qtd. in van den Heuvel xxiv).
Although these "emotional relationships" are generally
of a romantic nature, Rotella's haiku also reveal hints about
her relationship to her late mother. In writing of a departed
loved one, Rotella treats a theme that Virgilio mastered in
his most eloquent haiku. The ways in which both poets approach
this theme, though, are markedly different, as the following
In the guest room
where my mother slept
I look for comfort.
Rotella's haiku, which is also a grammatically complete sentence,
places the poet
once more in the role of participant. While she confides to
the reader her feelings ("I
look for comfort"), she does not stand back and observe
the moment along with the
reader. Rotella's use of the active voice and of a coherent
sentence structure indicates
the degree to which she is herself emotionally involved with
this haiku. She is clearly
not capturing a scene in an Impressionistic sense; instead,
she compels the reader to
visualize the emptiness of the guest room and to imagine the
poet's own active quest for solace in a place her mother once
inhabited. In order to be genuinely moved by this haiku, the
reader must first witness Rotella's own emotional outpouring.
By contrast, in a haiku about the loss of his father, Virgilio
reveals a tendency to
express grief in a more subdued manner.
still silent in his closet:
Virgilio's presence is not prominent in this poem; rather,
the unused violin speaks
for the all-too-palpable absence of the poet's father. In
concentrating his sense of loss on an inanimate object, Virgilio
detaches himself from the emotion of the moment: he
simply presents to the reader the image of a silent, dusty
violin and assumes that he or
she will feel a grief that has been blunted by time, as well
as a tender desire to preserve
an object that calls to mind so many fond memories. Both the
passionate "I" of Rotella's poem and the subtly
poignant image of a timeworn violin are successful in evoking
a mood of quiet sorrow.
Occasionally, Virgilio ventures in his "death haiku"
to refer specifically to himself. In such haiku, it seems
that the poet, like Rotella, feels the need to participate
in the moment in order to elicit an emotional response from
the reader. A closer examination of one such haiku, however,
reveals Virgilio's determination to remain in an observational
mode even when speaking of himself. The following haiku illustrates
my dead brother . . .
hearing his laugh
in my laughter
With the phrase "my laughter," Virgilio appears
to bring himself into the haiku
with Rotella-like directness. Yet, the second line suggests
that the poet is actually
observing himself. He has seemingly stepped outside his own
consciousness for the
moment and is hearing his own laughter from another's point
of view. As he listens to his own laughter as if it had been
tape-recorded, he recognizes the achingly familiar cadence
of his late brother's laugh. The overall mood of this poem
is open to interpretation: the poet may be pleasantly surprised
to hear a sound he had nearly forgotten or may feel that such
a vivid reminder of a loved one has re-opened an old wound.
In any case, it is clear that the poignancy of Virgilio's
verse comes from his ability to observe and respond to the
moment along with the reader.
Like any gifted and versatile haiku poet, Alexis Rotella
does not rely upon the
same voice and techniques to communicate the emotional significance
of each and every haiku. In one memorable poem, she, like
Virgilio, steps back from herself for a moment and observes
the scene for herself.
Quickly I powder my nose
The effect of this haiku is very much like that of Virgilio's
"my dead brother . . ." Here, the poet seems to
have a rather supernatural experience. As she gazes into the
mirror of the powder compact, she watches her face appear
to take on the features of her mother's face. The apparition
calls a host of memories of the poet's mother to her mind.
In writing of her "transformation," Rotella hints
at her reaction, which is very much like that of the reader.
Like Virgilio, she tries to process the moment right along
with the reader. She is no longer the instigator of the poem's
action; rather, she, like any other puzzled observer, is trying
to make sense of it all.
The distinction between the role of observer and that of
participant is often difficult to discern and is, quite possibly,
merely a matter of the reader's own interpretation. It is
impossible to deny, however, that the poems of Alexis Rotella
and Nicholas Virgilio simply read differently. Rotella's sensuous
lines seem to pulse on the page. The concreteand sometimes
seductiveimages, particularly those involving flowers,
communicate the emotional impact of the haiku forcefully.
Even the reader who
attempts to race haphazardly through Rotella's poetry is pulled
in by the immediacy and intimacy of her images. A single haiku
illustrates Rotella's ability to pack three lines with robust,
Lying in the wet grass,
him still beating
As a poet who prefers to observe along with the reader, Virgilio
but powerful imagery in crafting his haiku. The effect is
more subtle: often, two or more readings are required for
the reader to appreciate the full impact of the piece. Again,
one example is sufficient to illustrate Virgilio's love of
implication and "quiet" imagery:
the wreath on the door
lifts in the wind
Without conducting extensive research, it's difficult to
know why Nicholas Virgilio's and Alexis Rotella's verses read
as they do. As a commentator on a nationally syndicated weekend
radio news magazine, Virgilio may have allowed his "journalistic
voice" to seep into his work. Rotella's need to participate
in the images she creates may be related to the fact that
she hails from a generation that regards writing as a means
of self-examination and even of therapy. Whatever the case,
both Virgilio and Rotella are to be regarded as major figures
of twentieth-century haiku who have contributed immeasurably
to a literary movement that, in this culture, is still in