Virgilio was born in Camden, New Jersey on June 28, 1928, the first of three sons of Anthony Virgilio, an accomplished violinist, and Rose Alemi, a seamstress, and grew up in that city's Fairview section, where he lived much of his life.
He graduated from Camden High School, served in the Navy during World War II, received a bachelor of arts degree from Temple University in Philadelphia, and began his career as a radio announcer and, as "Nickaphonic Nick", worked as a disc jockey with Philadelphia's Jerry Blavat. He moved to Texas in the late 1950s to become a sports broadcaster.
Virgilio moved back to Camden following a bad love affair in Texas  and discovered haiku in 1962 in a book he found at the library at Rutgers University-Camden. His first published haiku appeared in American Haiku magazine in 1963, and he wrote thousands, many unpublished, during his 20-plus-year career. The death of his youngest brother Larry in the Vietnam War inspired some poignant and powerful haiku, and made his reputation as a haiku elegist. He is quoted by haiku author and book editor Cor van den Heuvel as saying he wrote haiku "to get in touch with the real".
|my dead brother...|
|hearing his laugh|
|in my laughter|
Virgilio experimented with the haiku form, trying several innovations that other American haiku poets were exploring, including dropping the traditional 5-7-5 syllable count in favor of shorter forms. He sometimes included rhyme in his haiku along with the gritty reality of urban America. A collection of his selected haiku was published in 1985. The second (expanded) edition appeared just months before his death and has been called one of the most influential single-author books in English-language haiku.
Virgilio became well known after a review on National Public Radio, and appeared often on that network as a guest commentator. He was a member of Camden's Sacred Heart Church and helped to found the Walt Whitman Center for the Arts and Humanities (now the Walt Whitman Arts Center), where he also served as its artistic director and poet-in-residence. Virgilio was a long-standing member of the Haiku Society of America and was the co-director of the First International Haiku Festival, held in 1971 in Philadelphia.
While Virgilio's classic collection, Selected Haiku, is out of print, Turtle Light Press published a volume in 2012 -- Nick Virgilio: A Life in Haiku—that features 30 of Virgilio's classic haiku, 100 previously unpublished poems, two of his essays on the art of haiku, an interview with him on Marty Moss-Coane's WHYY show, "Radio Times," a tribute by Michael Doyle, family photos and reproductions of some of his original manuscript pages. As Virgilio said in his interview with Moss-Coane on "Radio Times," "I try to make my life count for something. We all have these tragic experiences, and life basically is tragic, nobody lives happily ever after. So what I hope to do is to uplift it and bring it into the realm of beauty."
Until his death, Virgilio had a program on WKDN-FM, a radio station in Camden, NJ.
He died on January 3, 1989, of a heart attack while taping an interview about haiku for the CBS News Nightwatch television program. He is buried at Harleigh Cemetery in Camden. His well-known "Lily" haiku is engraved upon his gravestone:
|out of the water . . .|
|out of itself|
- Sokolic, William. "Approval sought for Writer's House", Courier-Post, December 14, 2014. Accessed August 3, 2017. "A vibrant person who graduated Camden High School, Virgilio visited Rutgers University–Camden in search of Chinese poetry and discovered Japanese poetry instead."
- A Life of the Poet, reprinted from the 1991 Nicholas Virgilio Memorial Book by Kathleen O'Toole and Dwight Wilson
- Nick Virgilio's Uncollected Haiku in the Nick Virgilio Poetry Project.
- Van den Heuvel, Cor (editor). The Haiku Anthology, third edition, p. xi. Norton, 1999. ISBN 0-393-32118-5.
- Trumbull, Charles. "The American Haiku Movement. Part I: Haiku in English" in Modern Haiku, 36:3, Autumn 2005.
- "Nick Virgilio, 60, Poet Known for His Haiku", New York Times, January 5, 1989.
- Campbell, Douglas A. "MEMORIAL DEDICATED TO CAMDEN POET FRIENDS OF NICK VIRGILIO RAISED MONEY FOR THE MONUMENT. YESTERDAY THEY READ HAIKU AT HIS GRAVE.", The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 24, 1991, p. B01. Accessed September 24, 2007. "Haiku, the poetry Nick Virgilio wrote, is filled with imagery. Yesterday at Camden's Harleigh Cemetery where, under heavy skies, a Virgilio memorial was dedicated by 100 friends, the images abounded."
- The Nick Virgilio Poetry Project at Rutgers University Camden Campus.
- Essay on Nick Virgilio by Rev. Michael Doyle, pastor of Sacred Heart Church, Camden, NJ.
- Nicholas A. Virgilio Memorial Haiku Competition for Grades 7-12 - Haiku Society of America.
- Nick Virgilio: A Life in Haiku - Turtle Light Press.
- Nick Virgilio at Find a Grave