Jessalynn Van Ausdall

The Art of Mirthless Haiku: Bob Boldman's Style

Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2001

Jessalynn Van Ausdall



The Art of Mirthless Haiku: Bob Boldman's Style

During the course of this class, Bob Boldman has struck me as one of the most interesting and real haiku authors we have studied. His poems are usually very brief, even for haiku, but I have never encountered an author who can make his point in so few words. I have also never come across such an array of dark haiku. Rarely are his poems about anything upbeat. Instead, his poetry is solemn and usually inconsolable. In an email he referred to his work as "the nether regions of haiku." However, they are so carefully and cleverly written that I can't help but enjoy them.
Take this haiku for example.

touching the ashes of my father

It is composed of only one line and yet the emotion is right in the reader's face. There is no question of the moment and the mood in this poem. In my opinion, this might be the gravest haiku I've read. The reader can hear the torment in the words. Normally I am not a fan of one-line haiku. It is very difficult to carry a feeling with only one line. Yet Boldman adds just the right words to set the mood of the poem. It is unmistakable.

According to the short bio. on the back of his one published collection, Bob Boldman is from a country area close to Dayton, Ohio. He went to Wright State University and studied the fine arts. The last thing I have found about him, he was completing a degree in Respiratory Therapy. He has studied Taoism and Zen, which paved the way for his writing of haiku. He has only published one book of haiku entitled Walking With the River. The last information I found he was living in the city of Dayton, Ohio.

It is not really a surprise that the majority of Boldman's poems are not very cheerful. He works in a hospice with what he calls "the dying." He is also a therapist for physical respiratory. Boldman has been writing for over fifteen years. He has a love of the one-line haiku. "[My haiku] are one line, in reference to twentieth century Japanese haiku, rather than imitative of Bashô."

Recently he has written a new collection of haiku. Every single one is one line long. Unfortunately, the collection has not been published so I have not been able to read them but he says they are the best haiku he has ever written. He goes on to say, "I've bought many anthologies and collections over the internet and have found little to rejoice in—by far our most competent writers, of which there are probably ten, are echoing Bashô—which I love." He is a big fan of the works of Matsuo Bashô which, in my opinion, is a good trait to have as a haiku author. Yet he says he thinks twentieth century haiku is very important. It goes back and pays attention to life, which is what haiku is really all about.

Boldman uses the idea of Zen Buddhism when writing his poems. He pays attention to nature and tranquillity which is something that many modern haiku authors tend to overlook. They pay more attention to the mood of their poem. Boldman can masterfully do both tasks. "Buddhism persay, is not important, but the ability to look, feel, and directly apprehend without overtly intellectualizing seems to be the heart of the matter." His poems are both about nature and a certain sad emotion. They are very brilliantly written.

The aspect I enjoy most about Bob Boldman's writing is his playfulness with words. This is how he manages to pack so much into so few words. He has a lot of metaphors and figurative language. Using that, he can not only evoke an emotion, but also paint a vivid picture of the scene he is describing. This is exactly what haiku writing is about. Haiku are supposed to show the reader a scene, whether it be nature or otherwise. I like his style of haiku very much compared to some other authors we have looked at.

Now I want to show a few examples of Boldman's lovely, yet some of them somewhat dark, poems.

face wrapping a champagne glass

This is one of my favorites in the sense of his ability to create a picture of the moment. With only one line I could see my face reflecting in a glass, but that's not all. The idea of it being a champagne glass gives the reader the idea that perhaps he is at a fancy party. I see several people in a ballroom dancing and having a wonderful time. Meanwhile Boldman is lonely and drowning his sorrows in alcohol. Instead of looking into the face of another person like so many others at this party are doing, he is merely looking at himself. Not only does this one line paint a picture, it also sets a tone. It is a tone of loneliness and emptiness that must be filled with champagne. In just a few words like "face" and "champagne glass," Boldman has captured an entire evening. This type of writing is not easy.

the winter sun       broken
by the blinds   

This is another haiku that shows a complete scene. I don't know if it's my imagination or his style of writing but I can even picture the place where this is happening. In the grade school I attended, I was always getting into trouble. I remember sitting in the classroom alone banging erasers while my classmates were having recess. Most of the time it was during the winter because that is when I get the most restless. Anyway, there were big old fashioned blinds blocking the light of the sun. I would always open the blinds to see the sun and watch the children playing. The sun would feel warm on my face and I would long for summer. I think Boldman was feeling the same thing. It's a feeling of being trapped inside because of the cold. The sun shines in and gives you an illusion of warmth. Winter is my least favorite month. I get the emotion from Boldman of desperation, and of course the picture in my mind is very precise because of the way the poem is written. "Broken by the blinds" is the way he words it. It's a beautifully written poem.

the deceased monk's bed
each night wrestling with the image
he left there

This is one of the poems Boldman wrote that was never published. It is also a great example of the darkness of his writing. In my writing in this class, I strive to have the same usage of language that he does. Instead of saying something trite like: "of him" he uses a clever phrase: "he left there." It's figuratively implying that this monk intentionally lest some eerie shadow of himself to haunt whoever might live there next. It is a definite painting, and it also gives us an example of the ghosts by which Boldman seems to be tortured. It's a creepy haiku. What is the image he left there? It is certainly a dark way of imagining a monk's chamber.

Boldman also seems to have something against the first day of the new year. He has three very bleak poems describing it. Here they are in order from lightest to darkest.

jan. 1
                      the corpse of a crow whitens the snow

I found this one to be quite interesting. I was confused by the way he indicated that the crow's body was whitening the snow, but I interpreted it this way. Obviously Boldman is not a fan of winter just as I am not one. Instead of the crow adding color to the scene, it simply adds to the bleakness Boldman feels during the winter months. It doesn't matter what color the animal is. It symbolizes death which apparently to Bob Boldman, is colorless. Boldman has painted a portrait with his words and made a strong statement of his feelings toward the bitter cold and death of winter.

the fingers of the prostitute cold

This one feels a little more hopeless. Boldman's mood in almost all of his poems is abundant and shows us the point of view we choose to ignore or look down upon just because we don't understand and that is what is easiest for us to assume. It's a wonderful poem.

new year's eve:
searching the cemetery for the grave
i want to sleep in

This is by far the darkest of the three. Instead of it being about the new year, it is about the moment just before it. However the emotion is still the same. This is one of his haiku that has not been published. Clearly the new year is not a joyous occasion for this man, but a forlorn set of events. Of course we all feel this way once in awhile. I recall the last new year when I read this poem. I spent it alone in my childhood bedroom with a bottle of champagne. It was the loneliest new year celebration is have ever had and hopefully will ever have. Boldman takes it a step further, wishing for death before facing another year. It is a powerful and extremely unnerving emotion.

Finally, I believe that Boldman's strategic spacing in his haiku does a great deal to set the tone. A fabulous example of this is another one of my favorites. This one contains all the elements that make a great haiku.

out on the St.
                                              at sunset
                     i wear        my father's face

I really love this haiku. It doesn't have a mournful tone but most definitely a solemn one. I don't personally know the feelings that bond a father and son but I do see how it gives both parties a powerful emotion. The spacing is certainly strategic. Boldman purposely puts pauses where he wants them. I also like the way he spells the word "street." In stead of spelling it out, he abbreviates it. This way we get a picture of the city. If he had spelled it out, the reader would have felt unclear as to where this man is. This poem is intelligently put together.

Boldman is without a doubt my favorite of all the haiku authors we have examined in class. I aspire to write in a way that is similar to his style. He was all the vital elements necessary to write his poems beautifully. Even though the majority of them are quite dismal, he paints a lovely picture and projects an unmistakable mood into the eyes and hearts of his readers. I hope to see more of his work soon.

—Jessalynn Van Ausdall


©2001 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors