Ruth Yarrow: American Haiku Master

By Mike Dillon

Ruth Yarrow in her Rainier Valley garden (photo by Mike Dillon).
“Don’t explain,” sang Billie Holiday. A good haiku won’t. They lie on the printed page like carved runes found on the tundra: plainspoken, vivid and yet somehow numinous. As death approached, the Japanese haiku master Basho—after a lifetime of practice—said he’d only managed to write a handful of genuine haiku. When a haiku happens, it’s as if an archer hits the bull’s-eye. Try this one by Ruth Yarrow, an esteemed, English language haiku poet who lives in the Rainier Valley:

        the baby’s pee
        pulls roadside dust
        into rolling beads
                —from “The Haiku Anthology”

Hailing from upstate New York Yarrow, 71, has a master’s degree in ecology from Cornell University. She and her husband, Mike, spent their careers teaching at the university level before moving to Seattle a dozen years ago. Education runs in her blood: Yarrow’s father was a professor of German and French. The Yarrows love to backpack in the Olympics and Cascades; Yarrow’s watercolor paintings hung on their living room walls, testify to the alpine scenes they’ve frequented. Yarrow’s love of nature has childhood roots. “Taste this,” her mother said on hikes, holding out an offering from the natural world. “What bird is that singing?” her uncle would ask her. These days, when the Yarrows head into the mountains, the poet takes a short pencil and 3-by-5-inch cards in a sandwich bag stuffed in her pocket, ready for whatever haiku might unfold. But haiku is not just about nature anymore, as the above haiku shows. “There’s a danger writing a lot of sweet haiku, to not think one can’t encompass the whole human experience,” Yarrow said. “I appreciate it when people stretch the form—the real stuff.”
Today, the form is being stretched in English like never before. Learned essays and books are being written about the minimalist poetic form, which came into its own in 17th-century Japan equipped with strict rules. English-language haiku practice has moved beyond the three-line, 5-7-5 syllable form. Today’s English-language haiku are usually shorter and more flexible. Yarrow discovered haiku in the early 1970s, when she was teaching at Stockton College in New Jersey. On the curriculum: how other cultures look at nature. Yarrow brought in someone who knew Japan. “It sharpened my awareness,” she remembered of her introduction to haiku. “It makes you write so that the reader is stepping into your shoes.”
Yarrow is a Quaker and peace activist. She and her husband have worked with Physicians for Social Responsibility and Fellowship of Reconciliation. “I push people to bring in the bigger world and not be afraid to bring in politics,” she says of haiku composition. “We’re too comfortable. Though one of her most famous haiku resonates with yearning and comfort, it could only have been written by one who doesn’t take life for granted.

        warm rain before dawn:
        my milk flows into her
                —from “The Haiku Anthology”

As for her peace and justice work, does she get discouraged? “Yes, but the best antidote to discouragement is taking what action you can. I cling to what Martin Luther King Jr. said about the arc of history bending toward justice.” Yarrow is a member of Haiku Northwest, a group that meets once a month, gives honest feedback and is always open to new members. Of the haiku practice, Yarrow said, “The form is very short, but it can encompass the whole of life if we’re aware and work at it.”

        touching the fossil—
        low rumblings
        of thunder

Published in the October 27, 2010 issue of City Living Seattle (, pages 12, 14 (see This article also appeared in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, Capitol Hill Times, North Seattle Herald-Beacon, and South Seattle Beacon. Reprinted here by permission of Mike Dillon.