Global Haiku
Millikin University, Fall 2014

Olivia Cuff on Ruth Yarrow

Olivia Cuff

Olivia's Haiku

Childhood Through Ruth Yarrow’s Haiku Eyes

Olivia Cuff

Originally, what drew me to Ruth Yarrow’s poetry was a haiku published in The Haiku Anthology. Flipping through the book, I found one that caught my eye due to the punctuation, but as I read it, over and over and over, I loved it even more. The haiku is as follows:

after the garden party     the garden

Ruth Yarrow, The Haiku Anthology, 311

I enjoyed this haiku so much because it gives me this fun image of someone who was brought up in this high society life, but just does not seem to fit in. She is not a social butterfly who wants to know all the right etiquettes and throw her money around to prove she is better than others. The garden party she is attending is drawing toward the end, so everyone is leaving, and finally at that moment, she sees the beauty of the garden.

As I continued to read more of Ruth Yarrow’s work, I found that although she did focus on the beauty of nature, she also has a tendency to focus on the beauty of life; to be more specific, the exploration of childhood. It seems as though she bases a lot of her haiku regarding the exploration of childhood around her own daughter’s birth and early childhood. I believe this because when her Ruth haiku mention a certain gender, they are always in the female form. This would make sense that they are based around her own daughter because one of the things we have talked about in class is where inspiration strikes. Although Yarrow may have just simply come up with haiku regarding early childhood, I doubt that is the case. I believe she used her daughter as a muse, in a way, to write haiku about babies, toddlers, and young children. It would be the most understandable reason for why she wrote on this topic, and why she wrote so well on it.

I want to begin with her haiku based around babies and work up the ladder of early childhood, in the order of aging. In The Haiku Anthology, there are a few baby haiku. The first one listed is:

sunrise path:
at each step the baby’s shadow
releases her foot

Ruth Yarrow, The Haiku Anthology, 312

The haiku perfectly reflects the focus, from an adult’s standpoint, of a baby’s life. By this I mean that Yarrow has chosen to focus on the little, miniscule moments of a baby, such as a baby’s first steps. It may be a simple task, but it is actually considered a big milestone in a baby’s learning and is something that every mother remembers.

I read this haiku as though it is the baby first learning how to walk; the point where a baby can stand but still needs to hold onto an adult’s hands to walk. The baby is taking steps down the park path at sunrise and sees her shadow. Not understanding it is her shadow, she begins lifting her foot to stomp on the shadow, to explore the shadow. This then results in the shadow’s foot being lifted or released. She is walking into the sun, thus she sees her own shadow.

This interpretation is not what I imagined originally. I had to read it over a few times to understand how the baby would be moving, why they would be moving, and whether or not they acknowledge the shadow. Yarrow obviously has an image in her mind of how the haiku plays out, but she does not detail the baby’s walk, allowing the reader to interpret as they please.

Moving onto to a small booklet of Ruth Yarrow’s work entitled “No One Sees the Stem,” I found a somewhat sad but common thing for parents to understand and deal with while raising a baby. This booklet does not provide page numbers, but it lies somewhere near the middle of the booklet. The haiku she wrote is as follows:

feverish baby—
faster than we rock
she breathes

Ruth Yarrow, No One Sees the Stems

This haiku is probably one of the most relatable and upsetting haiku for any parent to understand. Babies get sick often, yet the inability to communicate with the baby to understand how to make him/her better or relieve the pain is impossible. The only option is to call the doctor and hope that whatever the doctor says to do will work.

I can see Ruth and her husband, rocking their baby girl after she has just finished a very long crying fit due to being in pain. They both realize she has a fever, but other than the realization of it, they know there is not too much they can do. Medicines help, but only so much. As they rock her, they can tell her breathing pattern is picking up; she is trying to fight the illness, and to compensate, her breathing intensifies.

Although this type of moment is very miniscule compared to other illnesses throughout a person’s life, as well as accidents, but as a new parent, it is terrifying. The last thing a new parent wants is to see their baby in pain. As parents, they are the protectors of the baby, yet there is only so much that they can do.

This next haiku is the last of the haiku I have chosen that I believe to be on the topic of babies. The haiku I chose is from a book of haiku all written by Yarrow, once again without page numbers. The book is entitled A Journal For Reflections. I found many interesting and beautiful haiku in regards to the topic of the beauty of early childhood, and this book features some really well done haiku following that topic. The last haiku of the “baby” section is:

hot rock by the stream
each of the baby’s toeprints

Ruth Yarrow, A Journal For Reflections

The visual image presented by this haiku is both playful and beautiful. I can just see this baby exploring the water for the first time outside of the bathtub, trying to understand where to move and how to move. Babies are natural explorers, trying to understand this new world they have entered just as of recently. To take on a stream is both adventurous and something a baby would love to explore.

I can see this baby, most likely Yarrow’s child, walking along the edge of the stream, following the moving water along the bank, but at the same time trying to avoid the strong rush of water that could easily knock her over. As she moves farther and farther down the stream, stepping on damp sand, the light-weight baby leaves miniscule and very light footprints. These footprints fade either due to the water washing over them or the fact that they did not leave a deep indent. Either way, it does not matter to the baby. She is out exploring the stream.

Now to move onto what I consider to be the “toddler” section of Yarrow’s writing. This specific poem can be taken as either a baby or a toddler, but I personally saw it as a toddler. This haiku, also from A Journal For Reflections, reads:

        low winter moon:
her cheek curves the shadow
          of the crib bar

Ruth Yarrow, A Journal For Reflections

I almost imagine this as a child in transition from baby to toddler stage, embracing their crib for one of the last times. The crib is a protection for a baby, a place where they are safe from the danger of falling out of bed. As a toddler, it is still a protection, but something that they are ready to leave behind to be more like their parents by having a real bed. The toddler stage is when children start to take on more adult-like aspects, less of an exploration and more of an imitation.

As I said, I see this as a transition, so the child is still holding onto what is left of the “baby phase.” She is embracing the crib by following the lines of the crib bar’s shadow with her cheek, letting the bar be a protection instead of a confiner. I also love how Yarrow describes the night, by using the phrase “low winter moon.” It really helps to set up the calm, peaceful moment that the toddler is in. She is in comfort, the winter moon hitting at a perfect angle that soothes her and allows her to embrace her last moments in the crib.

The other haiku that I found to relate to the toddler stage actually uses the word toddler in the poem, so there is no way to mistake the stage of childhood. Found in the same book as the previous haiku, the poem is as follows:

the toddler stirs her reflection
           with one mitten

Ruth Yarrow, A Journal For Reflections

Although I did say that the toddler stage is less of exploration and more of imitation, it does not mean that toddlers cannot explore the world. All it means is that exploration is not the number one concern of a toddler. However, at this moment in this haiku, it is all about exploration. After all, it is discussing how the toddler is observing her reflection due to the snow melting.

Up until this stage in a child’s life, seeing and exploring snow has been more about understanding snow and trying to figure out how it works. Finally at the toddler stage, a child is able to explore the world and nature more in depth. In this haiku, the little girl is noticing that she can see herself in the ground, in the reflection of the melted snow. Unlike before, when the snow was solid, she could only see the white color of the clumped together pile of snowflakes. Now, she is looking at the snow, knowing that it is no longer the same, and wants to solidify what she is seeing; thus she takes her mitten and swishes the melted snow puddle. She is now seeing herself for the first time in a “mirror” that she had never expected to have before. I can imagine that there is still some snow surrounding the puddle she is looking at, which adds to her confusion of the puddle being there, yet another possible reason for her to stir her reflection. It is a very playful and sweet haiku, which perfectly ends her section on toddlers.

I want to now move on to my very last section of early childhood haiku, as I have organized them. These poems happen to also be the largest section of haiku. Not such a surprise though, seeing as this stage of childhood is much longer than the baby and toddler stages. Usually this stage, which is called the “preschool” stage, is a lot more active. Children are exploring in more depth than they have before, trying to understand the world around them; they are constantly asking questions, while attempting to have some sort of independency. The first haiku I want to look at is an exploration and imitation haiku:

iguana photo—
slowly the child spreads
her own five fingers

Ruth Yarrow, A Journal For Reflections

I find this haiku to fit so well in the preschool category. I imagine Yarrow’s daughter in preschool, flipping through a book on lizards just as her mother is arriving to pick her up. She sits down next to her daughter and is told to look at a certain picture. The picture happens to be an iguana, to which the daughter tells her, “Look mom. We have the same hands.” She puts her hand on top of the iguana’s hand in the picture book and spreads her fingers as far as they will go, coming to the point of straining her fingers.

Children in the “preschool” stage are all about imitation, more so than toddlers are. This is the time when children love to place house, superheroes, doctor, and more. This haiku is no exception. Preschoolers love to imitate anything that they love, in this case animals. By spreading out her fingers to match the iguana, she is imitating the look of the iguana. She is intrigued by the way the iguana’s webbed fingers are able to spread out in a way that she has never seen before. A new discovery like the iguana is something so very common for children of this stage, and Yarrow puts it so perfectly simple in this haiku.

Another haiku from the earlier part of this age range is as follows:

the child’s eyes
from the broken cup
                     to mine

Ruth Yarrow, A Journal For Reflections

Up until this point, the haiku have been very light and happy, with an occasional slightly sad haiku in regards to the parents. However, this haiku is based around the sadness of the child. I can just see this child being absolutely heartbroken after having not only having messed up by breaking a cup, but by doing so in front of her mother. I can just picture these eyes widening in both terror and shock, staring down at the disaster she has just made. She then looks at her mother, once again terrified, but also worried. She is unsure how her mother is going to react. At the same time, she is beating herself up over the incident, the worst kind of punishment a child could have.

All parents understand that children make mistakes. They break things, make messes, and cause commotion. Parents expect that their child is going to make a mistake, that they will break something or make a mess. It is very common for this sort of thing to occur, but that is something a child does not realize. A small thing like dropping a cup is a terrible moment in their life that they believe will send them to time-out for eternity, whereas most parents would simply brush off the idea of broken cup and clean it up themselves, making sure the child is as far away from the broken pieces as possible. The child’s eyes in this haiku are the soul to the poem. It is what allows the reader to be sucked into not only the text, but the visual aspect of the story.

These last two haiku are what I would consider the upper end of the “preschool” age, so between four and five years old. The first of this subcategory is:

small girl’s sleep deepening
the hammock’s curve

Ruth Yarrow, A Journal For Reflections

I can perfectly imagine this little girl, after a long day of playing in her backyard with her friends, lounging on her family’s hammock right after the last friend left. She refuses to go inside because she wants to enjoy the outdoors and the summer time while it lasts. She has convinced herself and her mom that she has enough energy to stay outside and play on the hammock, so her mother allows her, but watches from the backyard porch. For a few minutes, she swings back and forth on the hammock. Soon, she begins to slow down and eventually ends up passed out on the hammock, just as her mother had expected.

What I really enjoy about this haiku is how Yarrow describes the girl’s body in the hammock. Instead of saying that the small girl’s body is what deepens the dip in the hammock, it is her intense sleep that is doing it. Yarrow uses the sleep as a solidified object by using it as a weight. I also enjoy how she uses the curve of the hammock. Her wording for this haiku is on point, especially seeing as it is only a two line haiku.

The final haiku for this category, as well as the final haiku I will be discussing, is one I had originally found in The Haiku Anthology. Although this is not the haiku that drew me to writing on Ruth Yarrow, it is the haiku that interested me in discussing her outlook on childhood and the beauty of it. Her haiku reads:

before the sled moves
the little girl’s already

Ruth Yarrow, The Haiku Anthology, 314

This is possibly the happiest haiku that Yarrow has written on this topic. I have an amazing image of this little girl sitting at the top of the hill, huddle on her circular sled, gripping for dear life onto the handles. She sees her dad coming up behind her and she knows he is about to give her the big push she needs to move down the hill and glide over the glistening snow. She squeals out of excitement for her 1st or 2nd or possibly 25th trip down the hill.

I think that of all of haiku I have discussed this haiku is the most relatable haiku in regards to almost all of us know what it is like to slide down the snow on a cheap, plastic sled. It does not matter how old you are, sledding is something everyone enjoys at some point in their lives. It is a rush of excitement from moving so quickly, but is also an entertaining and fairly safe activity to partake in during the winter season. Yarrow was able to make every haiku relatable, but this one stands apart from all the others.

The greatest thing about all of Yarrow’s childhood haiku is that every single haiku in every single category is relatable and something everyone has experienced before, whether it is as a parent, an older observer to a child, or even the child themselves. These are common experiences that we as people all go through as children because at that young of an age, we do not have people directing or persuading us to a path that we do not want to go down. As children, we are explorers and imitators. Children do not seek to please everyone, only the people that really matter in their lives. In fact, young children will make complete fools of themselves without even knowing they are doing it. That is what is so great about childhood and is exactly what Yarrow is able to wrap up in her haiku. She takes these simple moments that we tend to overlook once they have passed in our lives and allows us to reflect back on these common aspects in everyone’s life.

She also knows how to create a beautifully picturesque image that draws a reader in without any sort of flashy wording or punctuation. Although she does use colons every once in a while, that is not the focus of the haiku; the focus of the haiku does not lie in the reason as to why she chose to add a colon where she did. She creates these simple but beautiful images by using the natural beauty of youth and the innocence that comes from it. Yarrow is not aiming to make a reader gasp or get goose bumps, but to reminisce on their past or possibly look to the future of raising a child. The haiku on the beauty of childhood are just that; they are meant to acknowledge and illuminate the beauty that comes from childhood, because it is something she recognized as amazing and knew others would too.

• • •


Works Cited

Yarrow, Ruth. A Journal For Reflections. Freedom: The Crossing Press, N.d. Print.

Yarrow, Ruth. No One Sees the Stems. High/Coo, 1981. Print.

Yarrow, Ruth. The Haiku Anthology. Ed. Cor Van Den Heuvel. New York: Norton Paperback, 2000. 310-315. Print.

© 2014 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors
last updated: November 12, 2014