Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly commentary feature on some of the best contemporary haiku and senryu written in English. This week’s poem, proposed by Ann Smith, was:
merely a lake
flowing into a lake
— Maxianne Berger
The Haiku Foundation Haiku Dialogue, 23 November 2022
Introducing this poem, Ann writes:
I adore waterfalls. I think they are magical and inspirational. I have visited a waterfall in Canada but not Niagara. I visited Lake Louise around Easter time when the lake and its waterfall were frozen and quite beautiful.
I love the understatement in this verse and the use of the word “merely” — then the thunder of the last line.
Looking forward to see what others make if it.
I’m delighted that Ann picked this one out, as so did I when it appeared in the Dialogue. I commented there briefly: “ ‘merely’ is an apposite choice for two meres. But this word connected to a wonder of nature neatly prompts some expansive meditation on the nature of wonder.”
On first reading, some might quibble that the first word reads a tad too “authorial,” but not I. The statement “merely a lake flowing into a lake” invites challenge rather than submission; investigation rather than the acceptance of doctrine: that’s the guile of it.
We extol the beauties of nature, the mountains, the rivers, the lakes, the forests, the oceans, and their inhabitants. But what are they, really? — rocks, water, wood, life forms….. Do, say, squirrels feel (in squirrel): “Wow! Look at THAT!!!”
With this one word, Maxianne poses the question, gently and with a little haikai humour. Is Niagara merely a lake flowing into a lake, or something which transcends that? Is it only within us that the transcendence occurs? I returned to this haiku a number of times in keen contemplation. I haven’t got an answer.
Could this be a classic to add to the canon?
Here, I notice the article ‘a’ repeated twice along with the word lake. There is assonance too. At 4-6-5 syllables this poem describes lake Erie draining into late Ontario. The Horseshoe Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and American Falls – all three combined, have the highest flow rate of any waterfall in North America that has a vertical drop of more than 50 metres (160 feet). Horseshoe Falls is the most powerful waterfall in North America, as measured by flow rate. Niagara Falls is famous for its beauty and is a valuable source of hydroelectric power.
The haiku goes from something tranquil to something very turbulent and powerful. Is there a life message hidden in here? Maybe.
Even the smallest of creatures can have utmost potential hidden within them. The realisation needs to happen to utilize the inner power.
While at university and more recently while here in Beijing until the parks were put off limits, I would enjoy a stroll around a lake on the weekend. There is something about circumnavigating a body of water on foot that gives me an almost sense of self achievement. Lakes themselves are an oddity. Either as a natural occurrence or as man-made constructs they are that continuous piece of shoreline joining with itself and in many cases wonderful havens for nature. It is also very apparent to me how lakes have become a sort of physical muse for the haijin. For many reasons, it is not so difficult to see why. Lakes also feel like ripping mirrors, punctuated with ducks and reeds; perhaps, we see our own perturbations too.
I feel the poem belies the idea that a lake is unremarkable implied by the repetition of “lake” with the use of the indefinite article. The speaker intimates this could be any lake and perhaps any waterfall.
And of course there is a kind of snobbery when it comes to waterfalls. Niagara Falls may not have quite the resplendent majesty of say Iguazu, straddling the borders of three south American countries: exotic far-away lands. I visited about ten years ago and I remember it as being like stepping into a landscape painting.
In the summer of 1969, Niagara Falls ran dry. Or rather the US army dammed the river in part they could remove some stray boulders; in doing so they revealed a cache of coins and to their shock two dead bodies. It goes to show there is so much beyond the surface of the seemingly moribund.
To add to this, you could easily forget or simply not know, that the Falls is geographical channel between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario; with a leviathan of water flow of those quite literally Great Lakes, among which is the largest freshwater lake in the world, flowing along this confluence into the Gulf of St Lawrence along the St Lawrence river. For me, the simplicity of a haiku is to effectively express a powerful sentiment.
It seems nature has the gift to do so too, without thought.
re:Virals: is Niagara Falls merely a lake flowing into a lake?
ChatGPT: No, Niagara Falls is not a lake flowing into a lake. It is a group of three large waterfalls on the Niagara River, which flows from Lake Erie into Lake Ontario. The Niagara Falls are located on the border between the United States and Canada and are a popular tourist destination known for their great beauty and power. The Niagara Falls are a natural wonder and are a source of hydroelectric power for both countries.
Can there be poetry in the statement of a simple fact? This is the question that this haiku asks.
Indeed, Niagara Falls is a natural entity that separates two lakes. This haiku is highly poetic to me in its way of stating things. Fistly, the lake that flows into a lake… just simply. How can this be? The reader will ask him/herself that question which resolves in an answer: Niagara Falls. The haiku answers a question that it just asked. So, is there ‘ma’ in this? Is there enough space for the reader? I think there is, in a sense. Indeed, this haiku let me reflect on movement and stillness. Between two states of immobility there will always be movement, change.
This haiku offers its own view on the concept of impermance and yet, blended with the concept of permanence. Change versus no-change. Niagara Falls will remain maybe for a long time, longer than a human life. It has been there for millennia.
By delving into this reflection I start to associate Niagara Falls with my own life. This haiku turns Niagara Falls into a metaphor. Of course it is not a senryu but, for me, it creates a resonance that many senryu provoke when I am reflecting on them. Not the traditional senryu with humor but the ones that make you go in a deep state of reflection, almost a philosophical one.
I realise now I didn’t even mention the form of the haiku. There is rhyme, of course, with L1 and L2 and I love that. It works perfectly in context. The repetition adds a metaphorical power, in my opinion. It deepens the state of meditation as a mantra can do. The kireji is after L2 or is it? I think it can almost work, if we re-read it several times with a pause after L1. Then, in that case, we have:
merely a lake (ellipsis implied)
flowing into a lake:
It is like a grammatical inversion, like the ones we often do in my own language (French)
All in all, this haiku, which didn’t appeal to me at first, is becoming more and more an object of contemplation for me. I wish to become the lake, the stillness, seijaku in japanese. But I know that to reach this I need to go through change. As Heraclitus said: “Change is the only constant in life”
Accepting that can be a goal in life.
I am soon to be travelling to Iceland. On my way I may see some huge waterfalls. I will remember to contemplate them and then maybe, with my eyes shut, forget the I.
Namaste, Maxianne Berger
Every now and then someone comes up with something so simple that you go: oh yes, why didn’t I think of that? Very likely, there’s greatness in it. Delicious haiku that made me think and smile!
Jennifer Gurney — a watershed experience:
Maxianne’s depiction of Niagara Falls in her beguiling haiku has really got me thinking. Hers is one of those poems that turns something I’ve known one way all my life on its head – and made me revisit it wholly anew.
I was really young the first time I saw Niagara Falls. Growing up in Michigan, it was a lovely family outing one weekend when my grandma visited. I remember being pretty blown away by the sheer enormity of the falls. I think I was 4 or 5 at the time. That was the US side, which later I learned is the “touristy-cheesy” side. Later, on a choir road trip with my friends, I experienced the Canadian side and was blown away anew. I was 14 or 15, so a decade later. The experience was entirely different to see Niagara Falls from the Northern perspective. And much prettier from the more natural side. So much so that it felt like a different place. Although I could see the other side and remember it, albeit in the reverse.
Maxianne’s haiku has given me yet a third perspective on this landmark. When she steps back from the proverbial edge of the Falls and looks at it from a metaphysical perspective, it gives flight to her poem. When you think of it her way, Niagara Falls really is just a lake flowing into another lake. Kind of … big whoop, right? Like saying the Eiffel Tower is bits of scrap metal. But when you step back to the edge of the Falls and experience it first-hand, it is truly marvelous to behold.
In a way, her poem reminds me of when I first encountered pointillism. I was in sixth grade and my teacher introduced us to the art genre. Then we tried our hand at a 1-inch by 2-inch pointillism painting of our own. Mine was of a tree and it took me nearly an hour. I still have it. I was struck by how intricate and challenging it was. The next weekend I visited The Art Institute in Chicago with my family and had a watershed experience. When I saw Sunday In The Park by Seurat, I was transfixed. I kept walking up to the giant painting to see the dots, then back to see the whole painting. I sat on the bench and absorbed it whole. I even cried at the beauty of it. I kept wondering: how did he DO that? Paint it up close with dots, yet create this beautiful masterpiece? I had a long talk with my parents, and later with my teacher, about this. My teacher was visibly moved by my grasp of the soul of the painting and remarked that she had rarely, if ever, known a student so young to fully understand this concept. She – and Seurat – had hooked me. completely. It was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with art.
This haiku creates a new perspective on Niagara Falls that is like pointillism in a way. Inviting us up close to examine, experience, think, feel, wonder. And then step back to absorb and reflect in wonder. Seeing a natural wonder wholly new from 15 syllables: priceless.
Author Maxianne Berger:
I’m honoured that Ann Smith selected my haiku for comment. I wrote this poem following a Haiku Dialogue prompt by P. H. Fischer, which I interpreted as requesting a fully-in-the-moment experience during one’s travels. In my life I have experienced several eureka moments … not me solving a problem, but my being in awe of an explanation, and of the explanation being so incredibly simple. This haiku is based on one of them.
I have twice been to Niagara Falls. The first time, when we got very close to the base, as we bobbed in the mist, the guide’s voice on the loudspeaker penetrating the roar said, simply, “ladies and gentlemen, this is Niagara Falls.” No adjectives quite succeed in conveying the power of the experience. There was no need for the guide to say more. Many years later I read somewhere that the Falls result from Lake Erie flowing into Lake Ontario. Oh! Of course! It’s simply a question of magnitude! Simply. Only. Just. Nothing more than! The first word of the haiku, “merely,” is a gimme. I love playing with meaning, and of course, a mere is a small lake ☺ — Happy holidays! Maxianne
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Jennifer has chosen next week’s poem, which you’ll find below. We invite you to write a commentary to it. It may be as long or short, academic or spontaneous, serious or silly, public or personal as you like. All with respect for the poet. Out-takes from the best of these take their place in the THF Archives. Best of all, the chosen commentary’s author gets to pick the next poem.
Anyone can participate. Simply use the re:Virals commentary form below to enter your commentary on the new week’s poem (“Your text”) by the following Tuesday midnight, Eastern US Time Zone, and then press Submit to send your entry. The Submit button will not be available until Name, Email, and Place of Residence fields are filled in. We look forward to seeing your commentary and finding out about your favourite poems!
fourteen billion years
that’s all it took
to make today
— H. A. Sappho
Cold Moon Journal, 19 April 2022
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Montrealer Maxianne Berger is a widely-published haiku, tanka and haibun poet of long standing. Co-editor with Mike Montreuil of Cirrus: tankas de nos jours for six years, book reviewer for Tanka Canada’s Gusts and for Haiku Canada Review, and a judge of the 2022 Vancouver Cherry Blossom contest, Maxianne is the author of four books of poetry and co-editor of three anthologies, one of haiku and two of tanka. She experiments with erasure and other techniques of constraint, and her book of haiku derived from Moby Dick, Winnows (Imago Press, 2016), may be read in The Haiku Foundation’s Book of the Week.
During the year at least 25 haiku or senryu proposed for commentary by winning commentators in re:Virals were first published this year, 2022. The process means that they are subjected to a level of analysis and appreciation by several contributors which is out of the ordinary. In the light of this, approval has been sought and received to nominate a small number of 2022 poems that have appeared in this feature for consideration for the Touchstone Awards for individual poems, and for the Red Moon Anthology. Those nominated are:
Touchstone and Red Moon:i am i am not the darkness between subway stations
— Frank Dietrich
Frogpond 45:2 Spring/Summer 2022
Commentaries at: https://thehaikufoundation.org/revirals-368/
—Today our story starts with cherry blossoms.
— Chloe Chan
Honourable Mention, Sakura Awards, Youth section, Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival 2022
Commentaries at: https://thehaikufoundation.org/revirals-372/
—garden party the brief appearance of butterflies
— Bryan Rickert
Stardust Haiku issue 61 January 2022
Commentaries at: https://thehaikufoundation.org/revirals-365/
—merely a lake flowing into a lake Niagara Falls
— Maxianne Berger
The Haiku Foundation Haiku Dialogue, 23 November 2022
Commentaries at: https://thehaikufoundation.org/revirals-378/
In addition, for Red Moon:nuclear threat the chickadee chirps the chickadee chirps
— Françoise Maurice
Haiku in English, The Mainichi, 27 June 2022
Commentaries at: https://thehaikufoundation.org/revirals-354/
—dipping her hat in a desert stream the years wear on
— Victor Ortiz
Acorn #48, spring 2022
Commentaries at: https://thehaikufoundation.org/revirals-347/