Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly commentary feature on some of your favorites among the best contemporary haiku and senryu written in English. This week’s poem, chosen by Ann Smith, was:traffic jam my small son asks who made God — Peggy Willis Lyles To Hear the Rain (2002), p.57
Introducing this poem, Ann writes:
I love this queueku – this chicken and egg ku, and love the contrast between the small boy and his huge question.
I imagine the parent’s reaction to the traffic jam and the son’s reaction to the parent’s reaction and the parent’s reaction to his reaction and the ensuing conversation for which there will be plenty of time.
And I would love to be a fly inside the car listening to this parent in a jam in a jam.
Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings…
A fine classic senryu by Peggy Lyles, forerunner of many where an innocent child is the vehicle for a tricky question, a flash of philosophy, an unaffected emotion… In re:Virals 329 we had “dead hamster / my son invents / a religion” (— George Dorsty, The Heron’s Nest VI:7 2004), and the latest I’m aware of is “shooting star — / my child asks / where God came from” (— Michael Dylan Welch, tsuri-doro issue #16, July/August 2023). Small children characteristically engage our fond attention and so it is in these small poems.
Humorous, human, typical — and revelatory. The punch is left to the very last word. Parents had better be prepared, lest they jam up! Who made God or what happened before the Big Bang, there’s no answer that will convince an inquisitive child of anything other than that a parent is fallible. By my fifth, I would buy time with “…interesting question. What do you think?”
A favorite poem by one of my favorite poets.
What makes the awkwardness so acute — and, let’s face it, so very funny — is the setup in L1 which clearly conveys that there’s no escape for Peggy from addressing her young son’s innocent question. (I’m being presumptuous here about the narrator’s identity since, in the Introduction to her 2002 collection To Hear the Rain where this poem appears, Peggy referred to her haiku as “pieces of the story of my life.”)
The tables are turned between the generations in this similarly structured and no less awkward/hilarious more recent poem by Joe McKeon:
dad asks what I know
(The Heron’s Nest, June 2018)
Two delightful takes on two of life’s great mysteries!
The mind-boggling questions of child to parent while driving in a car! “How many times have you and Daddy had sex?” “Who made God?” Simultaneously, the centrality and prolific nature of the question of “Who made God” can cause a traffic jam as all the travelers lean in to learn an answer at that moment! The closeness of “my small son” and “God” is poignant to me.
I sure do admire such a curious and sensitive young boy who would ask such a question so I made a list of responses to his question in case we meet one day and they are:
I think God was just really good at hide and seek. He’s been hiding since forever, and no one has found Him yet.
God’s actually a distant relative of the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. They all hang out at the mythical creatures’ family reunion.
God made Himself out of leftover stardust and a pinch of magic. He’s the ultimate self-made deity!
“Well, you see, God was just a typo in the cosmic spellcheck. They meant to type ‘Dog,’ but it got all mixed up.”
“God? She’s just an ancient alien playing a cosmic video game, and we’re all part of Her Sims world.”
“God’s like the ultimate imaginary friend that the universe made up to keep itself company.”
You know, it’s a family secret, but God’s great-great-great-grandma was a magic chicken.
On the outset, this reads like a simple “location/moment” haiku. The speaker is in a traffic jam (location) and their child asks a philosophical question about man’s relationship to the universe (moment). Standard, simple, elegant.
Only this isn’t just any poet, but Peggy Willis Lyles, so the presentation and craft here is what needs to really be analyzed.
“traffic jam” is an interesting choice of location. It’s a visual image, to be sure, but also an auditory (horns, breaks, etc.) and olfactory (smells of gasoline, diesel, etc. ) For me, this is also a kigo, as it implies one of those nasty Summer travel jams that’s three or four lanes wide with no stopping. There’s an oppressiveness to this location, too. Already, we, as readers, are slowed.
The second line is what gets me. There is no easy way to rush this line. The sibilance forces the tongue to move slowly, to savor each word, further drawing out the tension in the poem. This is a beautiful line, with lots of alliteration (Small Son aSkS), but that makes it difficult to rush. This is intentional, because Lyles wants us to take our time through her poem. The pacing is part of the imagery, and the longing for movement.
The last line “who made God” is one of those wonderful childlike questions that really cuts to the heart of humanity. Personally, both of my children loved to ask these little koan/truth bombs and just break the entire car out into existential dread, so props to this kid. “made,” again, is a word that causes a pause in the reader. Obviously, if God is “made,” then the maker has more power than the omnipotent deity, which is problematic in a few ways, as far as religion goes. So the question itself is meant to catch the reader off guard.
Overall, while folks may try to analyze the poem from “traffic” and “invented god” perspectives, the real standout is Lyles’s pacing. There is no way to read this poem quickly without it sounding forced and awkard. It must be read at a slow pace, and forcing the reader to pursue that speed forces them to engage with every word. In a location/moment haiku, this is key, as the toriawase requires a bit more effort on the part of the reader to put together. By slowing readers down with her very specific word choice, Lyles has forced them to give themselves and the poem enough time to create the moment.
‘Who made God’ — and I shall take the honour to answer this before I too get caught in the child’s innocence. If we knew the answer, wouldn’t it been so easy to call His parents and question the road movements and the ‘traffic jam’.
What a masterstroke poem! The tendency of children to continuously ask ‘who, why, what, where, how’ is in itself a learning platform for parents. I totally sense the child getting a bit impatient to reach his/her destination and the ‘traffic jam’ not allowing this. Usually they would even say that if it were they, the roads would have been cleared by now. But I enjoyed the fact that kids are questioning the impossible and the reasoning becomes too tough to tackle. Also the fact that kids are being exposed to many old and new cultures and traditions and this awareness is the winning quotient. And yet after so many years of this poem being published, have we got the answer to this question? This will remain immortal and with more generations to come, the kids will continue asking …
Loved each line and the equal balance of words sum up this poem. So light and so genuine, can we take this to be ‘karumi’ ? I can very well picture the poet in the middle of a road block going to school and ‘being late’ getting on her nerves.
Sometimes the questions of children catch us off guard with their disarming depth. This is one of those times.
I can easily picture the author’s young son strapped into his carseat in the backseat of their car, pondering the universe while paused in a traffic jam. He might have been looking out the window at a cathedral when the question came to him. Or just a stream of consciousness chain of thoughts that led him to ask.
The language of the poem sets the first line apart from the next two. The first line is jarring with the tr-ff-hard k sounds of traffic and the hard start to jam. It’s nearly onomatopoeic. The next two lines are soft and smooth, with the ms of my, small, made, all the eses in small, son, asks, and the oo in who. There’s a gentleness to lines two and three that match the youngness of the child and the loftiness of the question. This is one of those poems that will linger with me for a very long time.
This poem is an interesting combination of enigmas and juxtapositions. The traffic jam, a creation of man and machines into chaos juxtaposed against the sentient and the epitome of clarity: god. But the poem takes it further in the last line with the question “ who made god” suggesting external intervention by someone / entity that can create god and this seemingly anomalous suggestion also induces a spiritual depth at a different stratum like the god understood by humans may be limited to our own limitations. The best part is the middle line which double-emphasizes with “ small son” who raises an honest but deep question in the middle of chaos in a vehicle which is a receptacle of motion with the simplicity of a god.
This senryu brings us to an innocent question by an innocent (and intellectual?) observer, “Does God exist?” “If yes, why is there a traffic jam?” (Traffic jam is a non-seasonal kigo in the World Kigo Database).
The same can be applied to many situations in the world – wars, natural disasters, accidents and mishaps, morbidity and mortality. Why do all these show their presence? If there’s a God, can’t all of this be solved in one go? Even simple things like, “Why does it rain only when I’m about to leave home?” My daughter asks me, “Why doesn’t God just let it snow once here? I’ve been praying for it all the time.” (We’re in South India where there’s no snowfall and she wants to experience it here in her hometown).
Did God make man or did man make God? However, will there be a balance if all prayers worked as per each one’s wish? Can the world be one big happy place?
A mother and her young son are stuck in traffic. From the boy comes a startling question. What precipitates the boy’s non sequitur? He is likely (“my small son”) between the age of four and seven, a concrete stage of cognitive development Jean Piaget characterized as full of questions and capable of symbolic play (a broomstick becomes a play horse). Perhaps the boy asks so many questions about what caused the traffic congestion that in a fit of pique, his mother fires back, “God made it,” followed by the boy’s comeback, “Who made God?” Or, with traffic at a standstill, the boy’s mind also comes to a halt, and from that interior stillness — “Be still and know that I am God” — arises the precocious query about God’s origin. How many life-altering inventions or Nobel prizes have their genesis in one person’s simple question?
As readers, we are in the car with mother and son. We hear the question and are tacitly invited to give the boy an answer, as best we can, keeping in mind that at his age, abstractions and metaphorical thinking are several years away, according to Piaget. How do we answer the boy’s question? This poem is a timeless gem that floods the heart with wonder at the wisdom of young children and the ineffable mysteries of creation.
Maurice Nevile: enlisting the reader:
I remember well one of my sons asking as a child, “Dad, you know how last week you told me all about sex?”, and when I answered cautiously “yes”, he continued, “well this week can you tell me all about binoculars?” As adults we can dread such questions from children, often conscious that we don’t always have the answers, or at least answers in a form that’s clear and helpful. In this poem a “traffic jam” prompts the “small son” to ask one of THE big questions, “who made God?”: who or what is the original ‘maker’, the source of anything and everything? By referencing the question in the last line the poem highlights its asking, not the answer, and so effectively enlists the reader in the response. What would we say, or are we too busy to answer, holding our place in the constantly moving traffic of demands and activities of life? The poem’s observation of a child’s significant question captures the sense that even ordinary moments can offer us the chance to reflect (and act) on the grand questions of life, or of our own lives. And perhaps we’re especially prompted by situations of uncertainty, like a traffic jam, when we must stop and wait, when we’ve lost control, and when our plans and expectations are frustrated. If, like a child, we’re less burdened with negotiating life’s ‘traffic’ then maybe we can be more open and able to ask.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. Among several worthy contenders, Maurice wins the palm. He 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!
Poem for commentary:broken Wedgwood the bowerbird collects another piece — Gavin Austin Echidna Tracks #7, Light and Colour, June-September 2021
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A revered exponent of English Language Haiku, deservedly, Peggy Willis Lyles (1939 – 2010) has a legacy bio at the Living Haiku Anthology. Many of her haiku and senryu can be freely accessed online here. Recommended.
I think Scott has the nub of what makes Peggy’s verse still stand out from later ones of the kind.
Following commentary from Lisa Germany received after the deadline:
“As a follower of the Stoic philosophy, this haiku intrigued me.
I imagine parent and child stuck in the car together. The parent muttering their frustration (implied by “traffic jam” simply stated), but the child unfazed. After all, small children are always being carted around the place without concern for time or knowing they are on a schedule. All the child knows is that they have uninterrupted access to their parent and so this is the perfect opportunity to ask one of their many questions – one perhaps prompted by what they’ve overhead while they’ve been stuck in the car.
I can see two outcomes:
1) yet another question in the seemingly never-ending stream of questions children ask simply exacerbates the frustration of the parent
2) the question gives the parent pause in their frustration and reminds them of the bigger picture. That they can choose how to react in this situation (a very Stoic idea). They can be negative and focus on the traffic jam and the delay it is causing (the existing, negative condition), or take advantage of the time that has suddenly become available to engage fully with their child.
I believe it is the second outcome, as the free-flowing last two lines suggest a more relaxed mind compared with the terseness of “traffic jam”. ”
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