Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 464

The primary goal of “American Primitive” is to portray tragedy as central to human life, while at the same time lightening the load by using a humorous tone, one that is uniquely American. Smith’s narrator functions within a larger tradition of the self-reliant child, particularly the literary American child who demonstrates a resilience and strength of character equal to even the most difficult of situations. American literature and biography include a mythos of this child as stalwart and vigorous in the face of many tumultuous events—including those resulting from the Civil War, frontier settlement, the Great Depression, and so on.

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Although “American Primitive” borrows from a childhood incident in the poet’s life, the ballad quality of the poem derives from its portrait of the personal in the context of the societal. In this case, members of the crowd react to the suicide, expressing the emotions the child narrator rejects—women swoon and children cry out. While discovering a father’s suicide is not a common childhood experience, the loss of innocence is.

It should be noted that the poem is not entirely autobiographical—Smith’s father did not commit suicide. Smith writes in his autobiography Army Brat: A Memoir (1980) of a time when his father, a man whose gambling regularly disturbed the peace and security of his family, stayed out all night after payday. Having searched the local hangouts for him unsuccessfully, the boy and his mother returned home late in the afternoon to discover their porch riddled by bullet holes and Smith’s father asleep on the floor inside, surrounded by money won at cards. This event provided Smith with a catalyst for writing about a certain type of opportunistic American character, in this poem a father who comes off much like a carpetbagger.

“American Primitive” not only celebrates the American spirit but also represents Smith’s independence as he persisted in writing formal poetry during a time when free verse dominated the American poetry scene. In his first three volumes of verse, Smith published short, lyrical poems admired for their combination of elegant forms, clarity of content, and extraordinary verbal facility. Recognizing his accomplishment, the Library of Congress named him consultant in poetry from 1968 to 1970. Smith also drew lifelong acclaim for his interest and expertise in writing light verse and children’s poetry. He credits his involvement as a writer and editor of the latter with keeping imagination at the forefront of his writing and with helping him develop themes he used later in his adult poetry. The satirical tone he demonstrates in “American Primitive” and similar works has even been compared to the wit characteristic of classical Greek verse. Drawing upon these strengths, Smith has contributed to the reestablishment of humor as a valued asset in American poetry.

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