The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

William Jay Smith’s “American Primitive” is a contemporary ballad of three quatrains describing the scene of a suicide in the voice of a child narrator. Smith’s title warns the reader that the poem may engage with unsophisticated content, be untrained in style, or perhaps even be crude in nature. Both content and style fulfill this promise, as a tragic scene is revealed in bits and pieces that contribute to a growing sense of mystery and horror. Only gradually do readers come to understand who and what is “primitive” in this American scene, but the issue is heightened by a compelling sense of urgency in the voice of the narrator. The child seems almost to shout the rhyming lines in defense of “my Daddy.”

The poem’s first stanza begins with a directive: “Look at him there in his stovepipe hat.” The character being described wears not only a fine hat but also high-topped shoes and a “handsome collar.” Such clothing takes the reader back in time, associating the character with a much earlier era when gentlemen were thus dressed. The child’s loyalty emerges in the line, “Only my Daddy could look like that,” a proclamation that the father is exceptional, very much to be admired. The child goes on to declare love for the father, love equal to the way the father loves money: “And I love my Daddy like he loves his Dollar.” Thus emerges a conflict of values, a representation of a segment of American culture in which concern with...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Much of the impact of the poem derives from its musical quality; an accentual rhythm and a set of simple rhymes create a sense of stability that asserts control over the tragedy being described. Ballads are often short and generally structured in four-line stanzas, as is the case with “American Primitive.” The meter of a ballad is clearly heard, and in this case the rhythm of a jump-rope rhyme is also woven in. The poem begins with a dactyl, the stressed first word, “Look,” followed by the unstressed “at him.” This combination calls forth the understood subject “you” to command the reader’s involvement. With the next accent on “there” the line continues with the unstressed “in his” equal to the previous “at him.” The line ends with three heavy stresses, “stovepipe hat.”

Smith has enjambed the meter of a traditional ballad by placing the usual second-line trimeter at or near the end of many lines without a line break. This produces a jumpy or staccato effect, a series of short jabs that provoke an incongruous display of power in the narrator’s voice.

The accentual rhythm combines with an even rhyme scheme in making the poem a ballad. The rhyme pattern is initially abab, proceeding to cdcd, and returning to abab in the final stanza. In the essay “A Frame for Poetry,” which appeared in his volume of selected criticism The Streaks of the Tulip: Selected Criticism (1972),...

(The entire section is 470 words.)