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.)