The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 442

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.”

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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 money outranks parental obligations to care for the child. Subtle suggestions in the style of the language and in the limited content contribute to the reader’s sense that something shady or even illegal has happened.

After creating a visual image of the father and establishing the young narrator’s loyalty in the first stanza, the poem moves quickly through the remaining two stanzas. Readers hear a screen door that sounds “so funny” when it bangs and see coins littering the floor “in a shower of gold” and folding money extruding from the pockets of the father. The suicide is revealed almost casually as readers learn that the father’s lips are blue and his hands are cold. In the final stanza the father “hangs in the hall” as “ladies faint.” The ending of the poem repeats the comparison that the child loves the father like the father loves money. The poem utilizes death to portray forcefully that necessary yet disappointing stage of maturation in which children must confront their parents’ fallibility and mortality. The narrator’s feverish gaiety suggests just how painful this stage can be.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470

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), Smith explains that he had originally included many stanzas (actually verses or “ballad bits”) in the style of a “Mississippi River guitar tune—absolutely mechanical in its rhythm.” Rhythm and rhyme in “American Primitive” combine to form a tightly bound structure, creating a flat innocence of style that contrasts ironically with the horror of the scene.

Further contributing to the irony of the poem, Smith’s narrator speaks in the vernacular. The child refers to a “stovepipe” rather than a man’s tall silk hat. The shoes are “hightop” rather than high-topped. Occurring as they do in the first stanza, these expressions alert the reader to a dichotomy—the upper-class clothing of the father is not matched by the child’s diction. Later in the poem, the father’s pockets are “stuffed” with paper money and the reader hears the children “holler.” The vernacular language used in the poem was common in the American South where Smith grew up; Smith has even been known to read the poem using a southern accent.

Although “American Primitive” is often mistaken for a quickly written creation, Smith was not satisfied with it until he hit upon the verb “hangs” for the first line of the last stanza, “He hangs in the hall by his black cravat.” This is an example of Smith’s repeated assertion that “poetry is all in verbs, in verbs and nouns.”

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