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Analysis of Poem 'The Universe as Primal Scream' by Tracy K. Smith

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith and a Summary of 'The Universe as Primal Scream'

'The Universe as Primal Scream' focuses on family, being human, mortality and our universal identity. It's a poem that takes the reader away from the mundane and everyday and into the bigger picture, via the screams of children.

The emotional reaction to children screaming is explored through personal perception and imaginative thinking, before the speaker finally concludes that, well, we're so small and insignificant when compared to a God or the infinite depth of space.

  • The all-important word is primal—the first, basic, original—here in the poem related to the basic human instinct, screaming.
  • It's the specific screaming of children that reaches into the speaker's psyche and arouses the need to seek some kind of meaning out of what is essentially an unknown. The rational stirred into action by the primal urge.

On the page it initially looks formal and neat—four stanzas, three with nine lines, the final one with seven—which suggests a job half-finished, life fading away suddenly, torn, incomplete.

There are 34 lines, free verse so no rhymes, a prose-like syntax (how clauses and grammar fit together) and much use of enjambment (where lines have no punctuation at the end, which helps build momentum as the reader follows one line into the other with hardly a pause).

The language, and diction, move rapidly from the ordinary to the figurative and back again, from description to philosophical questioning, the speaker hearing children cry at the beginning and using this as a platform to spring into thoughts on family, life and the ideas of heaven and universal power.

The main theme is the human need to search for contextual identity, our role in life, the notion of a God, a higher authority. Using a first-person speaker to think through the consequences of children crying for attention, the poet offers the reader both biblical and metaphorical imagery for guidance.

Tracy K. Smith, mother, American laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner and established teacher, published this poem in her book Life on Mars in 2011. In an interview with Ezra Klein for Vox in 2020, she gave her views when asked the question: 'What language is poetry?'

'Poetry is the language that sits really close to feelings that defy language. Poetry nudges some of our feelings of joy or confusion or desire toward feelings that we can recognize and describe. I take solace in the fact that it’s poems that we turn to in big moments of change — like the loss of someone or a marriage or the birth of a child — because poems are resourceful for finding terms that remind us of what we live with but don’t always bring into speech.'

'The Universe as Primal Scream' by Tracy K. Smith

5pm on the nose. They open their mouths
And it rolls out: high, shrill and metallic.
First the boy, then his sister. Occasionally,
They both let loose at once, and I think
Of putting on my shoes to go up and see
Whether it is merely an experiment
Their parents have been conducting
Upon the good crystal, which must surely
Lie shattered to dust on the floor.

Maybe the mother is still proud
Of the four pink lungs she nursed
To such might. Perhaps, if they hit
The magic decibel, the whole building
Will lift-off, and we'll ride to glory
Like Elijah. If this is it—if this is what
Their cries are cocked toward—let the sky
Pass from blue, to red, to molten gold,
To black. Let the heaven we inherit approach.

Whether it is our dead in Old Testament robes,
Or a door opening onto the roiling infinity of space.
Whether it will bend down to greet us like a father,
Or swallow us like a furnace. I'm ready
To meet what refuses to let us keep anything
For long. What teases us with blessings,
Bends us with grief. Wizard, thief, the great
Wind rushing to knock our mirrors to the floor,
To sweep our short lives clean. How mean

Our racket seems beside it. My stereo on shuffle.
The neighbor chopping onions through a wall.
All of it just a hiccough against what may never
Come for us. And the kids upstairs still at it,
Screaming like the Dawn of Man, as if something
They have no name for has begun to insist
Upon being born.

Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of 'The Universe as Primal Scream'

First Stanza

The first-person speaker is acutely aware of her immediate environment. She knows the exact time when the children start to scream. Perhaps this is a regular occurrence, perhaps a one-off, but the idea is that the noise is exceptionally loud.

That word primal—the first, the earliest, the initial—takes us back in time to basic human functions, our instinctual beginnings, our first attempts to bridge the animal/human gap.

Note the descriptions, detailed, of the sound of screaming, two children letting rip in the apartment above. This is seriously distracting. Ask anyone who has held a screaming baby close to and they will confirm the life or death scenario . . . a baby is so loud because they demand attention, their lives depend on it.

This first stanza introduces the reader to the speaker's emotional reaction whilst also articulating a rational idea, absurd as it may sound: Are the parents conducting some kind of experiment, getting their kids to scream high and loud, enough to shatter crystal glass? Good crystal mind, not low quality.

Second Stanza

Hyperbole features strongly in this stanza, the speaker somewhat exasperated by the children's continued screaming. She exaggerates and gets into figurative language by imagining the roof of the building being taken right off by that 'magical decibel' the children hit.

In addition, there's biblical allusion too, the building becoming a kind of vehicle in which to reach heaven, like Elijah, the prophet, who was whisked up to heaven (Book of Kings 2) in a whirlwind following the arrival of firey horses and chariot.

This line of thought is pursued further, the imagery becoming intense and unreal, sky changing to blue, red, gold and finally black, representing heaven, a metaphor for the universe, screamed into reality by the children Mother must be so proud of raising.

Third Stanza

This stanza expands on the idea of heaven, each line suggesting something a little different, alternatives to the traditional Christian view of heaven. Could it be inhabited with the dead, in robes; could it be space going on and on, a furnace (which suggests heaven might be a kind of hell?), a father, a wizard, a thief?

The speaker says she is ready to meet whatever heaven might be, whatever power exists beyond the material and mundane world. Just think, all this imagining, all these different scenarios coming about because of the children's screams.

How small and insignificant we humans are, implies the speaker towards the end of this stanza, which, through enjambment slides on into the final stanza, shorter than the previous.

Fourth Stanza

The stereo, onions being chopped next door—what are these things in the context of a divine or mighty overseeing power? The universe certainly can make us feel puny and pathetic.

Yet still, the children scream, despite these philosophical meanderings. This noise is so insistent it's as if something new and strange is about to take shape, a new emotion which might demand a new word being coined.


© 2021 Andrew Spacey


Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on January 25, 2021:

Many thanks for the visit and comment, Audrey.

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on January 25, 2021:

I enjoyed your analysis of this poem. Each stanza expands on some of my own thoughts. Thank you and stay safe.