The contemporary American poet Tracy K. Smith published "The Universe as Primal Scream" in 2011. The poem's speaker describes the experience of hearing two young children scream as loudly as they can in an upstairs apartment—apparently just for the sake of screaming. The sound of these “primal” shrieks leads the speaker to meditate on the fundamental nature of everyday life, as well as on the fact that so much of the world, the universe, and human existence remains mysterious and unknown. The poem was included in Smith’s collection Life on Mars, which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
5pm on the ...
... shrill and metallic.
First the boy, ...
... up and see
Whether it is ...
... on the floor.
Maybe the mother ...
... To such might.
Perhaps, if they ...
... Like Elijah.
If this is ...
... we inherit approach.
Whether it is ...
... like a furnace.
I'm ready ...
... us with grief.
Wizard, thief, the ...
... short lives clean.
How mean ...
... Come for us.
And the kids ...
... Upon being born.
Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.
Tracy K. Smith Reads the Poem — Listen to Tracy K. Smith read "The Universe as Primal Scream" in this audio and video recording from the Academy of American poets.
Biography of Tracy K. Smith — Learn more about Tracy K. Smith's life and work in this brief biographical article from the Poetry Foundation.
Pulitzer Prize Citation for Life on Mars — Life on Mars, the collection in which "The Universe as Primal Scream" was published, won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Read the citation for the award on the Pulitzer Prize website.
Interview with Tracy K. Smith — In this interview with The Iowa Review, Tracy K. Smith discusses the collection Life on Mars and what poems most inspired her as a young poet.
Article about the Hubble Space Telescope from NASA — Smith's book Life on Mars was written, in part, about her father, who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope. Read this article from NASA to learn more about the telescope and some of its discoveries.
15pm on the nose. They open their mouths
2And it rolls out: high, shrill and metallic.
3First the boy, then his sister. Occasionally,
4They both let loose at once, and I think
5Of putting on my shoes to go up and see
6Whether it is merely an experiment
7Their parents have been conducting
8Upon the good crystal, which must surely
9Lie shattered to dust on the floor.
10Maybe the mother is still proud
11Of the four pink lungs she nursed
12To such might. Perhaps, if they hit
13The magic decibel, the whole building
14Will lift-off, and we'll ride to glory
15Like Elijah. If this is it—if this is what
16Their cries are cocked toward—let the sky
17Pass from blue, to red, to molten gold,
18To black. Let the heaven we inherit approach.
19 Whether it is our dead in Old Testament robes,
20Or a door opening onto the roiling infinity of space.
21Whether it will bend down to greet us like a father,
22Or swallow us like a furnace. I'm ready
23To meet what refuses to let us keep anything
24For long. What teases us with blessings,
25Bends us with grief. Wizard, thief, the great
26Wind rushing to knock our mirrors to the floor,
27To sweep our short lives clean. How mean
28Our racket seems beside it. My stereo on shuffle.
29The neighbor chopping onions through a wall.
30All of it just a hiccough against what may never
31Come for us. And the kids upstairs still at it,
32Screaming like the Dawn of Man, as if something
33They have no name for has begun to insist
34Upon being born.