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Shel Silverstein

April 1, 2014

When I asked about poems to discuss (in honor of my 6th blogoversary), Freshhell requested any poem by Shel Silverstein, so I tried to decide which was my favorite. I ended up with about a dozen, including one or two from his “adult” poems. Then I had to think about what I like best about his poems– it’s the wordplay and shifts in perspective.

Shifts in perspective are most obvious in poems like “Point of View” and “Who does she think she is.” In “Point of View,” the narrator ends up by saying he “stopped and looked at dinner/From the dinner’s point of view.” In “Who does she think she is,” the narrator asks a zebra “Are you black with white stripes?/Or white with black stripes?” and the zebra responds:
Are you good with bad habits?
Or are you bad with good habits?
Are you noisy with quiet times?
Or are you quiet with noisy times?
Are you happy with some sad days?
Or are you sad with some happy days?
Are you neat with some sloppy ways?
Or are you sloppy with some neat ways?

Simply playing with perspective results in some of his best poems, like the “Snowball” (it “ran away/But first—it wet the bed”), “Don the Dragon’s Birthday” (“watch him blow the candles…on.”) and “Falling Up”:
I tripped on my shoelace
And I fell up—
Up to the roof tops,
Up over the town,
Up past the tree tops,
Up over the mountains,
Up where the colors
Blend into the sounds.
But it got me so dizzy
When I looked around,
I got sick to my stomach
And I threw down.
This is fun for kids because everything is backwards, and I think it’s typical of Silverstein that an adult will get an extra dimension of wordplay from the phrase “threw down.”

“Stone Airplane” has a different kind of shift in perspective. Rather than the perpetually perky tone of the children’s author, in this poem we get a pinch of fatalism:
I made an airplane out of stone…
I always did like staying home.

Then there’s the comic perspective of “How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes,” which leads right into the cautionary tales of Uncle Shelby’s ABZ book:
If you have to dry the dishes
(Such an awful, boring chore)
If you have to dry the dishes
(‘Stead of going to the store)
If you have to dry the dishes
And you drop one on the floor—
Maybe they won’t let you
Dry the dishes anymore.

The other thing I like is the rhyme, which is itself a kind of perspective—it wraps everything up at the end of a section of lines, making the ideas seem finished and incontrovertible. Silverstein uses this in some of his “adult” poems like “Never Bite A Married Woman On the Thigh,” where the way the lines grow and the rhyme falters echoes the growing sense of menace:
Never bite a married woman on the thigh oh my
Cause she just can’t rub it off no matter how she’ll try
And when she gets home at night her man will ask her why
Then she’ll say it’s just a birthmark or some other silly lie
But he’ll get suspicious and then he will start to pry
Then she’ll get hysterical and she will start to cry
And he’ll say I don’t blame you but tell me who’s the guy
So she’ll admit to everything and he will say bye-bye
And he’ll buy an airline ticket and he’ll fly across the sky
And then he’ll come and find you and he’ll punch you in the eye
Then he’ll rent a cheap motel room and he’ll hang himself with his tie
And when she gets the news she’ll take an overdose of sleeping
Tablets and she’s gonna lie on the couch and die
So never never never never never never never never bite a married woman on the thigh

The wordplay, too, takes a darker turn in poems like “Masochistic Baby” when the narrator says “I got nothin’ to hit but the wall” and then ends with:
Nothin; to beat but the eggs
Nothin’ to belt but my pants
Nothin’ to whip but the cream
Nothin’ to punch but the clock
Nothin’ to strike but a match.

Perhaps my favorite is “God’s Wheel” from A Light in the Attic, because it has all of the things I like best in a Shel Silverstein poem:
God says to me with kind of a smile,
“Hey, how would you like to be God awhile
And steer the world?”
“Okay,” says I. “I’ll give it a try.
Where do I set?
How much do I get?
What time is lunch?
When can I quit?
“Gimme back that wheel,” says God,
“I don’t think you’re quite ready yet.”

This poem blends the best of the perspective shifts in his poems for children and the seeming order of rhyme in the poems for adults to produce what Silverstein recommends to others in “Put Something In,” which is to “put something silly in the world/That ain’t been there before.” Something silly that can make you think—that’s a hard note to hit, and Silverstein can hold that note.

What’s your favorite Shel Silverstein poem?

16 Comments leave one →
  1. April 1, 2014 8:45 am

    Thank you! I love all of these and all of his poems, really.

    • April 3, 2014 3:59 pm

      Glad you liked the sampling! It is hard to pick just one.

  2. April 1, 2014 9:54 am

    I love Shel Silverstein! I actually performed one of his poems (ice cream flavors) for a speech competition in middle school. There are so many wonderful ones, but there’s one in his last collection “Every Thing On It” that I loved.

    A spider lives inside my head
    Who weaves a strange and wondrous web
    Of silken threads and silver strings
    To catch all sorts of flying things,
    Like crumbs of thoughts and bits of smiles
    And specks of dried-up tears,
    And dust of dreams that catch and cling
    For years and years and years ….

  3. April 1, 2014 4:39 pm

    I love Silverstein! It’s been a while since I read him so thanks for the reminder. I have no idea which of his poems is my favorite, I like so many of them it would be hard to choose just one.

    • April 3, 2014 4:01 pm

      It’s good to revisit childhood poems sometimes; glad you enjoyed the reminder.

  4. April 2, 2014 11:07 am

    You know… I am not sure if I have ever read Silverstein… Maybe if my reading gets on track this month I should check him out and see if I remember anything!

    • April 3, 2014 4:02 pm

      I think his most famous collection is Where the Sidewalk Ends, so that might be the place to start.

  5. April 3, 2014 3:16 pm

    My son loved his poems when he was young. I just read Johnny Cash by Robert Hilburn and learned Silverstein wrote songs too.

    • April 3, 2014 3:59 pm

      Yes, Johnny Cash used Shel Silverstein’s poem “A Boy Named Sue” as the lyrics for one of his most well-known songs!

  6. April 4, 2014 4:58 pm

    Oh I like that last one, ‘God’s Wheel’. It’s so simple and yet so clever. Yet another poet I had never heard of… you are a wonderful education for me.

    • April 4, 2014 5:12 pm

      Glad to hear it! Silverstein is one of those authors who is much more popular on this side of the pond.

  7. April 6, 2014 5:31 pm

    My Silverstein favorites tend to depend on my mood, but the first one that ever really stuck with me was this one, from ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends.’ I think I heard that phrase from my mom more than just about any other.


    Mama said I’d lose my head
    if it wasn’t fastened on.
    Today I guess it wasn’t
    ’cause while playing with my cousin
    it fell off and rolled away
    and now it’s gone.

    And I can’t look for it
    ’cause my eyes are in it,
    and I can’t call to it
    ’cause my mouth is on it
    (couldn’t hear me anyway
    ’cause my ears are on it),
    can’t even think about it
    ’cause my brain is in it.
    So I guess I’ll sit down
    on this rock
    and rest for just a minute…

  8. April 7, 2014 9:50 pm

    A thousand hairy savages, sitting down to lunch,
    Gobble, gobble, chomp, chomp, munch, munch, munch

    • April 8, 2014 9:24 am

      There’s really nothing like a good rhyming couplet, is there?!

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