SHEL SILVERSTEIN FANS can make a joyful noise because these 145 never-before-published poems make a delightful book, the first posthumous volume for the prolific cartoonist, playwright, poet, performer, and songwriter (he wrote the Grammy Award-winning song "A Boy Named Sue" for Johnny Cash). Silverstein died in 1999, just shy of his 70th birthday, after writing more than 20 books and achieving countless accolades. His books have sold over 20 million copies, making him one of the best-selling poets of the 20th century. His family culled this collection from over 1,500 unpublished poems, yet at no point does the book feel like a slapdash posthumous book published for mere profit. Its cohesion suggests that Silverstein masterminded much of it before he left; there are several poems that hint at his eventual passing, particularly the last one in the book, which I'll quote later. Every Thing On It is aptly titled because it is a culmination of Silverstein's long career. He distills wisdom on every page.
To use Coleridge's phrase, Silverstein's work possesses "organic unity," wherein all the parts mutually support each other for a cohesive whole. His aesthetic strategy translates quickly because most of the poems have an accompanying illustration. His dexterity in pen and ink sketches, coupled with his humorous and precise verse, form that potent image-field children need to be entertained, and Silverstein's work crosses enough realms to remain relevant in the digital age. This book carries on the standard Silverstein established with Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic. The first poem, "Years From Now," sets the tone for the entire work.
Although I cannot see your face
As you flip these poems awhile,
Somewhere from some far-off place
I hear you laughing — and I smile.
Silverstein is the eternal trickster figure, employing irony and reversal frequently through his work, fashioning poem after poem with unexpected endings. The trickster figure has functioned in mythology as one who disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior for an ultimately positive outcome — the trickster figure acts as an equalizer. To take it further, Silverstein's a trickster-teacher who uses the nursery rhyme form and turns it on its head. Silverstein frequently employs the element of surprise with the useful outcome that his poems teach children the uncertainty of the world.
His realism, deftly infused with comedy, registers on both the literal and allegorical level. "Tiny Footprints" is an eight-line poem accompanied by a drawing of a large dinosaur with very small feet. The closing lines read, "Tiny footprints are not always/Made by tiny things." Many of his poems reveal a deeper metaphysical insight. The poem "Jake Says" is about an adopted boy. Silverstein enlightens and teaches in one of the book's most powerful pieces:
Yes, I'm adopted.
My folks were not blessed
With me in the usual way.
But they picked...