MAY 17, 2012
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 His family culled this collection from over 1,500 unpublished poems, yet at no point does the book feel like a slapdash posthumous book published for mere profit.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 me,
They chose me,
From all the rest,
Which is lots more than most kids can say.
Between countless comedic lines, Silverstein slips in thoughtful poems that open readers’ eyes and hearts. He’s educating ever so subtly. The back and forth interplay between pathos and humor give the work the unexpected turns needed to hold short attention spans.
Most of all, the work shows what a true Renaissance man and craftsman Silverstein was. His signature style became more and more actualized with each work. Silverstein always said in interviews that he had no formal training in poetry and this was what allowed him to be so free. His poems usually rhyme and follow basic rhyme schemes but Silverstein makes structure changes frequently and never gets too predictable. Reversal is one of his primary weapons. Close reads of his poetry show refined line-by-line dexterity. Check his virtuousity with wordplay in the poem “Small Zoo.” In 16 dense lines he rhymes couplets like, “The porcupine and the polliwog/the jungle lion and the croakin’ frog.” His witty rhymes and descriptive images fuse together seamlessly. Silverstein deploys lots of quatrains, alliteration, and simple rhymes that finish in clever punch lines. Verse after verse, there’s an underlying silliness. Flip to any page in the book; they all read aloud especially well. Another case in point is this six-line poem “Bottle Opener.”
Openin’ bottles with my teeth —
They all called me funny.
Openin’ bottles with my teeth —
Then they called me dummy.
Openin’ bottles with my teeth —
Now they call me gummy.
The accompanying illustration shows a man with a big mouth and only two teeth. Silverstein is particularly skilled at drawing odd, almost grotesque images in a playful manner that strips them of any threatening connotations. A Chicago native, Silverstein attended the Art Institute for one year, but, as with poetry, he was mostly a self-taught artist. He began publishing his illustrations in the early 1950’s in such magazines as Sports Illustrated, Look, and Playboy.
One of the longest poems in Every Thing On It is “Growing Down.” The ethos of the poem captures a central spirit of Silverstein’s work. It begins with the description of “old Mr. Brown, the crabbiest man in our whole darn town.” They called him “Grow-Up Brown,” and he’s known for his frown. The poem grows into a litany of questions and statements about growing down. For example:
Why don’t you run in three-legged races?
Why don’t you make weirdie faces?
Why don’t you smile Grow-Up Brown?
Why don’t you try growing down?
The poem continues on with absurd images of growing down as well as contrasting images of the original uptight ways of Grow-Up Brown. Irony is his structuring principle here. Undoubtedly, countless parents reading this poem will consider their own habits while being reminded of the virtues of growing down. Silverstein is teaching again and using humor to do it. The theme of the return to innocence is communicated clearly in this poem. The poem ends with a flourish extolling Grow-Up Brown’s change of heart:
He got his trousers torn and stained,
He ran out barefoot in the rain,
Shouting to all the folks in town,
“It’s much more fun, this growin’ down.”
Another poem in the middle of the book that is a direct message from Silverstein is titled,
“Writesingtelldraw.” The eight-line piece finishes:
I’ve drawn you a zillion pictures,
So being as fair as can be,
After all that I’ve writtensungtolddrawn for you,
Won’t you writesingtelldraw one for me?
Facing the end of his life, Silverstein began writing about his legacy. In another author’s hands, this subject could make a reader groan or wince or both. Yet Silverstein handles this topic delicately, with sentimental verses checked by sudden reversals in tone. His last poem is called “When I Am Gone.”
When I am gone what will you do?
Who will write and draw for you?
Someone smarter — someone new?
Someone better — maybe YOU!
Silverstein communicates his concern for his readers on every page. This final book puts an exclamation point on his distinguished career. The ancient Roman critic Horace wrote: “Poets would either delight or enlighten the reader, or say what is amusing and really worth using.” Silverstein adheres to this principle with unwavering loyalty. His ability to teach children about the ways of the world through his multidimensional poetry and illustrations make a powerful vehicle for learning. Simultaneously, the combination of his playful illustrations and comical verse form a fascinating image field. Silverstein is the trickster-teacher subverting children’s poetry in order to enlighten readers on multiple levels.