Shel Silverstein: Many Had Heard, but Few Knew
Shel Silverstein wore many hats as an artist, and indeed wore each of them many times for many purposes. His artistic credits include poet, playwright, novelist, cartoonist, and musician. And though heavily utilized, each seemed invulnerable to the elements of time and age, nor did any ever seem to run dry of inspiration for his work. His contribution to literature began in Chicago, where he was born on September 25, 1981. Growing up, he watched in envy, the other guys his age who were gifted in athletics, and the ones who got girls. To combat his social and athletic shortcomings, he began to sketch and write. In the 1950’s, he started military service and was stationed in Korea and Japan. It was here that Shel was able to develop his craft as a cartoonist and writer for the Pacific Stars and Stripes, a military publication. In 1956, his work caught the eye of Hugh Heffner, who brought Silverstein on to the Playboy staff in the same capacity. Shel would work over forty years for Playboy, until his death on May 8, 1999. Over the twentieth century, Shel has become one of the most well-known authors for children, alongside Judy Blume, and Dr. Seuss.
Any one familiar with Shel’s work, knows that a solid description of his work is impossible. It can only be summed up by reading everything he has written. One can say for certain that the poems he wrote were not bound by any one subject. Nor were they all written for the same tongue-in-cheek effect that is inherently remembered when hearing Shel’s name. And one mustn’t dare say that Shel was just a children’s author without the proper sampling of his works. In fact, Shel has admitted that some time after his Playboy work had become popular, a friend gave him the idea to write for children and had to convince Shel that he was capable of it. In both his adult and children’s writing, Shel’s characters, imagery, and wordplay, traverse nearly every style of artistic expression, ranging from the surreal to the realistic and to the bizarre. It is unsurprising then, that Shel’s first major literary hit with children The Giving Tree was about a tree who gave pieces of itself to a young boy in order to make him happy, he until eventually, nothing was left. The title of one of his poetry anthologies Where The Sidewalk Ends also has an incredibly surreal image, as do many others.
Another one of Shel Silverstein’s great literary characteristics is the rhythm of his poems. Much of his children’s work, is crafted so that the rhyme scheme and the rhythm seem to increasingly intensify with the words becoming more and more urgent until the reader feels an explosive moment is about to occur when Shel throws in huge twist to the story that the poem is telling. This can be seen in the poem "Peanut-Butter Sandwich". In this poem, a fat king refuses to eat anything but peanut butter sandwiches and one day goes the extra mile in his obsession by ordering an extra-sticky one. Soon the king’s mouth is stuck shut and the bulk of the poem is describing how the many people in the king’s court attempt to free his mouth. As it is read, the words and rhythm seem to speed up and come to a boil. This is accomplished by describing the increasingly desperate and violent means the court uses to free the sandwich from the mouth. The attempts to rescue the king are also made more violent and edgy by the increased use of harder consonants in sound effects. And thus, the energy of the poem builds and builds until a huge climax seems imminent, but what comes is an unexpected turn which can be likened to a punch line effect.
Shel Silverstein did not always write poems about silly kings. In some cases, they were graphic, moving, picturesque, slices of life. These were meant for the adult audiences to enjoy. Much of the time, these poems kept a steady beat the whole and seemed not to build so much as in "Rosalie’s Good Eats Café". In this poem, the point of view is the author’s eye as he sits in a diner at two in the morning. The poem follows a simple structure of jumping from person to person inside and around the café; each person has a short, sad, verse. And while it maintains the same Silverstein wit, it certainly presents a different attitude and a different prospective from the writer’s pen.
Many readers wonder what Silverstein’s inspiration was for so many strange writings. Unlike many past poets, Shel was not enamored at a young age by reading the works as others. He simply created his own style, using the things he saw and combining them with his imagination. Shel has certainly left a great impact the artistic world, however. Not just in a literary capacity either. Shel’s poem was debuted in song form by friend and fan Johnny Cash at his infamous concert at Folsom Prison. Another band called "Dr. Hook and The Medicine Show", recorded an entire album of Shel’s songs and poetry. Shel himself has also recorded many albums, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 2002. In elementary schools, Shel is generously presented to students each year. Its humor and simplicity is perfect to stimulate the imaginations of millions of children. And even now, Shel’s work is the subject of controversy as critics debate its literary value for its simple use of language. Shel Silverstein has been reminding readers that poetry can be fun and easy, and still deliver the same amount of enjoyment again and again, and will continue to do so through its timeless and ageless appeal.
Kimmel, Eric A. "Shel Silverstein: Overview." Twentieth- Century Children's Writers, 4th ed., 1995. Literature Resource Center. Bracken Library, Muncie, IN. 29 November, 2003 <http://proxy.bsu.edu:2181/servlet/LitRC?vrsn=3&locID=munc80314&ste=1&n=10>
Mercier, Jean F. "Shel Silverstein." Publishers Weekly 24 Feb. 1975
Silverstein, Shel. A Light In The Attic. New York: Harper, 1981.
---. Falling Up: Poems And Drawings. New York: HarperCollins, 1996
---. Where The Sidewalk Ends: The Poems And Drawings Of Shel Silverstein. New York: Harper, 1974.