The Magazine

It Could Be Verse

The unexpected poet among us.

Jan 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 17 • By ELI LEHRER
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Although it is told in the simplest language, the poem offers a good deal worth mulling over. The use of the word “mama” (a babyspeak term that few over seven would use) and slightly odd phrasing (why “scratchy marks” rather than “scratch marks”?) indicates that the speaker might be barely out of diapers. In this context, the final lines become particularly haunting: Why is mama crying? Is the father dead? Was there a divorce? Something else? The whole experience of reading and rereading the poem is thought-provoking and discomforting. It does just what poetry should and offers precocious young readers a level of complexity that can interest them in poetry itself. It may not be the sort of thing that made him popular—it’s certainly not funny and may not appeal to very young children—but it shows a keen appreciation for the sound and sense of poetry.

In all, there’s no great mystery as to why Shel Silverstein has become so popular. As critic Ruth MacDonald has pointed out, Silverstein fits quite well into the rich American tradition of regional poets that Dana Gioia did so much to identify and promote when he was chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Like Carl Sandburg or Ted Kooser, Silverstein writes for a specific audience (children in his case), addresses their concerns, and does so with language that possesses beauty if not complexity.

Eli Lehrer is vice president of the Heartland Institute.