Based on his commercial success alone, Shel Silverstein (1932-1999) deserves a great deal of attention from those who care about American poetry. Consider the facts: Both the books of poems and drawings that Silverstein published during his life remain in demand more than a quarter century later. Furthermore, nobody else writing verse in English—not T. S. Eliot, not Robert Frost, certainly not Mary Oliver—has sold close to as many collections of poetry as Silverstein. While Silverstein granted no extended interviews and made almost no public appearances during the 20 or so years before his death, the popularity of his previously published poetry has endured for a broad general audience.
That’s why the publication of Silverstein’s newest book, his second posthumous collection of poems and drawings, deserves attention. Silverstein isn’t a great poet—he never said he was—but his witty verse, with its appeal to children and adults alike, has earned him a firm place among America’s top contemporary poets.
The basics about Silverstein first. He was a cartoonist before anything else, and nearly all of his poems include pictures. After his Korean War service, partly spent drawing cartoons for Stars and Stripes, he landed a job as Playboy’s house cartoonist in its heyday. During the 1960s and ’70s, he branched out into writing plays—some of them decently reviewed but none of them easily available today—and songs. (Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” is probably the most famous.) His early forays into children’s literature sold modestly, but he hit pay dirt with the issue of The Giving Tree, a treacly if sincere fable about a boy who relies on a large tree in every phase of life. Two collections of poems and drawings—Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic—followed and climbed the bestseller lists even as the author himself retreated from the public spotlight.
Since Silverstein’s death, several other works under his name have landed in bookstores. Like his previous output, Every Thing On It clearly targets children. The most frequent topics—friendship, family relations, the rules of adult society, school, nightmares, wish fulfillment, and wordplay itself—are just the things that most concern the prepubescent set. There’s a hint of transgression on almost every page (bodily functions aren’t avoided, for example) but rarely in ways that would offend any adult with a modicum of modernist sensibility. There’s not even a hint of sex, and while there’s a fair amount of violence, often to dispose of siblings or bullies, it’s so clearly cartoonish that hardly anyone could object.
Most of the poems here are simple. Take “The Pelican” as an example: It reads, in full:
Pickin’ big fish from the seas
The pelican can do with ease
But pickin’ up a tiny ant
Is something that a pelicant.
This is somewhat funny, quite playful, somewhat ironic, and perhaps memorable, but obviously it’s little more than a joke: It offers no emotional resonance at all.
On the other hand, some poems that are quite basic in their language and subject can still provoke thought. One poem, “Nasty School,” envisions a house of learning where You must put gum on everybody’s seat, / And when there is a test, you’ll have to promise that you’ll cheat. This—and the rest of the poem—imagines a truly bizarre school world where everything confounds expectations. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and, although not complicated, still manages to raise some questions about the purpose of the sometimes arbitrary rules that elementary and middle school students must follow to remain in good standing with their teachers.
And sometimes Silverstein shows that he’s a very good poet by any objective standard. One poem in Every Thing On It, “Wall Marks,” is conveyed in a child’s voice at once beautiful and naïve. The speaker says that Mama keeps reminding me of a father who would put a ruler on my head / And mark the spot and write the date and then concludes: But I don’t understand at all / Just why she cries each time she sees / Those scratchy marks there on the wall.
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.