Serious Silliness: The Poetry of Shel Silverstein

Eliza Clark
December 15, 2010

As we busy ourselves being responsible parents day in and day out, attending to all of our children's manifold requirements, we may sometimes forget one of their very most basic, irrepressible needs: the need for silliness. And after a day spent keeping them fed, clothed, bathed, schooled, socialized and exercised, many of us are just too tired to engage in the laugh-out-loud ‘til you pee in your pants goofiness that little kids adore. They will get their silliness one way or another, very often through potty-talk and other no-no's, but oh, wouldn't we love to show them another, even wackier, sillier way!

We needn't look far, but just pull one of our old friend Shel Silverstein's volumes of poetry from the bookshelf, or take a gander at the well-done official Silverstein web site. Very soon, more silliness than anyone knows what to do with will be spilling from the well-worn pages of Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic or Falling Up.

Silverstein's verses have become the standard introduction to poetry for many children, though all these decades later there is still nothing standard about them. Whether for the first or the fiftieth time, whenever you open up one of these hard-back treasures (Silverstein refused to allow his books to be published in soft-cover because he wanted us to have that weighty experience), a new gem of nuttiness is sure to pop out at you and your kiddos.

Among Silverstein's many gifts was a knack for meeting kids right at their own level. He dispatched the whole sibling problem, for instance, with the immortal "Sister for Sale," and understood the low-down on "Friendship" (I've discovered a way to stay friends forever--/There's really nothing to it./I simply tell you what to do/And you do it!). Nor was he above a little potty talk himself, as in the charming ditty "Hat":

Teddy said it was a hat,
So I put it on.
Now Dad is saying,
"Where the heck's
the toilet plunger gone?"

His poems delight in subverting childhood classics. To the strangest and most enduring of lullabies, he replied: "Rockabye baby, in the treetop/Don't you know a treetop/Is no safe place to rock?" He takes "The Little Blue Engine's" mantra of "I think I can, I think I can" and turns it on its head to say, "If the track is tough and the hill is rough,/Thinking you can just ain't enough!" And who won't smile at his sweet sympathy for the forlorn prince "In Search of Cinderella" who, after trekking across the kingdom trying to fit that glass slipper,  "has started hating feet."

But most often and memorably, his verses veer into wild absurdity as in "Recipe for a Hippopotamus Sandwich," or "tiny Melinda Mae/Who ate a monstrous whale," or "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout [who] Would Not Take the Garbage Out."

As we read along and aloud, we also find, amidst the madness, moments of breath-stopping lyricism and serious reminders of what all the silliness can reveal -- most especially, the wild wisdom of children. Silverstein knew, and shows us all, that "the children, they mark, and the children, they know/The place where the sidewalk ends." It comes as no surprise, then, that Silverstein was the founder and first card-carrying member of the Union for Children's Rights with its demands for "More root beer/And seventeen summer vacations a year."

In all of this, Silverstein's view of the uses of poetry and silliness are more or less summed up by the poem "Put Something In" --

Draw a crazy picture,
Write a nutty poem,
Sing a mumble-gumble song,
Whistle through your comb.
Do a loony-goony dance
‘Cross the kitchen floor,
Put something silly in the world
That ain't been there before.

That's the stuff our preschool-age crazies are up to, if we let them, at pretty much every hour of the day. And that's the stuff, Silverstein insists, for which we should be so very, very grateful. And we are, to them and to him.

From the Parents

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