Few writers of the twentieth century have made nearly the same impact on the literary society than Sheldon Allan Silverstein. His writing encompasses a broad range of styles, from adult to children's, comical to unusual. One of his most common styles was that of fantasy: actions and events that cannot logically happen. This style was evident in his works, the Loser, Thumb Face, Warning, Squishy Touch, and Skin Stealer. Through the description of these absurd circumstances, Silverstein was able to entertain readers of all ages.
In Sely Friday's reference to a biography, Shel Silverstein was quoted as saying, " . . . I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls. But I couldn't play ball, I couldn't dance. Luckily, the girls didn't want me; not much I could do about that. So, I started to draw and to write." Because of his rejection by some of his peers, he found his own hobby: entertaining others.
During the 1950's, Silverstein even served as a member of the United States Armed Forces. While in this position, he was employed as a cartoonist to help cheer up the troops during the Korean War. In 1956, the writer worked again as a cartoonist, but this time for a little-known magazine called Playboy. Despite this wide range of literary audiences, Silverstein's main purpose was to entertain.
Two of his major collections of works of literature are the critically acclaimed Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic. They have no real historic significance; they were written to entertain. These two books contain some of Silverstein's most accredited work. Since the books are children's literature, not many critics have taken the time to review the works. However, Shel Silverstein Book Reviews reference to a review of Silverstein's A Light in the Attic said, "Despite such moments of banality, and there aren't many, Mr. Silverstein's work remains a must for lovers of good verse for children. Quite like nobody else, he is still a master of delectable outrage and the 'proprietor' of a surprisingly finely tuned sensibility." In other words, there were some ordinary poems in this book, but for the most part, Silverstein reaffirmed his status as an excellent writer for children with the use of both absurdity and deep feeling.
Silverstein's the Loser, presented in Where the Sidewalk Ends, tells the story of a person who lost his/her head while playing with his/her cousin. The problem occurs in the story when the person cannot find the head because almost all sensory perception went along with the head. In the end, the person says, " . . . I guess I'll sit down / On this rock / And rest for just a minute . . . ." (p. 25). The rock, as the picture accompanying the poem shows, turns out to be the person's lost head. This story is obviously impossible considering the biological fact that when a person is decapitated, his/her life ceases. However, with the use of simple end rhyme and an amusing story, Silverstein is able to present a light-hearted view of what could have been a tragedy.
Thumb Face, included in A Light in the Attic, is another example of Silverstein's use of fantasy. The first line of the poem basically says it all: "There is a face upon my thumb . . .." (p. 55). For all practical purposes, this is an absurd situation. The speaker goes on to describe the features of the small face on his/her thumb. Certain descriptions of the face imply a sense of minuteness and leave the reader feeling compassionate for it because of its size. For example, Silverstein wrote, "It has a little twisty mouth, / And yellow teethies, too." Again, Silverstein uses end rhyme in the pattern of "a b c b," which helps move the story along in a definite rhythm. While the subject matter is irrational, Silverstein uses vivid descriptions and a straightforward picture to entertain his readers.
Included in the collection of poems within Where the Sidewalk Ends is a poem entitled Warning. This poem is exactly what the title says it is. Once more, the main idea is in the first two lines, saying, "Inside everybody's nose / There lives a sharp-toothed snail." (p. 75). Silverstein goes on to describe the consequences of putting one's finger in one's nose. This situation is once again biologically impossible. However, seeing that a large percentage of Silverstein's readers are children, this poem could have a purpose other than entertainment; it could be a warning for children to stop picking their noses. While this topic is unusual, Silverstein makes an excellent attempt at dissuading children from continuing a bad habit, while at the same time amusing his readers.
During the 1960's, Silverstein was living around Chicago's Gate of Horn and New York's Bitterend, writing and performing folk music. Although that road did lead to some success in that several major recording artists used his work, he decided to make writing his focal point. In Sely Friday's biography reference, Silverstein said, "By the time I got to where I was attracting girls, I was already into work, and it was more important to me. Not that I wouldn't rather make love, but the work has become a habit." In other words, his writing had become one of the most important things in his life by that time and he had gotten into an area of writing that would supply him with years and years of marvelous work: children's literature.
In his poem entitled Squishy Touch, he presents another illogical situation and uses several literary devices while doing so. This poem from A Light in the Attic tells the story of a person that turned anything he/she touched into raspberry Jell-O. Following this is a list of all the things the person had touched recently that had turned to Jell-O. This is yet another impossible occurrence Silverstein uses to entertain his readers. While this poem contains interesting subject matter, it also has significant literary value. The first two lines say, "Everything King Midas touched / Turned to gold, the lucky fellow." (p. 53). This is an allusion to a Greek myth about a king who wished that everything he touched would turn to gold. Also important is Silverstein's use of onomatopoeia. Not only does he use words that act as sounds, but he also makes them rhyme. This is an incredible feat and shows his prowess as a poet. Although he used several literary devices, he was still able to satisfy his readers' passion for comedy by using a bizarre circumstance.
Silverstein's Skin Stealer, from A Light in the Attic, presents an interesting tale of a being called a coo-coo that steals the speaker's skin and head. From the first two lines, the reader can conclude that the story is quite improbable, reading, "This evening I unzipped my skin / And carefully unscrewed my head . . ." (p. 147). Later on, the reader is warned to not take offense to the actions the speaker is making because it is actually the coo-coo, wearing the speaker's skin and head, that is performing these actions. The use of end rhyme and the vivid picture accompanying the poem help give the poem overall appeal.
I personally believe Shel Silverstein is an excellent poet. I consider myself to have a fairly simple mind, and therefore his poems make sense. While they do present some completely impossible situations, they serve their original purpose, which is to entertain. Not only the five poems I selected, but also the entire books are easy to read and very enjoyable. With the use of simple end rhyme and several other occasional literary devices, Silverstein's poems come across as very appealing to me.
Shel Silverstein was one of the few poets of the 1900's that made an impact on both children and adults. Through his work in the Army and with Playboy, he was able to touch the lives of many adults. However, more noticeably, his work affected the lives of countless children through his two collections of poetry, Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic. Of the broad range of styles his work consisted, one of the most notable was the use of fantasy. In each of his poems, the Loser, Thumb Face, Warning, Squishy Touch, and Skin Stealer, Silverstein presented an illogical situation, but made it entertaining to the reader by using end rhyme, creating an amusing story, and including a vivid picture. His writing ability made his poems enjoyable for both children and adults and will continue to delight his readers for years to come.
Works Cited Friday, Sely. "Biography." Shel Silverstein Collected Information. 1999. http://188.8.131.52/Silverstein/bio.html (25 Oct. 1999).
(Author unknown). "Shel Silverstein Book Reviews." Shel Silverstein's Adult Works. 1999. http://www.banned-width.com/shel/misc/breviews.html (25 Oct. 1999).
Silverstein, Shel (1974). Where the Sidewalk Ends. New York: Harper and Row.
Silverstein, Shel (1981). A Light in the Attic. New York: Harper and Row.