Naturally, we are a little obsessed with National Poetry Month here at the Library. From our book displays to our latest podcast episode to word-of-mouth, we have been all about poetry for the month of April. To keep the trend going, let’s talk about one of my favorite poets and quintessential children’s wordsmiths: Shel Silverstein.
While most of us know Silverstein from such iconic literary works such as “The Giving Tree” and “Where the Sidewalk Ends”, he wasn’t just a poet. During his sixty-eight years, Silverstein was also an accomplished cartoonist, playwright, songwriter, and musician, winning two Grammys and receiving Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. Did you know that he wrote the song, “A Boy Named Sue”, made famous by none other than Johnny Cash? His cartoons and writings were originally for an adult audience and it wasn’t until deep into his career that he was encouraged to produce works for children. The rest is history.
Silverstein’s writings, especially his poetry, possess all the qualities that attract young readers to books. Both his writing style and artistic technique are notably unique, rendering a voice that has become classic. The sharply rhythmic meter and clever rhyme schemes of his poems are extremely pleasing to the ear and easy for kids to latch onto. His pen and drawings, which are nearly always either extremely simple or entirely chaotic, are perfect accompaniments to his poems, oftentimes playing a key role in telling the story beyond just the words.
As far as subject matter, Silverstein is rebellious. He delicately rides the edge of what is conventional or practical. His poems, as well as their respective illustrations, are often weird, mischievous, even slightly creepy, and he is never one to steer away from gross-out humor. What more could a kid want? He isn’t looking to dole out tidbits of wisdom, but to draw laughs and make readers scratch their heads. There is a layered quality to his work that allows for an on-the-surface interpretation as well as a deeper, more existential meaning if you are willing to look. Silverstein was undoubtedly quirky, both as a creator and as a human, but this is a pillar of his versatility and a reason why his work has such wide-ranging appeal.
These qualities are all exemplified in my favorite of Silverstein’s poems, “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out” from his famed collection “Where the Sidewalk Ends”. This clever piece tells the tale of a garbage can gone bonkers and the unfortunate fate that was met when Sarah Stout refused to do her chores. The bulk of the poem is an extraordinarily descriptive list of disgusting items piling up in the trash, from sour cottage cheese to rubbery blubbery macaroni and beyond. Your senses are on high alert from beginning to end, as this deliciously cadenced poem serves up sights and smells apt to disgust. Call it uncouth, but I think it’s some of the best poetry out there.
Stop by the Library today to check out some poetry, including Shel Silverstein, and celebrate National Poetry Month all April long.