April is National Poetry Month. I’m not much of a poetry reader, personally, but to paraphrase Gelett Burgess “I know what I like”. Usually, I don’t think of the epic poems—The Odyssey or Beowulf and their ilk—when I think of the genre. I’m more drawn to something with a clear rhythm, and also a rhyme scheme—but also I am drawn to something that has humorous content. I do appreciate it in its proper context, and when something strikes me I certainly take pause but I don’t usually go for the kind of deep, brooding poetry that seem to pop into people’s minds when they consider its deep study and practice.
As such, I feel it’s probably fair to say one of my all-time (if not my absolute all-time) favorite poets is Shel Silverstein. This is not my endorsement as a guy who “is not much of a poetry reader” and therefore doesn’t know very much about it; I’m not very much of a poetry reader because I am simply fonder of prose. I find Silverstein’s brand of poetry to be always refreshing and more importantly, accessible. While his brand of humor is often considered to be black, it is usually acceptable and appropriate for readers of all ages. Silverstein was something of a Renaissance man in the writing world. He was a cartoonist, a playwright, a songwriter, and an author.
Without a doubt, my favorite work from Silverstein isn’t a poem—it’s his classic story The Giving Tree. The book is an astoundingly re-readable text, which one could argue has a poetic sensibility built into its prose. Every time you revisit the story, and as you grow older, it becomes more melancholy. The language is so simple and the subject so complex it becomes astoundingly deeper and more meaningful, and actually painful as you come back to it.
It is this mastery of the usage of simple language with both complex ideas and also playful language that has led me to appreciate Silverstein so deeply. It also strikes the same chord in me that always wanted to be a school teacher and that always wanted to be a parent. There is a playful yet educational component to the man’s work, especially in his most famous collection Where the Sidewalk Ends. Sidewalk is an incredible work that is approachable for elementary school students and college students alike. Silverstein is incredibly playful with words and conventions, and his illustrations substantiate the works rather than substitute in lieu of quality.
I have used both books in my elementary classroom and my college classroom for a variety of lessons. I’ve used Giving Tree for lessons on friendship, responsibility, and respect, and I’ve used Sidewalk in teaching about the genre, what is possible with language, and how poetry can be fun. Specifically works like “Furniture Bash” (which plays with words that describe both parts of the human body and parts of inanimate household objects) can be a great way to invite writing students of all ages to push their usage of language.
I don’t mean in anyway to limit Shel Silverstein to kid’s stuff. A substantial amount of his work was published between the late 1950’s and 1970’s in Playboy. The reprint of the collection of those works—Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book—had a label on it that read “A Primer for Adults Only”. Also, he wrote the Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue” in which the unfortunately named man finds his absentee father in a bar and declares “My name is Sue. How do you do? Now you gonna die.”
While Silverstein passed away in 1999 due to a heart attack his works are still heavily recognized and held dear to educators, parents, and many, many others for their imaginative and unique illustrations and wordplay, and their handlings of complex subjects and notions in very humorous and simple terms. While certainly not under rated I feel that Silverstein is an exceptional writer of both prose and poetry and is worth any reader’s time and attention.