Shel Silverstein Critical Review
Nicole Turner ENC 1102 Mrs. S. Padgett-Giorda Critical Research Essay on Shel Silverstein While many will point to poets such as Robert Frost and Sylvia Plath when speaking intellectually about the work that was produced by their pens, one should not overlook the valuable contributions of Shel Silverstein. From his first publication, The Giving Tree, to his final work, Falling Up, Silverstein entertained generations of children and parents alike with his use of poetry.
His work, specifically in 1981’s A Light in the Attic, has been used as the backbone for many educators’ introduction of poetry to students. Entries like “Hot Dog,” “Homework Machine,” “Superstitious,” “Messy Room,” and “The Sitter” work on many levels with multiple audiences. (Kimmel 3) Silverstein was born in Chicago, Ill. on September 25, 1930 to modest beginnings. He always dreamt of playing baseball and chasing girls, but he always excelled more with a pen in his hand than he did athletically. He was a superior artist and writer from the start.
He did some cartoon drawing while serving overseas in the military in the 1950s, but his real calling did not come until years later when he corroborated with Harper & Row Publishing to release his first children’s book, The Giving Tree, in 1964. Sales for the book started slowly, but after some critical acclaim, it began to fly off the shelves. The book, while in a poetic style, was not a collection of poems, like the ones for which Silverstein would eventually become best known. (Kimmel 4) He continued to produce similar work until his death on May 10, 1999.
Some have overlooked his works as only for children, but upon further examination, it is easy to see how influential Silverstein really was historically. The influence of the times in which he lived on his writing is obvious to some and not as obvious to others. Spending a great deal of his leisure time in notorious 1960s hot spots such as Greenwich Village, N. Y. and Key West, Fla. , Silverstein may have been influenced by the culture that surrounded him. Themes of creativity, freethinking and originality are laced throughout his work.
While he made no secret of previous drug-use during that time period, one of Silverstein’s greatest hopes was that his writing would reach many different audiences. (MacDonald 2) This goal has come true in ways that Silverstein could probably not have imagined back when he first began his career in the mid-1960s. Because of his position as a children’s author, his politics and personal life rarely came into play when readers set out to pick up his books. In fact, Silverstein made it a point to remove himself from the public eye, especially later in his life.
He had little desire to be known for any communication other than the words he was leaving behind on the pages of his text. For the most part, these words would reach people in different ways. Every reader would be entitled to gain something different from reading his work, and this is what Silverstein liked about it. (MacDonald 5) For example, in the four-line poem “The Sitter,” he plays on the word “babysitter. ” In a world where many adults take for granted the general meanings in our language, Silverstein thinks outside the box, almost like a child, and imagines someone being foolish enough to “sit upon a baby. (Silverstein 14) The phrase that ends the short poem is absurd enough to not only make a child, who has no doubt heard his or her parent utter the word “babysitter” many times, laugh, but also makes the adults who read these poems with their children laugh as well. This creativity is a virtue rarely found in any writer, let alone a diamond in the rough like Silverstein had proven to be over the course of his 30-plus year career. One thing Silverstein always had a knack for was reaching his audience, the children. In “Messy Room,” this is the key.
Every child has come home to find their room a mess that they did not want to clean at some point. Silverstein plays upon this theme and exaggerates it with imagery that only he could dream up. “A lizard named Ed is asleep in the bed…” Every child finds the list of mental pictures about someone else’s messy room hilarious until the final two lines bring about a sense of seriousness: “Huh? You say it’s mine? Oh dear, I knew it looked familiar! ” (Silverstein 35) Although Silverstein professed to have never studied any poetry in his lifetime, much like many adult poets before him, he brings the reader back to reality with this technique.
This twist at the end is something that Silverstein used quite often in his work. It came up again in his poem “Superstitious. ” The 14-line verse lists almost every circumstance one could think of that would seemingly cause the offender to have misfortune in the end. However, before the poem concludes, the narrator says, “But I’m not superstitious (knock on wood). ” (Silverstein 48) This is ironic for multiple reasons, but mainly, because no one would think that someone who does not believe in bad luck either would know all of these things or be talking about them in the first place.
Once again, the audience finds Silverstein disobeying the norms and purposely trying to lead us in one direction before opening our eyes to another. This was his gift. Of all the Silverstein creations mentioned, “Homework Machine” is probably the most popular. Students like this one for many reasons. When they begin to study these poems, students are just beginning to dislike homework. Some of them might have even thought of the idea of a homework machine at some point themselves. Silverstein tapped into this childlike imagination when he created this poem.
However, “Homework Machine” is also one of the pieces of work, along with The Missing Piece and others, where we see the activist 1960s generation side of Silverstein seep through into his work. While the machine has good intentions from the start, it does not turn out so well: “Here it is— ‘nine plus four? ’ and the answer is ‘three. ’” (Silverstein 57) We see a morality to his craft. In a world where so many people stress perfection, he was trying to show the importance of imperfection to readers, parents and educators alike.
By the time A Light in the Attic was released, Silverstein knew who would be reading his writing. The publication was his second collection, and many were already familiar with him and his writing. He knew the positive effect he could have on teachers and others that would eventually influence young minds themselves. He used his poetry as a pedestal. “Homework Machine” was a prime example of that intention. In the prime of writing career, Silverstein was counted on to help relay a combination of entertainment, education and morality to children that few have the ability to convey.
Silverstein’s creative use of the English language reappears in the poem “Hot Dog. ” Drawing parallels between a hot dog and a normal dog, he envisions what changes a boy and his family would have to make if they were to keep a hot dog as a pet as opposed to the latter. Obviously, this is where the entertainment value of the poem takes place. Images such as “a butcher for a vet” and “never gets the sofa wet” (Silverstein 69) give every reader an idea of both the ludicrous positives and negatives that would be attached to such an absurd situation.
Much like “The Sitter,” “Hot Dog” is a play on words that Silverstein uses to both teach and entertain. These five poems all have similar themes that make them vital works in the Silverstein library while also making them unique in their own way. Any number of poems in A Light in the Attic could provide the same type of meaning. Additionally, one could find meaningful, analytical poetry in any of Silverstein’s collections of poetry. It is important to realize that just because he was a children’s author, his work is no less meaningful. The true test of his work will be time.
His themes are no less real or vital than those that the intellectual community has grown to study over time from the likes of Edgar Allan Poe or Maya Angelou. His work carries with it the messages of a generation to many different generations of children. Actually, we may just need the proper historical perspective to appreciate truly the contributions that Silverstein made to poetry during his short yet substantial lifetime. Works Cited Kimmel, Eric A. “Shel Silverstein: Overview. ” Twentieth- Century Children’s Writers. Ed. Laura Standley Berger 4th ed. 1995. Rpt. n Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers. Ed. Laura Standley Berger. 4th ed. Twentieth-Century Writers Series Detroit: St. James Press, 1995. Literature Resources from Gale. Gale. Pasco Hernando Comm College, CCLA. 8 Dec. 2009 . MacDonald, Ruth K. “The Weirdness of Shel Silverstein. ” Studies in American Humor. 5. 4 ( 1986): 267-279. Rpt. in Poetry Criticism. Ed. David M. Galens. Vol. 49. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 267-279. Literature Resources from Gale. Gale. Pasco Hernando Comm College, CCLA. 8 Dec. 2009 . Silverstein, Shel. A Light in the Attic. New York: Harper and Row, 1981. Print.