Shel Silverstein’s birthday seems like a good day to revive my blog that’s been hibernating for several months.
I was perusing Twitter earlier today and came across this article from Mental Floss about Shel Silverstein’s birthday and him writing Johnny Cash’s hit song, “A Boy Named Sue.” This wasn’t new information to me (though I had not seen the amazing video embedded in the article of Silverstein’s appearance on The Johnny Cash Show).
Reading the article led me to reflection, and I realized that Silverstein is the person probably most responsible for me loving poetry. I don’t know if Northwest Heights Elementary School library still has the old, stamped check out cards resting in little manilla pockets inside the back covers of books, but if they do, you would find my scribbled name over and over again in A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends (and probably several instances when I returned them past due).
I think second grade (maybe first) was when I first discovered these gems and added them to my heavy rotation that, at the time, was dominated by Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown. I remember finding poems that were significantly more sophisticated (a word I didn’t know then) than the poetry I found in books by another favorite, Dr. Seuss. I felt refreshed by work that was more than smiles and rainbows and happy endings. I already knew that life included more than constant joy. I knew the pain I felt while bullied, the grief I felt when older family members passed away, the confusion of social awkwardness, and so on, and I knew that Silverstein knew those things, too.
Those difficult emotions were present but so was hope, beauty, love, and humor. He tied it all together in verse that was somehow both simple and complex. Isn’t that what all the great adult literary poets do, too? I could read his work lightly and take with me a surface-level understanding, or I could dig deeper (if you’ll forgive the worn out metaphor) looking for the gems he buried between the lines, in the puns, in the metaphors. I fell in love with his poetry and with the process of reading his poetry, and, though I didn’t know it at the time, I fell in love with poetry itself.
And, you know what? Not much has changed in the years since then about how I read or enjoy poems. I still look for work that catches me immediately by stringing together pleasant sounding language, work that evokes images that fire up my imagination and take me to new places, work that allows me to dig deeper or not. Regarding that last bit, I also learned from him that digging deeper isn’t a burden as it so often seems in English classes but a pleasure. I enjoyed then, and I enjoy now, both what I discover and how I get to that discovery.
Thank you, Shel Silverstein, for taking me to “where the sidewalk ends” and beyond.