Whilst recently chatting with a good friend (hi Joe!) I was reminded of the great American poet Shel Silverstein. The next day I had a conversation with a total stranger comparing our exposure to Shel’s work. I realized that for the most part, my generation and younger know Shel as a children’s book and poetry author while my parents’ generation knows him as the cartoonist for Playboy. I say this week we explore the accomplishments of this versatile man and see who is was for each of us.
Shel Silverstein was born September 25, 1930. When he was young, 12 years old or thereabouts, he began writing and drawing. He said he would have much preferred to be out playing baseball or chatting up girls but he had no game for either venture. The style he developed had little to no influences because he didn’t know any other artists or poets. He just drew and wrote what he liked and what worked.
He joined the military after spending a year at the Art Institute of Chicago and served in the Korean War. During his service he was published by Pacific Stars and Stripes. These cartoons were later collected and called Take Ten in 1955 and again in 1956 under the new title of Grab Your Socks.
In ’57 he became the leading cartoonist at Playboy. He wrote a series of installments in a column called Shel Silverstein Visits… it was about his world travels and it took him everywhere from the nudist colony in New Jersey to little towns in Switzerland. (Fun Quote: “I’ll give them 15 more minutes, and if nobody yodels, I’m going back to the hotel.” – Shel, while in Switzerland.) He was referred to as Uncle Shelby in his career with Playboy, a nickname later used for one of his titles, Uncle Shelby’s ABZ, a collection of his Playboy works.
Now the thing is, Shel didn’t set out to be a children’s lit author or poet. It was an opportunity that presented itself through his friend’s publisher and he went with it. His zany and off beat humor coupled with his irreverent wit was the perfect combination for some of the most fun and clever poems. It is no wonder therefore that many teachers use his works to expose young readers to poetry. His first children’s book, The Giving Tree, continues to be one of the most successful children’s stories of all time. I myself grew up with The Giving Tree and would read aloud in school from his other children’s poetry books like Falling Up, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and A Light In the Attic.
Here’s the part of Shel Silverstein that I wasn’t exposed to till I was a teenager and now in my adult life: his music. Raise your hand if you know the Johnny Cash song “Boy Named Sue”. Now raise your hand if you knew that it was written by Uncle Shelby! I’ll be honest, last week I would not have raised my hand for the latter. His unique humor and wit gave us songs like “The Smoke-Off” (“Beware or being the roller when there’s nothing left to roll”), the Peter, Paul and Mary song “Boa Constrictor”, and one of my all-time favorite songs “Put Another Log on the Fire”. Shel told fantastic stories in poetry and song and even shared much wisdom in his works, though it wasn’t his main objective. He just had good ideas and shared them. My favorite of his poems/songs is called “The Perfect High” about how “it’s always easier to sell ’em some sh** than it is to tell ’em the truth.”
Wouldn’t you know it, Uncle Shelby even contributed to our theatre! “Oh, Hell! Two One-Act Plays” is a collaboration between Silverstein and David Mamet, each the author of one of the one-acts. It was first produced in Lincoln Center, NYC in 1989. Probably some of the most fun I had as an audience member was when I saw An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein done by my college alma mater’s student run theatre organization, Players Theatre. One of the skits’ dialogue entirely consists of the words, “meat and potatoes” but the use of the words conveys all the intention and action behind them. The skit is called, appropriately, “Meat and Potatoes”. All the little stories in this play, either with the use of verse or puns or the everyday made ridiculous, have the power to make you squirm with hilarious discomfort and intelligently guffaw with glee. Definitely one of my favorite plays!
His insight into human nature could only be compared to perhaps George Carlin, although Shel’s observations often touched into an optimistic possibility of success, no matter how impossible the circumstances, as illustrated by the cover of his comic strip collection, Now Here’s My Plan: A Book of Futilities, first published by Simon & Schuster in 1960.
Shel Silverstein managed to have his success and still not be ruled by it. He was not afraid of his success nor was he ashamed of it. He said he knew his work was good because he wouldn’t have put it out there if he thought otherwise. He lived and worked the same way, with dedication, creative and irreverent wit, and a sense of play! And now he can appeal to a person at all stages of life, like a true giving tree!
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