Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 819

Silverstein never underestimates his readers. He knows that young people think as much as anyone about serious issues such as death, watching too much television, and growing old, and he addresses these topics and his readers forthrightly. Yet, given a choice, Silverstein prefers poking fun to pontificating. While he refuses...

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Silverstein never underestimates his readers. He knows that young people think as much as anyone about serious issues such as death, watching too much television, and growing old, and he addresses these topics and his readers forthrightly. Yet, given a choice, Silverstein prefers poking fun to pontificating. While he refuses to talk down to juvenile readers, he retains a childlike appreciation of the absurdity of life, whether that absurdity be exhilaratingly nonsensical or startlingly bleak.

He also knows how to have fun with words. His poem “Nobody” plays with the possible meanings when a negative term becomes a subject, while “Poemsicle” is a study in perseverance using “sicle” as a suffix. The universally beloved “The Meehoo with an Exactlywatt” is a takeoff on Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” comedy routine. “Ations” is an eighteen-line poem containing nine lines with final words ending in the suffix “-ation.” “Anteater” puns to create an “aunt eater,” and “Wild Strawberries” ponders the best way to tame an intractable berry.

Silverstein appreciates the satisfaction derived from a good comeuppance, as in “Ladies First,” a poem about Pamela Purse who insisted on being first, right up to the moment that she met the cannibal Fry-’Em-Up Dan. “Fancy Dive” describes Melissa of Coconut Grove, who did “thirty-four jackknives, backflipped and spun,/ quadruple gainered, and reached for the sun,/ And then somersaulted nine times and a quarter—/ and looked down and saw that the pool had no water.” If “Fancy Dive” touches the edge of grimness, “Who Ordered the Broiled Face” is downright and delightfully gruesome. “Overdues” describes an obsession with a library book that is forty-two years overdue. “Ticklish Tom” was tickled so much that he rolled out of school, through the town, into the country, and onto a railroad track; now “Tom ain’t ticklish anymore.” There is the “Strange Wind” that blew so strangely that hats stayed on and heads blew away.

Children’s fantasies have their place in this volume. “Rock ’N Roll Band” fantasizes about every teenager’s dream in singable four-line verses; also in verse are fantasies of breaking dishes in “How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes,” catching the moon in “Moon-Catchin’ Net,” or polishing the stars in “Somebody Has To.” A stingy imp in “Prayer of the Selfish Child” prays that if she dies before she wakes, her toys will break “So none of the other kids can use ’em.” “How to Make a Swing with No Rope or Board or Nails” suggests growing a mustache and tying the ends to a tree limb. “Kidnapped” is a late-for-school fantastic solution most readers have considered at least once.

When Silverstein offers lessons, they are on the preposterous side of morality. You cannot make a milk shake by shaking a cow, he warns in “Shaking.” What to do when a man with twenty-one heads and only one hat meets a man with twenty-one hats and only one head? Sell the hat to the man who loves them. The “Homework Machine” is a wondrous contraption, except for the fact that it cannot seem to get the right answer. Barnabus Browning in “Fear” was so scared of drowning that he just sat in his room and cried till it filled up with tears and he drowned. There are morals for parents, too, as in the poem “Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony,” in which Abigail’s parents refuse to buy her a pony, insisting no one ever died from not getting a pony. Abigail does die, and Silverstein concludes “(This is a good story/ To read to your folks/ When they won’t buy/ You something you want.)”

A few favorite Silverstein topics recur. He takes digs at hunting in “Arrows,” hair-splitting in “The Toad and the Kangaroo,” and perfectionists in “Almost Perfect.” “Clarence” and “Channels” level sarcasm at television watching. “The Little Boy and the Old Man” compares two difficult, helpless stages of life: Both the little boy and the old man have trouble holding onto spoons and holding back their tears, and both think that no one pays attention to them.

Silverstein likes to vary traditional themes. “Rockabye” suggests that whoever put the cradle in the tree must have had it in for the baby. The prince “In Search of Cinderella” still loves his missing princess, but he is growing weary of feet. “Frozen Dream” is reminiscent of the song “When I Grow Too Old to Dream.” To anyone who has read Dorothy Parker’s poem “Suicide,” the poem “Standing Is Stupid” will sound familiar.

At the heart of Silverstein’s work is a keen appreciation for the value of silliness, as he suggests in the poem “Put Something In”: “Draw a crazy picture,/ Write a nutty poem,/ Sing a mumble-gumble song,/ Whistle through your comb./ Do a loony-goony dance/ ’Cross the kitchen floor,/ Put something silly in the world/ That ain’t been there before.”

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