Whether creating cartoons for adults, composing songs, writing plays, or devising poems and accompanying illustrations for children, Shel Silverstein demonstrated keen observational skills, wicked, subversive wit, a fondness for wordplay, and an uncanny ability to make his audiences think about a wide range of subjects. Silverstein’s popular songs—such as “The Cover of the Rolling Stone,” “A Boy Named Sue,” “The Unicorn” and “Sylvia’s Mother”—will probably be heard for years to come. His award-winning poetry and drawings for children (which have been favorably compared to the works of Roald Dahl, Edward Lear, Dr. Seuss, and Maurice Sendak, among others) will undoubtedly be read, recited, and enjoyed as they engage the imagination of generations of youngsters and their parents.
Certainly, by classical standards—such as those established by Robert Louis Stevenson in A Child’s Garden of Verses (1895) or by A. A. Milne in When We Were Very Young (1924)—Silverstein’s poetry is flawed, bordering on doggerel. His rhyme schemes are often haphazard and irregular, and the poems do not always scan well. His verses are filled with slang, and the author has a tendency to drop the final g in gerunds in an effort to impart folksiness. Silverstein’s rhymes are sometimes forced; he employs slant rhyme with impunity. He sometimes deals with topics (like nose picking) that can make adults uncomfortable.
However, since children generally care little for poetic technicalities, the positive aspects of Silverstein’s poems greatly outweigh the negative. The poet is a natural storyteller with the ability to capture a complete thought or tell a full tale—containing a beginning, middle, and an end—with concision. The majority of his children’s verse is short, up to twelve lines, and stanzas frequently repeat a theme or reiterate a key concept so that the poems are easy and fun to memorize. It is not difficult to imagine young boys or girls and their parents breaking into laughter while reading the verses. Silverstein introduces memorable characters or creatures with peculiar-sounding names and...
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