Verse is an inextricable part of human existence. We start exposing children to it from the moment they're born, through lullabies, Dr. Seuss books, and Sesame Street segments. But when you look back on who really unlocked the power and potential of poetry for you, there's probably only one answer: Shel Silverstein.
Silverstein, born Sheldon Allan on Sept. 25, 1930, had a long and varied career that involved working as a lead cartoonist for Playboy and writing songs for artists like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. But for Gen-Xers, Millennials, and Gen-Zers, he's the mad genius behind poetry collections like Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, and Falling Up, as well as the classic children's story The Giving Tree.
Reading Silverstein for the first time is a mind-altering experience. Sure, some of the nursery rhymes you had been singing before were a little dark, but the stuff in Where the Sidewalk Ends was on a whole different level — absurd and ironic, combining sharp wit, gross-out humor and heartbreaking pathos. Silverstein veered from fanciful, to gentle, to inspirational. He captured the innocence of a child's imagination without talking down to kids, or being trite and sentimental. And those drawings! A self-trained illustrator, Silverstein had a visual style that was a lot like his writing — a little loose, a little sloppy, and completely indelible.
So although Silverstein is no longer with us (he passed away in 1999), here's a look back at 20 of his funniest, weirdest, most inspiring and most memorable poems:
“Sick” from Where the Sidewalk Ends
My hip hurts when I move my chin,
My belly button’s caving in,
My back is wreched, my ankle’s sprained,
My ‘pendix pains each time it rains.
“Whatif” from A Light in the Attic
Last night, while I lay thinking here,
Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
And pranced and partied all night long
And sang their same old Whatif song:
“Where the Sidewalk Ends” from Where the Sidewalk Ends
There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
“Smart” from Where the Sidewalk Ends
My dad gave me one dollar bill
‘Cause I’m his smartest son,
And I swapped it for two shiny quarters
‘Cause two is more than one!
“The Loser” from Where the Sidewalk Ends
Mama said I’d lose my head
If it wasn’t fastened on.
Today I guess it wasn’t
“Needles and Pins” from Falling Up
Needles and pins,
Needles and pins,
Sew me a sail
To catch me the wind.
“It’s Hot!” from A Light in the Attic
I can’t get cool,
I’ve drunk a quart of lemonade.
I think I’ll take my shoes off
And sit around in the shade.
“Skin Stealer” from A Light in the Attic
This evening I unzipped my skin
And carefully unscrewed my head,
Exactly as I always do
When I prepare myself for bed.
“Listen to the Mustn’ts” from Where the Sidewalk Ends
Listen to the Mustn’ts, child, listen to the Don’ts.
Listen to the Shouldn’ts, the Impossibles, the Won’ts.
“Mr. Grumpledump’s Song” from Where the Sidewalk Ends
Days are too long,
Sunshine’s too hot,
Wind is too strong.
“The Nailbiter” from A Light in the Attic
Some people manicure their nails,
Some people trim them neatly,
Some people keep them filed down,
I bite ‘em off completely.
“The Romance” from Everything On It
“Said the pelican to the elephant,
“I think we should marry, I do.
‘Cause there’s no name that rhymes with me,
And no one else rhymes with you.”
“Falling Up” from Falling Up
I tripped on my shoelace
And I fell up —
“Magic” from Where the Sidewalk Ends
Sandra’s seen a leprechaun,
Eddie touched a troll,
Laurie danced with witches once,
Charlie found some goblins’ gold.
“Allison Beals and her 25 Eels” from Falling Up
Allison Beals had twenty-five eels —
She used four for skateboard wheels,
She used one as a hula hoop,
She used one to stir her soup,
“Masks” from Every Thing On It
She had blue skin,
And so did he.
He kept it hid
And so did she.
“The Voice” from Falling Up
There is a voice inside of you
That whispers all day long,
“I feel that this is right for me,
I know that this is wrong.”
“The Dragon of Grindly Grun” from Falling Up
I’m the Dragon of Grindly Grun,
I breathe fire as hot as the sun.
When a knight comes to fight,
I just toast him on sight,
Like a hot crispy cinnamon bun.
“Frozen Dream” from A Light in the Attic
I’ll take the dream I had last night
And put it in my freezer,
“Superstitious” from A Light in the Attic
If you are superstitious you’ll never step on cracks.
When you see a ladder you will never walk beneath it.
And if you ever spill some salt, you’ll throw some ‘cross your back,
And carry ‘round a rabbit’s foot in case you need it.
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