Shel Silverstein a Great Example of Being Yourself

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Playboy cartoonist, author of erotic plays and books, singer, songwriter, poet, screenwriter, recipient of two Grammy Awards, and a Golden Globe. Who, one may ask? None other than Shel Silverstein. Yes, Shel Silverstein, bestselling author of a multitude of books including Where The Sidewalk Ends, full of goofy, amusing, and bizzare poems. Some find his poems nostalgic; some find them childish; but really, they are genius. Silverstein’s use of literary devices and deeper meanings subconsciously helps shape the clay that is a brain into something meaningful, independent, and determined. Despite being unusual, his poems often convey a moral that teaches you about life, and results in him being many’s favorite author. Although Shel Silverstein’s works are criticized by many for being childish, his poems(specifically “The Voice”, “LISTEN TO THE MUSTN’TS”, and “Yesees And Noees”), and his key use of literary devices such as repetition, juxtaposition, and rhyming, help convey his overall message to the American public that one can create whatever life they would like to have by being themselves, doing what they believe, and not letting criticism get to them.

One poem that Silverstein wrote is titled “The Voice”. “The Voice” is about someone who is doubting themselves because his gut is telling him one thing, and people are telling him another. After the person has some inner dialogue with themself, Silverstein ends the poem with his important message that: “No teacher, preacher, parent, friend/or wise man can decide/what's right for you - just listen to/the voice that speaks inside”(Silverstein). Basically, this quote means that even if everyone is against something that a person believes in, that if the person truly believes that it is right, to disregard what they are saying and do it anyway. This contributes to an overall theme of individualism(the habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant) and the central idea/American identity that no one can say what is right for a person, even if everyone is against them--they should fight for what they know is right in their heart. Some key literary devices that Silverstein uses in this poem is repetition of the word “voice”, juxtaposition of the words “right and “wrong”(“I feel that this is right for me, I know that this is wrong”), and rhyming, which puts emphasis on the last word of the sentence--for example, “what's right for you - just listen to/the voice that speaks inside.”(Silverstein). By using these literary devices, he strengthens the meaning of the poem because by repeating the word “voice” he is drilling it in that people have voices, and should use them. By juxtaposing the words “right” and “wrong” he shows that there is a clear difference between the two: when he is talking about feelings, he uses the word “right”; when he is talking about the “accepted beliefs” he uses “wrong”. Lastly, he uses rhyming to stress important words-- for example, when he says: “what's right for you - just listen to/the voice that speaks inside”(Silverstein), he rhymes “you” and “to” so the poem flows into the last sentence, the most important part of this particular poem. This is an important lesson of growing up, shown in Pamela Pauls’ article, “The Children’s Authors Who Broke The Rules”: “Once upon a more staid time, the purpose of children’s books was to model good behavior. They were meant to edify and to encourage young readers to be what parents wanted them to be, and the children in their pages were well behaved, properly attired and devoid of tears...Rather than reprimand the wayward listener, their books encouraged bad (or perhaps just human) behavior”(Paul). Basically, instead of trying to make children robots who only do what their parents tell them to, Silverstein encourages people to break the mold, to be someone that no one has been before-- he even did this himself. Growing up, his father wanted him to be what he was-- a business owner. However, Silverstein developed a taste for the arts and despite his father criticizing and not believing him, he worked hard and slapped a check down from Hugh Hefner himself for $1000 in front of his dumbfounded father to be a cartoonist at Playboy(Keri). He wants people to do what they want to do, not society, and is an important thing to learn. Be yourself, and if you need to go against public opinion to do so, so be it.

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Another important poem that Silverstein wrote is called “LISTEN TO THE MUSTN’TS”. “LISTEN TO THE MUSTN’TS” is about a message he would like to convey to everyone reading this poem. He states that “ Listen to the SHOULDN'TS/The IMPOSSIBLES, the WONT'S/Listen to the NEVER HAVES/Then listen close to me-/Anything can happen, child,/ANYTHING can be”(Silverstein). Basically, what this means and what the poem is about is that one should listen politely and take into consideration what other people think about something, and then should do it based on their judgement and their judgement only because nothing is impossible. This also contributes to his theme of individualism and American identity that one can do or be anything they want, and no one can tell them otherwise. Silverstein uses many literary devices to help convey his message, including repetition, capitalization, and rhyming. Silverstein uses repetition through his uses of words with negative connotations(for example, shouldn’ts, impossibles, wont’s). He uses it in 6 out of the 9 lines in the poem, and in doing so shows that no matter how many times people say something against someone, the only thing that is important is what they believe. He also uses capitalization to convey his point because he originally only capitalized negative words(again, such as shouldn’ts, impossibles, wont’s) but subverted it in the last sentence by saying that “ANYTHING can be”(Silverstein), a positive word. Basically, he is showing how other people will stress the negatives but the person listening needs to stress the positives. This also can contribute to his idea of breaking the mold because the whole poem is negative, but the part where he talks-“Listen close to me”(Silverstein)- is positive. Lastly, he uses rhyming to convey his message by stressing the last word of each sentence so the poem flows into his theme to conclude the poem: “Then listen close to me-/Anything can happen, child,/ANYTHING can be”(Silverstein). This is also an important lesson because Silverstein himself believed this and it came true- as stated in Silverstein’s obituary, “Silverstein once said, ‘You can go crazy with some of the wonderful stuff there is in life. I want to look at and listen to everything, to go everywhere’ Fortunately for us, his work is doing just that”(Leigh). A happy, satisfied Silverstein ended up dying in his peaceful home in Key West, Florida, which goes to show that the lesson he taught is true.

Finally, one other important poem Silverstein wrote is titled “Yesees and Noees”. This poem is about a fictional world with people called Yesees and Noees. The Yesees “said yes to anything/That anyone suggested”(Silverstein) and the Noees “said no to everything/Unless it was proven and tested”(Silverstein) and due to that “The Yesees all died of much too much/And the Noees all died of fright”(Silverstein). Silverstein goes on to bring up another group of people, the Thinkforyourselfees, who “come out all right”(Silverstein). Basically, what Silverstein is showing is that one can not be too extreme in life or you will be hurt. However, if you be calm, be your own person, and think for yourself, you will be fine. This again contributes to Silverstein’s belief in individualism and his American identity of being yourself and doing what one believes themselves, not other people. Some key literary devices Silverstein use are repetition, rhyming, and juxtaposition. Silverstein uses repetition when he repeats the word “all”. By doing so, he shows absolutes. All of the Yesees and Noees died. But all of the Thinkforyourselfees were all right. This shows how you can not be one of the Yesees or Noees, because the best way to survive is to be a Thinkforyourselfee. Silverstein uses rhyming, like in the past two poems, to put emphasis on the final words. By saying “And the Noees all died of fright,/But somehow I think the Thinkforyourselfees/All came out all right”(Silverstein) he lets ones’ mind flow into the last sentence, the meaning of the poem: that the

Thinkforyourselfees came out okay. Lastly, Silverstein uses juxtaposition to show that both ends of the spectrum are harmful, when he brings up the Yesees and the Noees, who do completely opposite things but still end up both dying. The point Silverstein is trying to make is that one should not be an extremist. This also can apply to politics, with blindly following the left or right can cause one to become an extremist and possibly be harmful to people. Instead of being spoon-fed media, which could be biased or even untrue, think for yourself and make your own opinion. Breffini O’Malley brings this up in his article, “We Love: Shel Silverstein”. He mentions the variety of Shel Silverstein’s life; how “He worked with everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to David Mamet”(O’Malley) and how he worked for Playboy Magazine and wrote children’s literature too(O’Malley). The point is that Silverstein dabbled in everything; and in doing so, in not saying yes to everything or no to everything, became very successful. In this poem, he makes it clear that he is not a special case: think for yourself and you will be more successful. Silverstein’s work, as deep as it is, is often criticised for being childish and not worthy reading material. This is simply not true. As one can see, his work is at surface-level not too hard to understand. However, if you look farther in, important themes arise. Whether it be individualism, extremism in politics, or going against traditional beliefs, you can always find something important that can be applied to modern problems and topics. As Emma Frederickson states in her article, “Memorize A Shel Silverstein Poem”, “Why, I wonder, does this poem have to be only for children? Can't we all learn from this best-selling author (and Grammy award winner)?...I believe that Silverstein's 'Boa Constrictor' is the perfect poem for...vapid academic study”(Frederickson). Basically, Frederickson is saying that Silverstein is a best-selling author and Grammy award winner, and that does not amount to anything? Ultimately, Shel Silverstein’s poems are beautiful and are worthy of, as Frederickson said, “vapid academic study”(Frederickson). Some also criticize him for teaching people wrong values. They say that his poems are inappropriate, that they promote unfavorable behavior. However, as previously shown, he broke the mold of children’s literature and through his great lessons, helped shape people into who they are today and encourages others to be unconventional, to become successful, to break the mold themselves.

Shel Silverstein is a great author and role model who continues to inspire people of all ages even today. His morals developed through his use of a variety of literary devices, primarily rhyming, juxtaposition, and repetition contribute to the reason his poems are so fruitful for dissecting and so popular amongst people. Also, the messages of his poems are very important, and all convey his main theme of individualism and American identity of being your own person no matter what anyone else thinks because nothing is impossible, that all one needs to do is believe that they can. To pave roads that no one has paved before. To pursue whatever you want to pursue. To be a leader, not a follower. Despite the people who think that his poems are childish, that they are teaching the wrong lessons, that are not looking deep enough into his work to realize that they are masterpieces, he has enough readers that have blossomed into highly successful and well-liked people to prove his dissenters otherwise. To quote a similar author, who also broke the mold: “Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is you-er than you.'

-Theodore Geisel(Dr. Seuss)

Works Cited

  1. Leigh, Spencer. 'Obituary: Shel Silverstein.' Independent [London, England], 25 May 1999, p. 7. Infotrac Newsstand,
  2. Accessed 7 Apr. 2019.
  3. 'Memorize a Shel Silverstein Poem.' UWIRE Text, 17 Feb. 2017, p. 1. Infotrac Newsstand, Accessed 5 Apr. 2019.
  4. Paul, Pamela. “The Children's Authors Who Broke the Rules.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 Sept. 2011, Accessed 5 Apr. 2019.
  6. “Shel Silverstein.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 10 Apr. 2019, Accessed 22 April 2019.
  7. 'Storyteller Shel Silverstein - Creativity And Care For Details Made His Works Best Sellers.'
  8. Investor's Business Daily, 3 July 2000, p. A04. Infotrac Newsstand, Accessed 5 Apr. 2019.
  9. 'We Love: Shel Silverstein.' Irish Times [Dublin, Ireland], 17 May 2003, p. 73. Infotrac Newsstand, Accessed 5 Apr. 2019.
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