Sunday, March 18, 2007

Cr@zy Great Poetry #1 - Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein will be remembered forever as a poet for all ages. Though his verse is quaint and childlike, it reaches deep into thought, even in the most grown-up of us. I first discovered Shel in Elementary School, maybe First or Second Grade, in the Library. I think it was actually a teacher that turned me onto him. I was hooked with the first book I came into contact with: "Where the Sidewalk Ends". But the sidewalk did not end there. I have passed on my love for this classic children's author to my son, with whom I frequently read "Giraffe and a Half" (our favorite book!)

While Silverstein is best-known for books like "A Light in the Attic", "The Giving Tree", "The Missing Piece", "Who Wants a Cheap Rhinoceros?", "Falling Up" and "Runny Babbit", there are a few Shel Silverstein books - and facts - you may not know about.

"Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book: A Primer for Tender Young Minds" and "Different Dances" were not books intended by Silverstein for his usual crowd of simple, wide-eyed Elementary school kids. These books (which I am fortunate to have copies of both) were meant for adult consumption. This is definitely a Shel you've never seen - or even thought existed. Even some of his children's poetry and verse is veiled with a thin, transparency of darkness. The "ABZ Book" takes its time meandering through the alphabet as though it were written for a child - with very naughty undertones. In short, not exactly the alphabet book you want to read to your children. They might learn the alphabet, but they might also learn a few other things too... The first page of the book reads:

"SURPRISE Because you have been very good,
and because your Uncle Shelby loves you
tomorrow you can stay home FROM SCHOOL
"Different Dances" is Silverstein's satirical look at life as an adult and at the human psyche - this one is especially not for the kiddos as there are some pretty graphic (and sexually explicit) drawings in this book. As described by one reviewer: "for the 'cool' people".

Silverstein was involved in more than just children's poetry and silly stories. Bet you didn't know that he wrote "A Boy Named Sue" - a huge hit for Johnny Cash. He also wrote most of the music performed by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, including "Cover of the Rolling Stone." Shel's career began in the early 1950's while he served in the military - he penned cartoons that were published in the Pacific edition of the military newsletter, "Stars and Stripes". He did not originally intend to author works for children, but after being forced to try, he was so happy with the silliness that resulted that he continued to write children's books until his death; the last published posthumuously ("Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook" in 2005). He verified that his work was never inspired by another poet; this is apparent to me, as I have never seen another poet quite like Shel Silverstein. His dark, comical adaptations of everyday life incorporated with slang and scrawly, simple drawings are a combination never before attempted by the contemporaries of the time.

In addition to these works, Silverstein was a contributor to several Playboy publications, and released several albums of the folkish/indie genre. He always had a passion for music, and his knack for creative and colorful verse shone brightly alongside this affinity. He could play guitar, piano, saxophone and trombone in addition to his lyrics, making him quite a talented show. He also wrote a handful of adult-inspired poems, including one of my favorites "The Perfect High" (see below). He was an avid collector of books, so attentive to details like the quality of binding an paper, that he refused to ever allow his works to be printed in softcover, so none would ever be degraded in value.

Shel Silverstein died young, at the age of 69. He was found dead of a heart attack by two cleaning ladies in his home in Key West, Florida, on May 10, 1999.

In a 1974 interview with Publishers' Weekly, Shel was quoted as saying:
"I would hope that people, no matter what age, would find something to identify with in my books, pick up one and experience a personal sense of discovery. That's great. But for them, not for me. I think that if you're creative person, you should just go about your business, do your work and not care about how it's received. I never read reviews because if you believe the good ones you have to believe the bad ones too. Not that I don't care about success. I do, but only because it lets me do what I want. I was always prepared for success but that means that I have to be prepared for failure too. I have an ego, I have ideas, I want to be articulate, to communicate but in my own way. People who say they create only for themselves and don't care if they are published...I hate to hear talk like that. If it's good, it's too good not to share. That's the way I feel about my work."
And now, in tribute to Shel Silverstein, my two most favorite of his works:

Somebody Has To

Somebody has to go polish the stars,
They're looking a little bit dull.
Somebody has to go polish the stars,
For the eagles and starlings and gulls
Have all been complaining they're tarnished and worn,
They say they want new ones we cannot afford.
So please get your rags
And your polishing jars,
Somebody has to go polish the stars.

-Shel Silverstein

the perfect high
- or -
The Quest for Gimmesome Roy

*CAUTION* - strong language!!

There once was a boy named Gimmesome Roy. He was nothing like me or you.
'Cause laying back and getting high was all he cared to do.
As a kid, he sat in the cellar, sniffing airplane glue.
And then he smoked bananas -- which was then the thing to do.
He tried aspirin in Coca-Cola, breathed helium on the sly,
and his life was just one endless search to find that perfect high.
But grass just made him want to lay back and eat chocolate chip pizza all night,
and the great things he wrote while he was stoned looked like shit in the morning light.
And speed just made him rap all day, reds just laid him back,
and Cocaine Rose was sweet to his nose, but the price nearly broke his back.
He tried PCP and THC, but they didn't quite do the trick,
and poppers nearly blew his heart and mushrooms made him sick.
Acid made him see the light, but he couldn't remember it long,
and hashish was just a little too weak, and smack was a lot too strong,
and Quaaludes made him stumble, and booze just made him cry,
'Till he heard of a cat named Baba Fats who knew of the perfect high.

Now, Baba Fats was a hermit cat who lived up in Nepal,
High on a craggy mountaintop, up a sheer and icy wall.
"But hell," says Roy, "I'm a healthy boy, and I'll crawl or climb or fly,
But I'll find that guru who'll give me the clue as to what's the perfect high."
So out and off goes Gimmesome Roy to the land that knows no time,
up a trail no man could conquer to a cliff no man could climb.
For fourteen years he tries that cliff, then back down again he slides
then sits -- and cries -- and climbs again, pursuing the perfect high.
He's grinding his teeth, he's coughing blood, he's aching and shaking and weak,
as starving and sore and bleeding and tore, he reaches the mountain peak.
And his eyes blink red like a snow-blind wolf, and he snarls the snarl of a rat,
as there in perfect repose and wearing no clothes -- sits the godlike Baba Fats.

"What's happening, Fats?" says Roy with joy, "I've come to state my biz.
I hear you're hip to the perfect trip. Please tell me what it is.
For you can see," says Roy to he, "that I'm about to die.
So, for my last ride, Fats, how can I achieve the perfect high?"
"Well, dog my cats!" says Baba Fats, "here's one more burnt-out soul,
who's looking for some alchemist to turn his trip to gold.
But you won't find it in no dealer's stash, or on no druggist's shelf.
Son, if you would seek the perfect high -- find it in yourself."

"Why, you jive motherfucker!" screamed Gimmesome Roy, "I've climbed through rain and sleet,
I've lost three fingers off my hands and four toes off my feet!
I've braved the lair of the polar bear and tasted the maggot's kiss.
Now, you tell me the high is in myself. What kind of shit is this?
My ears 'fore they froze off," says Roy, "had heard all kind of crap,
but I didn't climb for fourteen years to listen to that sophomore rap.
And I didn't crawl up here to hear that the high is on the natch,
so you tell me where the real stuff is or I'll kill your guru ass!"

"OK, OK," says Baba Fats, "you're forcing it out of me.
There is a land beyond the sun that's known as Zaboli.
A wretched land of stone and sand where snakes and buzzards scream,
and in this devil's garden blooms the mystic Tzu-Tzu Tree.
And every ten years it blooms one flower as white as the Key West sky,
and he who eats of the Tzu-Tzu flower will know the perfect high.
For the rush comes on like a tidal wave and it hits like the blazing sun.
And the high, it lasts a lifetime and the down don't ever come.
But the Zaboli land is ruled by a giant who stands twelve cubits high.
With eyes of red in his hundred heads, he waits for the passers-by.
And you must slay the red-eyed giant, and swim the River of Slime,
where the mucous beasts, they wait to feast on those who journey by.
And if you survive the giant and the beasts and swim on that slimy sea,
there's a blood-drinking witch who sharpens her teeth as she guards that Tzu-Tzu Tree."
And with tears of joy in his snow-blind eye, Roy hands the guru a five,
then back down the icy mountain he crawls, pursuing that perfect high.

"Well, that is that," says Baba Fats, sitting back down on his stone,
facing another thousand years of talking to God alone.
"It seems, Lord," says Fats, "it's always the same, old men or bright-eyed youth,
it's always easier to sell them some shit than it is to give them the truth."

- Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein

Official Site: http://www.shelsilverstein.com
Wikipedia Entry
on Answers.com
Collected Information