“Once I spoke the language of the flowers/Once I understood each word the caterpillar said/Once I smiled in secret at the gossip of the starlings/And shared a conversation with the house fly in my bed/Once I heard and answered all the questions of the crickets/And joined the crying of each falling dying flake of snow/Once I spoke the language of the flowers…/How did it go?/How did it go? (Where the Sidewalk Ends)
Shel Silverstein had a way of making me feel like a grown-up when I first read his poems. It was as if he and I shared a secret past – something great and dark and serious but funny at the same time. It was reminiscent of Dahl and left the same satisfied taste in my mouth as I devoured his words. He made me feel as if I had, in the days before this one, possessed some great power, something that linked me to other children all over the world who were experiencing this same wistful feeling in their bellies as they turned the pages of his books. There was something magical about the feel of the paper, the sound of its crispness as it brushed across my thumb, like a spark of remembrance, a spark of potential. He made me feel significant and powerful and important, so very important.
“She had blue skin,/And so did he./He kept it hid/And so did she./They searched for blue/Their whole life through,/Then passed right by-/And never knew.” (Every Thing on It)
I think the reason it was so easy to connect with the poems Shel wrote was because of the honesty and transparency he used to talk about real life. Not the life my parents told me was real, not the things my peers or teachers talked to me about, not my hopes and dreams and naive plans for the future. Real life. The messy, sad, exquisite, brilliant, madcap, hilarious trip that is life. He didn’t pull punches because I was a child, he didn’t try to sugar coat his messages, but he wasn’t out to ruin me, to crush the hope right out of me. He celebrated simplicity and innocence but appreciated the fact that life was complicated and strange. He was comfortable with dichotomy and made me realize that maybe life shouldn’t be lived as an “either/or” reality but approached with a “both/and” mentality. Life isn’t either pain or pleasure, it’s pain and pleasure. It’s highs and lows, wins and losses, all smushed up together and it’s only through honest examination of our experiences that we can come to see which is which.
“There is a voice inside of you/That whispers all day long/I feel this is right for me/I know that this is wrong/No teacher, preacher, parent, friend/Or wise man can decide/What’s right for you-just listen to/The voice that speaks inside.” (Falling Up)
I love the way that Silverstein was able to marry the whimsy and delight of childhood to a more somber and heavy material without losing his audience. As a child, I felt like I was being ushered into a secret, a secret my parents would like to have kept hidden. As a parent, I wish those secrets would stay hidden from my children. I wish that they would never know the pain of hiding their true selves, that they would never wonder “whatif”, that they would be free from depression and angst and lost loves. Silverstein seemed to have experienced it all and was able to strike just the right balance of sweetness and suffering.
“A spider lives inside my head/Who weaves a strange and wondrous web/Of silken threads and silver strings/To catch all sorts of flying things/Like crumbs of thoughts and bits of smiles/And specks of dried-up tears/And dust of dreams that catch and cling/For years and years and years.” (Every Thing on It)
Because of Shel Silverstein, I learned that there are always deeper truths buried just under the surface of both words and people. Because of Shel Silverstein, I realized that books truly can connect people across time and space. Because of Shel Silverstein, I re-read Dahl and Aiken. Because of Shel Silverstein, I am the writer I am today.