Silverstein, Shel, Surprising Encounters With

Shel Silverstein's signature

Guest post by Bridget Lowe

A favorite story of mine that my boyfriend, Cree, tells is how, at age ten, he and some friends found an abandoned stash of Playboy magazines. While marveling at the nude women in that ’70s soft focus lens work, he was shocked to find an ink drawing of a man’s very long penis tied up in knots. It wasn’t the silly subject matter of the drawing that surprised him, though–it was the familiar style of the artist. There in the pages of such naughtiness was the unmistakable work of Shel Silverstein.


In an effort to hide the magazines in a place where he could access them again, Cree’s brilliant ten-year-old idea was to roll them up and slide them into nooks in the woodpile in his backyard. He said for months after little bits of weathered paper would blow through the yard and stick to other things, sometimes a bit of real breast or a coy smile, confusing his father until the magazines finally disappeared, parental or elemental forces at work.
But the presence of Silverstein’s work in such a publication left an impression–it was a significant encounter with the jumbling of child and adult worlds. Of course looking at a nudie mag at that age is also a jumbling of child and adult worlds, but in a way that is knowingly forbidden–the expectation is complete immersion in the adult world, not a mixture of the two.
The presence of Silverstein’s work in Playboy was actually a regular occurrence throughout his career, with his very popular contributions including travel correspondence, cartoons, poems, and for a few years he even called the Playboy Mansion home. And Silverstein was concurrently a mainstay of childhood for many of us. His poems and stories display a unique understanding of what children value and, by extension, what they fear losing. He was capable of both humor and heartbreak, evident in his extremely popular collections Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic. He also had a knack for making the everyday suddenly extraordinary, unpredictable, or even menacing.

My own adult Silverstein moment came a little later and in a very different way, when I first heard Marianne Faithfull’s 1979 album Broken English and quickly fell in love with the song “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan.”


The story of a housewife who “at the age of 37…realized she’d never ride / through Paris in a sports car / with the warm wind in her hair,” the song is a ballad of unrealized dreams, thwarted desires, and extreme loneliness. With her husband at work and her kids at school, Lucy Jordan tries to decide how to spend her day: “She could clean the house for hours, or rearrange the flowers….” The lack of choices and the failure to reconcile real life with fantasy is made all the more desperate by Faithfull’s rasp, her vocal chords irreparably damaged at this point by cocaine and illness. It sounds as if she can hardly get the words out over the wall of synthesizer, a prisoner whispering to the listener while her captor is out of the room.
Of course “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” ends sadly, culminating in Lucy’s ecstatic vision of a man reaching out his hand to her and guiding her “to the long white car.” Whether Lucy has jumped and is now in the sports car of her private heaven or has been assisted down from the ledge to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance is left up to us, but her freedom and human connection have unambiguously arrived, although in a very different form than expected. In retrospect it makes strange sense that this is a Silverstein poem, but at the time I was shocked to learn he wrote beyond those familiar black-and-white books I loved so much. I was even more surprised to learn that Faithfull was not making creative use of a Silverstein poem but covering a Silverstein song (he wrote many, recorded by many artists, including Johnny Cash’s hit “A Boy Named Sue”).
If Shel Silverstein were an emerging artist today, I imagine editors would suggest he replace his stubborn, homework-hating, inquisitive characters with poems about kids who handle conflict in healthy ways, follow the food pyramid, and always wear a helmet (the dull “Official Site for Kids” doesn’t seem too far off). As children there’s a unique sadness in the realization that the things you have regarded as eternal truths are in fact tenable. The sidewalk doesn’t go on forever (though good things can happen where it ends), and adults have their own, often unmet, desires–and shockingly, they have nothing to do with you.

This is Bridget’s sixth post for Get Behind the Plough.

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