Shel Silverstein’s “Every Thing On It”

After the snowmelt and after the rain,
Out of the ground a hand came
And drew me a picture
And wrote me a poem
And touched my face gently
And pointed me home.

If you read my previous post on the poetic works of Shel Silverstein, then you’ll know that I vowed to read the newest collection, Every Thing On It, “with the same attention to, and admiration for, the surprising level of detail I’m sure it contains.” I don’t think it’s ever been so easy to keep a promise in my life.

The best part of my reading experience this time around was that, at age 22, I acquired Every Thing On It exactly as I’d acquired his 1996 collection, Falling Up: it was a completely unexpected surprise gift that I came home to find, evoking an excitement so pure that I’m pretty sure I squealed and jumped up and down in place on both occasions.

That feeling never goes away across 195 pages. In fact, even the process of compiling this posthumous collection—Silverstein died in 1999 at age 68—was an admittedly fun (albeit daunting) task for his surviving family members. A great NPR article explains that the team selecting 145 poems for Every Thing On It had 1,500 unpublished pieces to choose from, and that reading each one aloud to each other helped determine which were the best for the book.

Pick up any Silverstein collection and you’ll know just what they mean. Read through the book and you’ll find yourself whispering along to all the silly words and made-up terms and –ing terminations chopped to –in’ ones in that infectiously informal diction at which our dear poet excels. In every instance of italics and caps lock, you’ll find excuses to shout, and in every ellipsis you’ll find your eyes pausing for dramatic effect. You’ll tear the pages back quickly to find the punchline of the joke waiting for you there, and you’ll be giggling regardless of whether you anticipated the joke or not. I’m confident in guaranteeing you these experiences, because I, as someone who just finished the book, went through every one of them. Sadly, I can guarantee you one more: you’ll find yourself slowing down incrementally as you near the end of the book—because you’ll realize you’re on borrowed time.

At some point, you’ll have the sad little thought occur to you, as it inevitably must, that none of the 145 poems you just read will ever be replenished with new, untouched adventures. Even if HarperCollins invests the time to compile another collection from Shel’s unpublished works in the years to come (as I sincerely hope they do), the fact is that we as an audience will be chipping away at a finite supply. There’s only so much left before every poem and drawing is one we’ve consumed before.

Hence, then, the brilliance of the title, Every Thing On It. The title and its accompanying illustration were allegedly chosen because of the liveliness of the image, but it’s not hard to think of so many more potentialities. For one thing, it seems like so many poems in this collection approach the upper level of Silversteinesque multilayered nuance that we’ll inevitably get to spend plenty of time unraveling them for all their hidden gems. Take, for example, the enigmatic poem “The Dollhouse”:

You can’t crawl back in the dollhouse—
You’ve gotten too big to get in.
You’ve got to live here
Like the rest of us do.
You’ve got to walk roads
That are winding and new.
But oh, I wish I could
Crawl back with you,
Into the dollhouse again.

I can think of a few ways to interpret this, but I’m not going to claim I’ve thought of all of them. There’s a relationship between the “I” and the “You” that remains at least partially hidden to the reader, who might very well be the “you,” but then again, might not be. And it’s really wonderful to see Shel’s apt and subtle criticism of the world in its current state—a feature shared in another one of my favorite new poems, “Before the Race”:

Mr. Flack tells his son Jack,
“Run hard—with no excuses.”
Mr. Brill tells his son Will
He’ll kill him if he loses.
Mr. Drew tells his son Lou
“Be fearless but beware.”
And little Trace, he won the race
(His father wasn’t there).

These moments with real social implications seem to point to a writer nearing the end of a long and successful life: reflective, expressive, and contemplative. He is never critical for petty reasons, and never snide to a point of coming across alienating. Rather, the Shel we see in Every Thing On It has straddled the crossroads of humor, scrutiny, and outlandishness, and you exit this book feeling like you’ve been presented with something genuine, as of course we have been all along. With 1,355 Shel Silverstein poems left to discover – many of which it’s unlikely we’ll ever see – we are reminded with this latest collection of what happens when you blend, in equal parts, all the best reasons for kids to stay kids. You reach the end of the sidewalk, you trip and fall up, and what you find at the top is a writer who loves you for your own silliness, your own unyielding youth, loves your willingness to follow him on whatever trail he blazes, and has loved it all continually for almost forty years.

It is, quite simply, a love with everything on it.

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