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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Number 55: Shel Silverstein "Forgotten Language"

Forgotten Language
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 housefly
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?

-- Shel Silverstein

Hap Notes: Shel Silverstein (1930-1999) was an extraordinary talent. He was an artist, a writer, a poet and a musician. He wrote popular songs and extraordinary children's books. He was a man who genuinely enjoyed life. Most people know him as the author of The Giving Tree, a book that is so fundamental to grade schools and counselor's offices that it's hard to imagine when it wasn't around.

As a songwriter he wrote "The Unicorn," the staple of the Irish Rovers. He wrote songs that permeated (and still do) the radio like "Sylvia's Mother" and "The Cover of the Rolling Stone" and "Put Another Log on the Fire." He wrote the Johnny Cash hit "A Boy Named Sue." He wrote "I'm Checkin' Out," the song Meryl Streep sings in Postcards From the Edge. He wrote dozens more than this- I'm just throwing out a few examples.

When I was in junior high school, my geography teacher used to read to us from Silverstein's Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book, a publication decidedly not for children. We loved it. It was hilariously funny and clever. Silverstein wrote a lot of adult content being a travel journalist for Playboy magazine for many years in addition to the many cartoons he drew for them.

He was sort of all over the place, writing plays, light verse, children's books, songs and the like. One thing that permeates his work is an amused and wise positivity. He wasn't naive, far from it, he was just hopeful. It's worth noting that every once in a while some library will ban Silverstein's books because the poetry talks about things like breaking a dish instead of drying it to get out of a chore or some monster that eats children. It's always disheartening to see a library forget how smart children are.

The poem I selected is rather uncharacteristic of Silverstein in that it's rather wistful and a bit sad. My favorite poem by Silverstein when I was a kid was "A thousand hairy savages/ Sitting down to lunch/ Gobble gobble glup glup/ Munch munch munch." I almost just used that instead.

But this one always calls to me because I believe him, and I believe I (and you) used to know that language, too. As we grow older, we lose our abilities to talk about anything but "real life"- that thing everyone wants to make so dull with talk of "ramping up" and
"up-sized solution-oriented initiatives" or "robust actuating infrastructures" and a "centralized global workforce." Seriously, how do people say that glop with a straight face? It's all soul-sucking utter nonsense.

I'll take the common sense of Where the Sidwalk Ends or A Light in the Attic. I'd rather be where polar bears live in your refrigerator and you need to go out with a jar and a rag and polish the stars. I've mentioned before that "children's" and "light" verse should both be genre names used with more respect. Any verses that make you smile and think are precious. We're all still children somewhere inside of us. If you've lost that then you've really forgotten an important language.

Here's a good Shel Silverstein quote: "
Never explain what you do. It speaks for itself. You only muddle it by talking about it."

You can find the official website for Silverstein here:

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