Shel Silverstein's Poems Live On In 'Every Thing'

Sep 20, 2011
Originally published on September 20, 2011 5:13 pm

When Shel Silverstein wrote the poem "Years From Now," he seemed to know that one day he'd be gone but that his playful words and images would still be making children happy. "I cannot see your face," he writes to his young readers, but in "some far-off place," he assures them, "I hear you laughing — and I smile."

The beloved children's poet and illustrator died in 1999 at age 68. "Years From Now" is one of the poems in a new book called Every Thing On It that has just been released by Silverstein's family. If you liked Silverstein's other books, such as Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends, you'll recognize poems — like "Frightened" — as vintage Shel:

"There are kids underneath my bed,"
Cried little baby monster Fred.
Momma monster smiled. "Oh, Fred,
There's no such things as kids," she said.

Every Thing On It includes 145 poems in all. Silverstein eliminated many of them from his earlier books, not because he didn't like them, but because they just didn't happen to fit in the perfect order he was looking for in a given collection. Toni Markiet, editor of the new collection, worked on other projects alongside Silverstein. Markiet says the poet paid close attention to every last detail.

"He would move a piece of art over an 18th of an inch ... and look at how it looked on a page," she tells NPR's David Greene. " ... It's a slight adjustment, but to him, it mattered. I think one of the reasons his books are still so immensely popular after almost 50 years is that every tiny detail was considered."

To stay true to Silverstein's aesthetic, Markiet worked closely with the poet's family and used previous books as a template for the balance and pacing of the poetry and illustrations. The right-hand side of every page had to entice young readers to turn to the next page. The poetry needed to be arranged carefully to create a mix of funny, poignant and naughty.

"I think he liked to mix it up," Markiet says, "so that a child or any reader would never be bored. You could let it open at any page and you would be entertained."

"Every Thing On It" was chosen as the book's titular poem in part because of the lively art that accompanied it. A boy — who has asked for a hot dog with "everything on it" — holds a bun piled sky high with a basketball hoop, a snake, a hat, an umbrella, you name it.

"If you look at [Silverstein's] other books, the title was part of the artwork," Markiet explains. "To him, typography and layout was part of the whole. The art is wonderful. I mean, you look at it and you wonder: What is he doing with all that stuff on a hot dog? It makes you want to turn [the page.]"

'Poems Need To Be Read Out Loud'

There were more than 1,500 poems to choose from, says Mitch Myers, Silverstein's nephew. To whittle the collection down to just 145, a small team of Silverstein's family members got together once a month for about a year to read the poet's verses aloud. They shared their favorites, and separated the maybes, the nos and the keepers.

"We believe ... that poems need to be read out loud," Myers says. "This is one of the joys of the book, and we really were able to determine if it really worked when we said it out loud."

The collection was carefully pieced together, as the family sought to do justice to a poet and illustrator who was sensitively attuned to pacing, balance, humor and timing.

"These are his poems, this is his art," says Markiet. "We didn't do anything to them. We simply chose them out of the ones that had not had a chance to be published yet."


Dirty Clothes

Some put 'em in a washer,
Some toss 'em in a tub,
Some dump 'em in a laundry truck
For someone else to scrub.
Some stick 'em in a hamper,
Some stuff 'em in a sack.
I never worry 'bout 'em--
I just keep 'em on my back


Italian Food

Oh, how I love Italian food.
I eat it all the time,
Not just 'cause how good it tastes
But 'cause how good it rhymes.
Minestrone, cannelloni,
Macaroni, rigatoni,
Spaghettini, scallopini,
Escarole, braciole,
Insalata, cremolata, manicotti,
Marinara, carbonara,
Shrimp francese, Bolognese,
Ravioli, mostaccioli,
Mozzarella, tagliatelle,
Fried zucchini, rollatini,
Fettuccine, green linguine,
Tortellini, Tetrazzini,
Oops--I think I split my jeani.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, Host:

When Shel Silverstein wrote this poem, he seemed to know that someday he'd be gone but children would still be smiling with him.

CLAIRE FALATKO: "Years From Now." Although I cannot see your face as you flip these poems a while, somewhere from some far-off place, I hear you laughing and I smile.

GREENE: That was eight-year-old Claire Falatko reading "Years from Now." It's one of the poems in a new book called "Every Thing On It" that Silverstein's family has just released. If you liked Silverstein's other books, "Light in the Attic," "Where the Sidewalk Ends," you'll know this as vintage Shel.

TRINIIS JONES: "Happy Birthday." So what if nobody came. I'll have all the ice cream and tea. And I'll laugh with myself and I'll dance with myself. And I'll sing Happy Birthday to me.

PAUL OSTERMANN: There are kids underneath my bed, cried little baby monster Fred. Momma Monster smiled. Oh, Fred, there's no such things as kids, she said.

GREENE: That first poem, "Happy Birthday," was ready 9-year-old Triniis Jones. The second poem, "Frightened," was read by 7-year-old Paul Ostermann-Healey.

Both of those poems are in the new collection, "Every Thing On It." The book has 145 poems in all. Silverstein eliminated many of them from his earlier books, not because he didn't like them. They just didn't happen to fit in the perfect order he was looking for in a given collection.

The editor of the new book, Toni Markiet, worked on other projects alongside Silverstein before Silverstein died in 1999. Markiet says the poet paid attention to every last detail.

TONI MARKIET: He would move a piece of art over an 18th of an inch and look at it, how it looked on a page...

GREENE: Wow, that's a slight adjustment.

MARKIET: Yeah, it's a slight adjustment but to him it mattered. And I think one of the reasons his books are still so immensely popular, after almost 50 years, is that every tiny detail was considered.

GREENE: Well, in putting together this new book, I mean was Shel sort of in your head? I mean if you made a slight adjustment you'd say, my God, he's a perfectionist. He would want me to do this or that?

MARKIET: Well, you know, I worked with the family, Shel's family, and they knew him obviously much better than I did. You know, we had the previous three poetry books so we had a template of how he liked to pace things out. 'Cause pacing and balance was everything to him...

GREENE: Pacing and balance, what do you mean by that?

MARKIET: Yeah. Well, when you read a book like this, as you read any book - any adult book - the right-hand side has to want to make you turn the page, page after page after page. And balance of the poems, you know, he has some extremely funny poems in all of the books. He has some more poignant poems. He has some naughty poems. And I think...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GREENE: I can picture that.

MARKIET: ...he liked to mix it up so that a child or any reader would never be bored. And you could let it open at any page and you would be entertained, and you wouldn't feel that you're coming out of nowhere. And so these are his poems, this is his art; we didn't do anything to them. We simply chose them out of the ones that had not had a chance to be published yet.

GREENE: How did you choose the title, "Every Thing On It?" Why that poem?

MARKIET: If you look at his other books, the title was part of the artwork. I mean to him, typography and layout was part of the whole. And so, the art is wonderful. I mean you look at it and you wonder what is he doing with all that stuff on a hot dog? And it makes you want to...

GREENE: And I'm just looking.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GREENE: There's a boy holding a hot dog with everything you can imagine piled on it, up sky-high; a basketball hoop, a snake...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARKIET: Everything.

GREENE: ...a hat, an umbrella, yeah.

MARKIET: Which is what happens when you ask for a hot dog with everything on it. So we laid out a few. We did layouts of a few others and this was the one that we felt, if you were walking into any of the bookstores and this was on a wall, it would draw your eye the most clearly.

GREENE: Let's get to "Italian Food."

MARKIET: Oh.

GREENE: You said the family really liked this poem. Why is that?

MARKIET: Well, they liked me reading the poem.

"Italian Food." Oh, how I love Italian food. I eat it all the time, not just 'cause how good it tastes but 'cause how good it rhymes. Minestrone, cannelloni, macaroni, rigatoni, spaghettini, scallopini, escarole, braciole, insalata, cremolata, manicotti, marinara, carbonara, shrimp francese, Bolognese, ravioli, mostaccioli, mozzarella, tagliatelle, fried zucchini, rollatini, fettuccine, green linguine, tortellini, tetrazzini - Oops, I think I split my jeanis.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MITCH MYERS: It was my condition to agree to the interview if Toni was allowed to read "Italian Food."

GREENE: That last voice is Mitch Myers. He's Shel Silverstein's nephew and he helps run his uncle's estate. He did insist that Toni read that poem "Italian Food" in our interview. In fact, reading Shel's verses aloud was a big part of how they put this collection together.

MYERS: We had a number of poems, in the excess of 1,500.

GREENE: How did you whittle it down to 145?

MYERS: Well, all the members of the team got a copy or a collection of the poems. We all went through them individually first and picked out the ones that we liked, the maybe's and the no's. We met once a month for about a year and we went through all the poems that we had in our lists. And if that made it through that crowd, then it was a keeper.

We believe and I'd like to think that poems need to be read out loud. And this is one of the joys of the book, and we really were able to determine if it really worked when we said it out loud. And even if we already agreed that it was a yes and it was a keeper, the next time around we still read it.

GREENE: And who is we? Who was on the committee?

MYERS: Well, the family. We all are behind this big, dark curtain.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Are we talking about 20 people, five people?

MYERS: About five of us.

GREENE: One of the people behind that curtain was Mitch's mom, Shel's sister. She was on the line too.

MYERS: You want to read the title poem?

PEG MYERS: I'm going to start with the title poem, "Every Thing On It."

GREENE: Sounds good.

MYERS: "Every Thing On It." I asked for a hot dog with everything on it. And that was my big mistake. ?Cause it came with a parrot, a bee in a bonnet, a wristwatch, a wrench, and a rake. It came with a goldfish, a flag and a fiddle, a frog in a front porch swing. And a mouse in a mask - that's the last time I ask for a hot dog with everything.

GREENE: All right. That's Peg Myers, who is Shel Silverstein's...

MYERS: Oh, I have one more, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Peggy, it is all - the floor is yours.

MYERS: Okay. This is called "Dirty Clothes."

Some put 'em in a washer, some toss 'em in a tub, some dump 'em in a laundry truck for someone else to scrub. Some stick 'em in a hamper. Some stuff 'em in a sack. I never worry 'bout 'em, I just keep 'em on my back.

GREENE: Well, there you have it. Shel Silverstein's sister, Peg Myers, along with her son, Mitch.

Shel's new book of poetry, "Every Thing On It," is on bookshelves today. You can read some of the verses at our website, NPR.org.

We will leave you now with Paul Ostermann-Healy reading the final poem in Shel's new collection.

OSTERMANN: "When I Am Gone." When I am gone, what will you do? Who will write and who will draw for you? Someone smarter, someone new, someone better, maybe you.

GREENE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.