Shel Silverstein 101: Life Axioms

We build our world on axioms; common ground principles on how we should live our lives. By comparing adult axioms to Shel Silverstein’s poetry for children, the line between adult and child fades away. Lessons learned in childhood are still imperative for adult living. According to Robert Fulghum (1988), in All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, kindergarten values are the “basics” to living an honest and worry-free life. By sharing with others, taking daily naps, and eating something sweet for dinner, we become our better selves. Today, kindergarten values are lost on most adults. With the invention of the automobile, alcohol, and sex, adults tend to forget they are still, in some ways, children. And it does not matter how much money or experience one has in life, they can still open the works of Shel Silverstein and identify with its wisdom.

Shel Silverstein (who passed in 1999) was one of the most accomplished and well-rounded artists. Silverstein’s military career sparked him to create a successful cartoon series, Take Ten (1955), which was about Shel’s life in the Army. In addition, legendary country singer, Johnny Cash, sung Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue.” A not too far-fetched song about a boy who suffered his whole life under the oppression of being named Sue. Cash deemed Silverstein as one of the most talented men he had ever met. Who would have thought Playboys most valued cartoonist and writer of 20 years would be, still to this day, one of the most cherished children’s poet.

I believe the lessons we instill in our children should not stay in our childhood; those lessons should be carried over into our adult lives. There are several life axioms which have stood the test of time: 1.) Those who live by the sword, die by the sword, 2.) Absolute power corrupts absolutely, 3.) Variety is the spice of life, 4.) Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, 5.) All that glitters is not gold, and 6.) A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. By analyzing these life axioms alongside with Silverstein’s poetry, one is able to better understand how Silverstein’s work follows along the same patterns as our life axioms. Revealing how Silverstein’s work instills values and teaches aged old principles that can enlighten the toughest and oldest adult. Life axioms are taught on a continuum, (they are taught on a wheel or shared in a sacred circle). This means we never stop learning from aged old stories no matter how many times we have encountered or heard them.

Those who live by the sword die by the sword:  This axiom has Biblical roots (Matthew 26:52). Those who live by dangerous means, die by dangerous means. If you think it’s ok, like Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout, in “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out,” to live like a disgusting pig, then, do it. Because sooner or later the garbage will take “you out” before you finally decide to take “it out.” This poem has attracted many artists, esp. song writer, activist Tori Amos. The message is basically a threat to those who live without reason or virtue. Like bossy little Pamela Purse who always shouted, “Ladies first.” The danger of always pushing oneself to the front of the line their whole life allots them to be the first in the frying pan when abducted by a “wild savage band” of cannibals. In “Hungry Mungry,” Mungry sucked up rivers, chomped on states, and gulped up people (Even soldiers and tanks!). When his parents tried to stop him, he ate them too. Hungry Mungry was so bent on eating everything around him, he ended up eating himself! “Cause nothin’ was nothin’ was/ […] Nothin was left to eat.”

Absolute power corrupts absolutely:  Healthy power is balanced power. Unhealthy power may lead you to a maniacal dentist who is actually behind the Halloween Candy Conspiracy to gain more unsuspecting clients. Those possessed with unhealthy power bring gorillas to school to ditch class and skip out on homework (Where the Sidewalk Ends, 2004).  Unhealthy power is when the tables are turned and, in “Crazy Dream,” the student becomes the teacher who, “[gives his teachers] a hundred hist’ry books/ to memorize each night,/ And made ‘em read ‘em on their heads/ Without turnin’ on the light […] And if they got one answer wrong,/ [He] just hung ‘em by their ears.” But what happens when you’re a perfectionist like Mary Hume, whose mantra is “almost perfect but not quite.” I hear you get kicked out of Heaven! People who have severe control issues are very corrupt. Likewise, greed is another corrupting force which moves many in today’s world. In “Lester,” the point of getting three wishes is to give at least one wish away and not hoard them by wishing for more wishes. In the end, Lester died, “[…] wasted his wishes on wishing.”

Variety is the spice of life:  Silverstein’s Every Thing On It (2011), is a complete book full of ways to spice one’s life up. Have you ever tried chopsticks on a favorite soup, burped the Pledge of Allegiance, initiated a Hug-O-War, caught stars in a “moon-catchin’ net,” shook a cow to make a milk shake, or gone to Nasty School where only the “rottenest” are accepted?  If you haven’t, then you need some variety! In “Ourchestra,” (yes it is spelled correctly) one must play with what they got. If you don’t have a drum, play on your tummy. If you don’t have a horn, play “on your nose,” cause after all variety is the spice of life. When a King will only eat peanut butter sandwiches and the whole town has to get involved in a 20 year battle to pry open his mouth, it’s time for that King to seek Variety is the Spice of Life Anonymous!

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth:  As a child I always thought this axiom meant by looking at a horse in the eye it forwarded you into deadly territory of getting kicked in the face! However, this axiom is about how one should not over analyze a gift. If someone is going to give you something, do not try to assess its value—take the gift and be happy. In “Help!” a unicorn’s horn gets stuck in a tree and when help arrives, this unicorn starts to over analyze the pain and the problems which may arrive if help is received. “How much will it hurt? How long will it take?/ Are you sure that my horn will not scratch, bend, or break?” (Falling Up, 1996). Likewise, if God, in “God’s Wheel,” is going to give you the wheel to turn for one day, asking for a lunch break and a raise is a sign you are no where nearer to being the ruler of the Universe. Now, if you are a toad and a kangaroo, in “Toad and the Kangaroo,” focus on having a beautiful new baby and not what you are going to name the child. Do not let the argument of semantics (i.e., “Toadaroo” and a “Kangaroad”) destroy the beauty of a new-found relationship. Having love is truly a gift and if you are blessed and fortunate enough to have it, receive it without over analyzing it.

All that glitters is not gold:  This axiom gained its popularity in William Shakespeare’s, comedic tragedy, “Merchant of Venice.”  And if you were a child of the 90’s, you probably rocked out to The Cover Girl’s “All That Glitters Isn’t Gold” which hip hopped its way to the top 40 on the music charts. When you start believing a talking fish can give you three wishes of riches and gold. Be wary. If he is a silver fish then he’s a liar so “watch out.”  For, not all golden lamps have subservient genies–some lamps have meanie genies who make you wash toilets and their undies. In “The Search,” finding gold is not the be all and end all of the world.  Once you get to the rainbows end and get your pot of gold, “what do [you] search for now”? How do you go on living with no life challenges, no risks, or no heart flutterings? If you’re not working hard for rewards then the rewards lose their luster, lose their shine. Those things you want so badly may not be the right fit for you.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Let’s face the facts of life: We live and we die. However, how we do the “in between” part is what really matters. Are you a snowman who dreams of seeing July, or a balloon who wants to travel the world, or a person who is only “funny by accident,” if so you are part of the chosen few who face a journey of a thousand miles. All journeys are hard, unpredictable, and long. If you’re like Dirty Dan, in “Dirtiest Man in the World,” you may have to take a shower journey. If you’re Benjamin Bunn, whose “buttons will not come undone” you may have to take an “unbuttoning” journey. And if you are like the cranky and crotchety, Grow-Up-Brown, you may need a journey in “growin’ down.” In Silverstein’s “This Bridge,” journeys take us “[t]o those mysterious lands [we] long to see,/ Through gypsy camps and swirling Arab fairs/ And moonlit woods where unicorns run free” Journeys of a thousand miles are quite exciting when one eventually takes one. Every step counts—every step matters. You may be on step 999 and not even know it!

Shel Silverstein’s poetry contains the basics for human living. I am in awe of children’s literature. Those like Lois Lowry (The Giver), Virginia Euwer Wolff (Make Lemonade), Madeleine L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time), Louis Sachar (Holes), and David Almond (Kit’s Wilderness) who are award-winning authors and stewards in enlightening children’s minds. The lessons taught are the basics for human survival filled with humor, irony, and love. We basically do ourselves a disservice when we say, “I cannot learn from a children’s story;” however, television’s new series, Once Upon a Time (2011), and Grimm (2011) (named after Grimms’ Fairy Tales) are gaining primetime audiences in full force. Stories from our childhood, geared for children still intrigue us. Movies like Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) are old stories being told and re-told again. Likewise, Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games (2008) went from children’s story to 2012’s box office spectacular. Movie goers were flocking to see Collin’s message on utopianism gone wrong—about how we sacrifice our freedom for safety (sounds a little familiar, right?). In all of this, I am thankful for writers of children’s literature because they are the voices I want my children to listen to.

Feelings of not fitting in, loneliness, anger, and anxiety can simply be eased by picking up the works of Shel Silverstein. We have been told time and time again how we should never judge a book by its cover; but, today I say we should never judge a book by its suggestive reading maturity level. Unlock new-found truths by exploring the great works of a great author (esp., an author who never thought he would be a children’s writer). For as Silverstein declared, “There’s a light on in the attic/ Though the house is dark and shuttered,/ I can see a flickerin’ flutter,/ And I know what it’s about./ There’s a light on in the attic./ I can see it from the outside,/ And I know you’re on the inside…lookin’ out.” In every dark attic of every adult mind, there lies a phoenix child, dormant, ready to rise.


6 thoughts on “Shel Silverstein 101: Life Axioms

  1. As a devoted fan of Silverstein, I applaud the great service you have done here! Keep up the good work – your voice is clear and insightful. I’m looking forward to your future posts!

  2. Great read…the axioms are as true today as when they first saw the light of day. Too many people forget them, or at least they don’t stop to remember them.

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