Poetry Friday: America’s Favorite Children’s Poet,
Shel Silverstein . . . In the Buff

h1 July 20th, 2007 by jules

{Note: Today’s Poetry Friday round-up is over here at Mentor Texts & More}.

Yes, in the buff. Nudey camp! Nudey camp!

(Just trying to get your attention again).

But really, there is a bit of Uncle Shelby’s bare bum in this book.

Seriously now, I was drawn to the New Books shelf at my local library last week, only to see this new release, Playboy’s Silverstein Around the World (Simon & Schuster, May 2007), complete with a foreword by none other than Hugh Hefner (the reverent and well-crafted introduction having been written by Mitch Myers, who — according to this link — maintains the Shel Silverstein Archive in Chicago). Yes, this is for those of you who may like Silverstein’s children’s poetry — even if just a little — but would perhaps like to see another side of him, the adult-oriented side (he was a screenwriter, songwriter, playwright, and more — writing both plays and screenplays with none other than David Mamet), the as-far-away-as-possible-from-The-Creator-of-The-Giving-Tree side. And, since more of his children’s work — and very little of his work for adults — is in print, this is a fascinating look at Silverstein and his globe-trotting ways. Ultimately, Silverstein’s travel write-ups for Playboy were “overtly autobiographical, ” as Myers writes, so it’s quite the insightful look into Silverstein and a bit of his life for approximately five years.

Hefner explains in the foreword that he met Silverstein in 1956 after Silverstein had just returned to the U.S. from military duty in Japan. He brought his drawings to the Playboy office, at that time a fledgling magazine, hoping to get some work as a cartoonist. Despite being hired and having success at the magazine and much camaraderie with Hefner and the other cartoonists — LeRoy Neiman, to name one — Shel wanted to return to Japan (“I had been in Japan and I’d been a star,” Silverstein recalled. “Now I was nothing. I had already sold stuff to Playboy and felt very good about it–and even that wasn’t enough”). When Shel told Hefner about his plans to leave, Hefner’s offer was for him to draw while there; indeed, Hefner had the idea that Shel would be Playboy’s “traveling representative, sending back recollections in the forms of cartoons.” And he wanted Shel to include himself in the cartoons, something he was reluctant — but eventually agreed — to do.

So, there you have this book: It is a series of chapters that reproduce the (very) short write-ups in Playboy about Shel’s journeys and reproduce his cartoons and photographs from each adventure (his line drawings having the exact same loose style as the ones in his children’s poetry anthologies). Beginning in May of 1957, he documented his journey back to Japan and followed it with visits to Scandinavia, London, Paris, Moscow, Italy, Switzerland, Spain (including some bull-fighting in Seville), North and Central Africa, Greenwich Village, Alaska, Hawaii, Miami, Mexico, Fire Island, and London. His travels ended in January 1968 in Hollywood. Throw in a five-week spring-training fling with the Chicago White Sox in 1962; an August 1963 visit to a nudist camp (hence, this post’s title, of course) in Palmerton, Pennsylvania; and a two-month stay in 1968 “among the hippies” in Haight-Ashbury.

The Booklist review of this title states, “Most of the cartoons’ gags play against cultural stereotypes, with a befuddled Silverstein as the butt of the joke,” and that could pretty much stand as an excellent summary of the book (which is a quick read, consisting of mostly the free-wheeling, world-travelling cartoonist’s pen-and-ink drawings and photographs): In Hawaii he sketches himself being donned in a lei by a lovely lady who says, “Aloha, sir . . . and I hope you enjoy Hawaii, sir . . . and it’s spelled l-e-i, sir . . . and I’ve heard that joke 3,227 times, sir . . .”; at the Pennsylvania nudist camp, he’s drawn leaning over in embarrassment, sitting on a beach towel, while a lady leans next to him to say, “Well, my goodness . . . what’s so bad about a little sunburn . . . ?”; and during his stint with the White Sox, he draws himself on the bench, while another player says to him, “Look, if you were a pitcher, I’d rub down your arm for you. If you were an outfielder, I’d massage your legs. But all you do is sit on the bench, and I’ll be damned if I’ll . . .” And there’s a heavy dose of social commentary interspersed throughout the book as well. This is Playboy we’re talking about, part leader of the social revolution of the 1950s and ’60s.

And did you know that in 1959 during his wandering-minstrel travels in central Africa on safari, he and his photographer suffered an accident that almost killed him? They collided head on with a truck full of natives and were badly injured, “Shel with his side caved in and left leg slashed open.” The aborigines refused to take them to a hospital without payment, and they were left at the side of the road. Saved by a travelling Scottish couple, they were taken to a tiny hospital at Fort Portal, where they recovered. Photographs of Silverstein holed up in this four-bed hospital, sketching, are included in this chapter.

. . . As well as a bajillion other fascinating photos, mostly with Shel surrounded by women — from cities all over the globe — adoring him. One gets the sense that he, ahem, did as he pleased on his travels (“Silverstein’s efforts to score with the local damsels,” as the Booklist review put it), though at the close of Myers’ introduction, we see that Silverstein told Hefner (way before his death in 1999):

“I find that the things of value to me have become quite clear–that the times of closeness with real friends is becoming the most valuable thing of all. So the travel for me has almost no value anymore. Seeing what? They’re only places with people like myself. If you want to show me a mountain, I’ve seen some high mountains, and I’ve seen what men can do with pyramids. I’ve seen the tropics and so what? If I’ve created an image of a world traveler and adventurer, and the fact is I fucking want to sit down and grow roses with Suzie Q–I’m gonna do it.”

This is a fascinating (and, as I said, quick) read of a man who got a lot of joy from life (reading about his free-spirited adventures brought Thoreau’s words, of all the people, to my mind: “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life”). Hugely huge fans of Silverstein’s work, so-so fans, or simply anyone wanting to read sometimes-biting and always-humorous commentary on the social revolution of the ’50s and ’60s would likely enjoy this new title.

And I’m led here to close with this from Silverstein . . . how can I resist?

“If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, and magic bean buyer . . .
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin,
Come in, come in!”

— Shel Silverstein, 1974, from Where the Sidewalk Ends

Happy Poetry Friday . . .

9 comments to “Poetry Friday: America’s Favorite Children’s Poet,
Shel Silverstein . . . In the Buff”

  1. Even if all one has ever read is his children’s poetry (and I knew already about the “adult” stuff), I think it’s pretty clear that he had quite an “adult” aesthetic a good deal of the time, not only from his poems, but more particularly from some of his drawings.

    Great review — I’ll have to keep an eye out for this one.

  2. Ooh, my favorite Silverstein poem.
    I am always interested in the ‘adult’ lives of children’s authors, but it’s interesting how few these days seem to cultivate a sort of ‘adult’ aesthetic – with the notable exception of Daniel Handler, who plays both sides beautifully. It confuses the people who insist that authors be the same people as their books all the time, but I think it can only be a good thing.

    Would like a peek at this one!

  3. Funny how all those 60’s wanderers always want to end up with roses and Suzie Q. I hope Suzie Q wasn’t a stump by then. 🙂

    Next time I see this one, I’m going to have to flip through it. Thanks, jules.

  4. Word to both comments, Kelly and TadMack. Yes, Silverstein had a clear adult aesthetic and vibe goin’ on, and I wonder why — as you point out, TadMack — so many children’s authors today don’t.

    Sara, this is a good book for flipping through and just browsing for a bit. And that’s the first-ever time I can say that I, uh, read actual Playboy text. Wild. (Wild that I read it, that is — the text itself is perfectly tame).

  5. Hey! Where are the nude photos of Shel Silverstein? Man, I feel gyped…

    Just kidding. He does have HUGE bare-naked feet, though.

    I’m a fan of Uncle Shelby’s ABZs, and it may be my favorite work by him. That, and “A Boy Named Sue.”

  6. Arrgh! Now I know why the cosmos kept preventing me from posting my Poetry Friday entry… I was going with some lesser-known Uncle Shelby. I feel like one of those women who shows up at a high society function wearing the same designer dress.

    Uh, wait. No I don’t. But I’m going to have to shelve my Shelly poem until sometime in the future. Nice coverage on the book and the man. I didn’t realize this book was coming out. *sigh* Another book for the pile, when I can find it.

  7. I know that adding-to-the-TBR-pile fear, David, but don’t fret, ’cause it’s a quick read.

  8. Ah, Shel. For a fun time, go to iTunes and plug in his name. His voice was weird enough, but when you hear it sing it’s the oddest sensation in the world. Don’t try to find a video of him though. The man was notoriously reclusive when it came to interviews. I didn’t know that the official Silverstein Archives were in Chicago. Yet another place the Kidlitosphere Conference should consider going, no?

  9. Oooh, so titillating. I’ve always been a fan of his adultish stuff. OK, must go find this pronto…

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