Silver-tongued Silverstein

The oral tradition has repeatedly popped up over the last couple of semesters, doubly so in the last week, so I’m giving in and telling you why it’s one of my favorite things to talk about- I love the way words sound.  If it doesn’t sound right or feel right on the tongue, it shouldn’t be written down.  A lot of my work as a writer is written to be read out loud, and when I write I speak the words before I write them out.  This isn’t a new love, it’s an old one.  Before I could read, I loved to speak both to hear the sounds and feel the words on my WHere the sidewalk endslips, and to hear others read the books I couldn’t understand.  I mentioned in my first post that I would force my mother to twist her tongue on Seuss because I liked how the words sounded when streamed together.  Seuss’s mastery of meter and rhyme is one of many reasons that he holds such a special place in my heart, but he’s not the only writer that I’ve had a long-term love for.  All great children’s books have that  power-  “auditory power” if you will-  and Shel Silverstein is definitely one of the great writers for children.  Silverstein has some serious “auditory power.”

I firmly believe that the sign of the best writing for children is that the word choice in the book is rooted in the oral tradition, specifically poetic oral tradition.  You might have noticed that my previous two writers have had one thing in common, they create words that the reader wants to hear out loud using poetic elements.  Obviously no one knows poetics better than poets, and Shel Silverstein has that magic touch with meter that appeals to kids and people like me who want to hear the words spoken when read.Falling Up

I was chatting with a very good friend of mine, Lena, about something one of her English professors mentioned earlier in the week (yes, we are such writer nerds that we talk about writing when not writing).  Her professor said something that’s perfectly spot on, he said, “Children live in the oral tradition.”  Up until they learn to read, kids live solely in the world of the visual and auditory.  Children find meaning in life and words through what they hear.   I read somewhere once that the reason children love the sound of meter is because it creates the same sensation as listening to a mother’s heart beat while in the womb.  I don’t know if I believe it, but I know my heart gives a happy little kick when a children’s book has meter because it sounds fantastic when read.  Words said aloud have power, and words that create that pulse or meter are engaging and memorable.  I grew up on Falling Up, and I still believe that Where the Sidewalk Ends is where imaginationA_Light_in_the_Attic_cover begins.  A Light in the Attic was a bright spot on library day, and The Giving Tree stands as one of my favorite children’s books.  In Silverstein’s work repetition and rhythm makes the words memorable; his poems are fun and silly and represent what’s best in children’s poetry, something that is too often overlooked.

We were lucky enough as kids to have a librarian, Ms. Rizzo, who didn’t limit us to prose.  Instead, she introduced us to Shel Silverstein because his work was fun and fantastical.  It wasn’t poetry that teachers and professors would assign, but it created a relationship with poetry I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.  Children’s poems pull on the oral tradition, creating a bridge from the oral world to the written world with their “auditory power.”  Silverstein’s work has that awesome element; it bridges the bounds of the written word to create written words that are meant to be spoken, meant to be shared.

I know that when a good friend of the family had two kids, Leah and Kenny, I took them to the library and did the same thing Ms. Rizzo did for me, I introduced them to Shel Silverstein.  I also went one step further and convinced them that there were snails living up their noses that would eat their fingers if they stuck them up there too far.  Leah and Ken have since grown up (the wise old ages of nine and ten) and told me that this, in fact, is not true, but it was fun while it lasted.  Even more fun, however, was watching them enjoy the poetry, not for any great literary meaning, just for the sound, the feel of the words on their ears and their tongues.  They tell me all the time that they don’t like to read, that it’s hard to read, but I can get them to sit down and listen to a poem or a story with no problem.

The_Giving_TreeEven if reading is difficult they love the story; this is the power of the oral tradition.  Books, poems, stories in general, should be shared.  The need to share story is part of what makes us human.  The oral tradition shares that magic and part of the fun of reading Shel Silverstein is reading his words aloud for kids to enjoy.

Listen here to  “Captain Hook” by Shel Silverstein.
What do you think, are words better out loud?  Are you a sucker for words that simply sound good together or is there something else you look for?  More importantly, have you read Shel Silverstein; do you have a favorite poem?  (Mine is, and forever will be, his “Where the Sidewalk Ends.”)

Books I’ve Mentioned in this Post:

Shel Silverstein.  A Light in the Attic.  New York:  HaperCollins Publishers, 1981.

Shel Silverstein.  Falling Up.  New York:  HaperCollins Publishers, 1996.

Shel Silverstein.  The Giving Tree.  New York:  HaperCollins Publishers, 1964.

Shel Silverstein.  Where the Sidewalk Ends.  New York:  HaperCollins Publishers, 1974.


6 thoughts on “Silver-tongued Silverstein

  1. “I’m a huge proponent of the mentality…” Cut.

    On a wholly positive note (sorry, I had to tease you about the above wordiness), YES, I love the way words sound aloud. It’s a weak link in my attention span — if someone says something that just sounds great, I have to stop whatever I’m doing and repeat it, often write it down. Yesterday I was preoccupied all afternoon by the twin sounds of “exile” and “exhale.”

  2. I really loved how you explored the oral tradition through an approach both scholarly and personal. Shel Silverstein was such an important writer in my childhood because he made it apparent that poetry can be both beautiful AND fun. Before him, I was confined to these very straight-laced “children’s anthologies” featuring illustrations of girls in Victorian-era dresses. Lovely poems, I’m sure, but not for a seven-year-old who would much rather be playing outdoors. Do you know his poem “Fleas”? It’s a very quick read, and I thought it was the single most hilarious thing in elementary school. Also, I’d never really thought about it before, but I do read my writing aloud for rhythm. My neighbors probably think that I sit alone in my room and talk to myself.

  3. This post is very well written, and I love how you talked about auditory power in writing. As a child my mother would read to me every night, and sometimes I would just listen to how the words sounded, focusing more on their sound than their meaning. I was also a huge Shel Silverstein fan growing up, so this post definitely brought up some childhood memories for me. (“Stupid Pencil Maker” was one of my favorites as a kid — its super short but it used to crack me up) Good job on making a relatable, interesting post.

  4. I wish I got into the habit of reading my writing out loud before printing a final copy of it. The fact that you read your work out loud probably does wonders for it. I think that reading writing out loud is one of the best tools for editing for a writer. Words that sound good together form the best things to read. Often times I am so excited that I finished my writing that I just neglect to do this. I press the save button and I’m done. Although I remember reading Shel Silverstein when I was younger, I do not remember any specific works. I can remember seeing a ton of kids in the hallway with his books and thinking to myself “those must be fun to read.” I love that you took Leah and Kenny to the library to read Silverstein. I plan on doing this when my nephew is older (although I’ll probably just introduce him to the Harry Potter series). Although I’m not planning on having kids anytime soon, I think it’s unfortunate that my kids won’t be able to grow up with some of the great works that I was able to grow up reading. I think your posts really represent your voice well. Keep up the great work.

  5. First off, great title! This fits the theme of the post perfectly. I am a huge fan of Silverstein and have been since a small child. You’re absolutely right, he does have some serious auditory power! I always used to read my writing out lot, but haven’t done so since college…probably because I had a roommate and didn’t think she would want to hear it. Now that I have my own apartment though, I need to start reading my work out loud. Sometimes I find myself rhyming in anthro papers and that’s not wear it should be. Reading out loud would help with that. Thanks for the tip!

    I absolutely love how you explore the books you write about. I have read them all and yet I learn something new every time I read your post. You have a wonderful tone and it makes for a quick and enjoyably read!

  6. This in an really interesting post! You continually brought up the sound of words and how words feel-this was a different take on writing. I have never thought about how things sound when they’re together, mainly because Poetry is my least favorite genre of writing (sorry!). Even though I don’t particularly enjoy it, it was interesting to read about it to learn more about it. This turned into an educational post for me!
    Continue to post things that make you think like this one does. I really enjoyed it the most so far! Great job!

    This is Sammy.

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