I hope that you’re familiar with Shel. He was a big part of my childhood, especially his poetry collection, Where the Sidewalk Ends. I got my first copy when I was fairly young, maybe around six or seven. I read it until the pages were tattered and stained (I was a messy kid). At some point that volume was lost, so I bought another which I’ve continued to re-read over the years. It’s stayed in much better shape because I’m not as messy now.
What struck me about this collection of poems is the irreverence. Everything Shel wrote was a little twisted, a little tongue-in-cheek, maybe a little saucy. The poems and illustrations here covered everything from refusing to take the garbage out to trying to fit in when you feel left out. The thing is, no matter my age the themes of the poems still resonate with me. I mean, we all feel like we don’t fit in on occasion, and there are times when we just don’t feel like taking the garbage out. And I’m sure a few of you still pick your nose. Ugh.
But despite the irreverence, Shel was never mean in his writings. He understood loneliness, being different, the struggle to understand things like love, and the importance of friendship. His other popular work was The Giving Tree, which is also a fantastic book for any age. The story is simple. It’s about the friendship between a young boy and a tree. If you haven’t read one of these books, then please do. You won’t regret it. Oh, and there’s one more I want to recommend because, even though it isn’t as popular as the two I’ve mentioned, it’s probably one of the funniest. This is Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book: A Primer for Adults. As the title notes, it’s not for kids, but it’s about kids. And oh, it’s a good one. Parents may enjoy it more than they expect.
Another fun fact about Shel is that he was also a songwriter. In fact, he wrote a number of hits, some of which will surprise you. For example, the Johnny Cash hit, “A Boy Named Sue”, was written by Shel. He also wrote quite a few songs for Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, including, “The Cover Of Rolling Stone” and “Freakin’ At The Freakers’ Ball“. He also had songs recorded by Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, and The New Christy Minstrels. He won a Grammy and was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe in the Best Song categories.
To me, Shel was like a crazy uncle who always made me laugh, but at the same time had something to teach me. What I learned from him was to not be afraid to be different, to play with words and ideas. I’m still amazed that he could write a simple poem, maybe only two short verses, that would have me in tears. But then on the next page he could have me rolling on the sofa in laughter. He knew how to tap emotion, which is something that touches everyone. And yes, he taught me how to embrace being a little weird, a little strange. In a way I felt a bond with him.
Simplicity in writing. I think that sums him up fairly well. It didn’t matter if he was writing a poem, a story, a song, or a screenplay (he even co-wrote one with David Mamet), Shel used an economy of words, simple themes and ideas, and always stuck with the human condition. He seemed to understand the connection between children and adults, how many of us don’t ever get away from those feelings we had as children. You know what I mean? Those feelings of being different, or an outsider, our irrational thoughts and emotions, the urge to be silly or just be lazy for a while. It’s about being human. Nothing more, nothing less.
Shel died in 1999 at the age of sixty-eight. Not a bad run, but I’m sure he could have provided us with so much more humor and insight. At least he can rest easy knowing that his creative output continues to entertain people and continues to make them think. What more can an artist ask for?