Considering his colorful life, it makes sense that there are some dark Shel Silverstein poem meanings, as well as some deeply witty and intentionally creepy Shel Silverstein stories. The man was certainly offbeat, if not extraordinary. He was unflinching and one of the most relatable children’s writers in the world.
Silverstein lived a far-from traditional life. He wrote some pretty raw songs, illustrated cartoons for Playboy, hung out with Hugh Hefner, and allegedly slept with hundreds of women. He never married but had two children with a former Playmate. Tragically, he lost his 11-year-old daughter to a brain aneurysm.
The meanings behind Shel Silverstein poems and stories are debated to this day, but it’s undeniable that some were inspired by his weird and complex life. Are Silverstein’s poems and stories a safe place to dream, ponder extreme possibilities, and question the morals of society? Or was he promoting drug use, cannibalism, disrespect for authority, violence, anarchy, and the occult?
Let’s put it to a vote. Which of these Silverstein stories or poems strike you as the creepiest?
The Father of a Boy Named Sue
Silverstein wrote a follow up to his famous song “A Boy Named Sue” and it got weird on many levels. Fans of Cash’s version were not exactly happy with this explanation. While “A Boy Named Sue” was cruel for its own set of reasons, the prequel song describes an absent and emotionally abusive father who takes revenge out on his son by calling him by a girl’s name.
Silverstein wrote an intro to the song, “Okay, now, years ago, I wrote a song called ‘A Boy Named Sue,’ And, that was okay and everything except, then I started to think about it, and I thought, It is unfair. I am, I am looking at the whole thing from the poor kid’s point of view. And as I get more older and more fatherly, I begin to look at things from old men’s point of view. So, I decided to give the old man equal time. Okay, here we go…”
Yeah, I left home when the kid was three
And it sure felt good to be fancy free
Though I knew it wasn’t quite the the fatherly thing to do
But that kid kept screaming and throwing up
And pissing in his pants till I had enough
So just for revenge I went and named him Sue
It was Gatlinburg in mid July
I was gettin drunk but gettin by
Gettin old and going from bad to worse
When through the door with an awful scream
Comes the ugliest queen I’ve ever seen
He says, “My name is Sue, how do you do?”
Then he hits me with his purse
Now this ain’t the way he tells the tell
But he scratched my face with his fingernails
And Then he bit my thumb
And kicked me with his high heel shoe
So I hit him in the nose and he started to cry
And he threw some perfume in my eye
And it sure ain’t easy fightin an old boy named Sue
So I hit him in the head with a cane back chair
And he screamed, “Hey dad, you mussed my hair!”
And he hit me in the navel and knocked out a piece of my lint
He was spittin blood, I was spittin teeth
And we crashed through the wall and out into the street
Kickin and gouging in the mud and the blood and the creme de menthe
Then out of his garter he pulls a gun
I’m about to get shot by my very own son
He’s screaming about Sigmund Freud and looking grim – woo
So I though fast and I told him some stuff
How I named him Sue just to make him tough
And I guess he bought it cause now I’m living with him
Yea he cooks and sews and cleans up the place
He cuts my hair and shaves my face
And irons my shirts better than a daughter could do
And on the nights that I can’t score
Well, I can’t tell you any more
But it sure is a joy to have a boy named Sue
Yeah a son is fun but it’s a joy to have a boy named Sue!
Dreadful – Baby Eating
The title on this one needs no explanation – this poem is literally about eating a baby.
Someone ate the baby.
It’s rather sad to say.
Someone ate the baby
So she won’t be out to play.
We’ll never hear her whiney cry
Or have to feel if she is dry.
We’ll never hear her asking “Why?”
Someone ate the baby.
Me-Stew – Suicide and Cannibalism
If “Ladies First” got people’s goat, this one sure is bound to make off with a herd of them. This poem’s got hunger and subsequent suicide by cannibalism. Who’s ready for bedtime?
I have nothing to put in my stew, you see,
Not a bone or a bean or a black-eyed pea,
So I’ll just climb in the pot to see
If I can make a stew out of me.
I’ll put in some pepper and salt and I’ll sit
In the bubbling water–I won’t scream a bit.
I’ll sing while I simmer, I’ll smile while I’m stewing,
I’ll taste myself often to see how I’m doing.
I’ll stir me around with this big wooden spoon
And serve myself up at a quarter to noon.
So bring out your stew bowls,
You gobblers and snackers.
Farewell–and I hope you enjoy me with crackers!
Skin Stealer – Buffalo Bill, Is That You?
Silverstein could be addressing shame and our need to displace blame. Or could he be depicting Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs? In this slightly horrifying tale of literally unzipping one’s own skin, one could argue is a tale of split personality disorder manifesting itself in a child.
This evening I unzipped my skin
And carefully unscrewed my head,
Exactly as I always do
When I prepare myself for bed.
And while I slept a coo-coo came
As naked as could be
And put on the skin
And screwed on the head
That once belonged to me.
Now wearing my feet
He runs through the street
In a most disgraceful way.
Doin’ things and sayin’ things
I’d never do or say,
Ticklin’ the children
And kickin’ the men
And Dancin’ the ladies away.
So if he makes your bright eyes cry
Or makes your poor head spin,
That scoundrel you see
Is not really me
He’s the coo-coo
Who’s wearing my skin.
Ticklish Tom – Tickling Leads to Death
Tom loves being tickled. And it leads to his untimely death via a train. This morbid tale starts off light and fun and, like many of Silverstein’s stories, takes a dark twist at the end.
Did you hear ’bout Ticklish Tom?
He got tickled by his mom.
Wiggled and giggled and fell on the floor,
Laughed and rolled right out the door.
All the way to school and then
He got tickled by his friends.
Laughed till he fell off his stool,
Laughed and rolled right out of school
Down the stairs and finally stopped
Till he got tickled by a cop.
And all the more that he kept gigglin’,
All the more folks kept ticklin’.
He shrieked and screamed and rolled around,
Laughed his way right out of town.
Through the country down the road,
He got tickled by a toad.
Past the mountains across the plain,
Tickled by the falling rain,
Tickled by the soft brown grass,
Tickled by the clouds that passed.
Giggling, rolling on his back
He rolled on the railroad track.
Rumble, rumble, whistle, roar—
Tom ain’t ticklish any more.
Cloony the Clown – Abject Loneliness and Despair
Silverstein understood the human condition. He seemed to also deeply understand the nature of comedians and the darkness of clowns. In this poem, Silverstein illustrates the sad tale of a clown no one laughs at, and who is pathetic and sad. The worst part? The audience only laughs at the clown’s gag when he’s hurting himself on accident. What a twisted group of people.
I’ll tell you the story of Cloony the Clown
Who worked in a circus that came through town.
His shoes were too big and his hat was too small,
But he just wasn’t, just wasn’t funny at all.
He had a trombone to play loud silly tunes,
He had a green dog and a thousand balloons.
He was floppy and sloppy and skinny and tall,
But he just wasn’t, just wasn’t funny at all.
And every time he did a trick,
Everyone felt a little sick.
And every time he told a joke,
Folks sighed as if their hearts were broke.
And every time he lost a shoe,
Everyone looked awfully blue.
And every time he stood on his head,
Everyone screamed, “Go back to bed!”
And every time he made a leap,
Everybody fell asleep.
And every time he ate his tie,
Everyone began to cry.
And Cloony could not make any money
Simply because he was not funny.
One day he said, “I’ll tell this town
How it feels to be an unfunny clown.”
And he told them all why he looked so sad,
And he told them all why he felt so bad.
He told of Pain and Rain and Cold,
He told of Darkness in his soul,
And after he finished his tale of woe,
Did everyone cry? Oh no, no, no,
They laughed until they shook the trees
With “Hah-Hah-Hahs” and “Hee-Hee-Hees.”
They laughed with howls and yowls and shrieks,
They laughed all day, they laughed all week,
They laughed until they had a fit,
They laughed until their jackets split.
The laughter spread for miles around
To every city, every town,
Over mountains, ‘cross the sea,
From Saint Tropez to Mun San Nee.
And soon the whole world rang with laughter,
Lasting till forever after,
While Cloony stood in the circus tent,
With his head drooped low and his shoulders bent.
And he said,”THAT IS NOT WHAT I MEANT –
I’M FUNNY JUST BY ACCIDENT.”
And while the world laughed outside.
Cloony the Clown sat down and cried.
Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony – Child Suicide
The dark darkness of this poem comes with a signature Silverstein wryness. An elementary school in Texas banned the poem because of its implied content. Second graders probably didn’t get Silverstein’s sarcasm or irony. In any case, the school board wasn’t having it. Concerned parents claimed the poem glorified suicide.
And Abigail began to cry and said,
“If I don’t get that pony I’ll die.”
And her parents said, “You won’t die.
No child ever died yet from not getting a pony.”
And Abigail felt so bad
That when she got home she went to bed,
And she couldn’t eat,
And she couldn’t sleep,
And her heart was broken,
And she DID die—
All because of a pony
That her parents wouldn’t buy.
Ladies First – Cannibalism
Perhaps Silverstein was taking a shot at the beatnik culture or feminism or both, but his poem that ended up with a character named Fry-‘Em Up Dan asking who wanted to be eaten first did not sit well with Big Bend Elementary School in Mukwonago, WI. Parents said the poem’s content – cannibalism and Satanism, to be exact – was not suitable for children.
Pamela Purse Screamed, “Ladies first,”
When we went off on our jungle trip.
Pamela Purse said her thirst was worse
And guzzled our water, every sip.
And when we got grabbed by that wild savage band,
Who tied us together and made us all stand
In a long line in front of the King of the land—
A cannibal known as Fry-‘Em-Up Dan,
Who sat on this throne in bib so grand
With a lick on his lips and a fork in his hand,
As he tried to decide who’d be first in the pan—
From the back of the line, in that shrill voice of hers,
Pamela Purse yelled, “Ladies first.
Quality Time – This Kid Has a Creepy Dad
This poem could be about spending quality time with your dad, or it could be about something much more sinister. Apparently whoever’s dad this is thinks its okay to use his children as sporting equipment.
My father is a golfer —
He let’s me be his tee.
He puts the ball upon my nose
And hits it right off me.
He says that I can share the joy
Of every ball he hits.
Oh, ain’t it grand to have a dad
Who spends time with his kids.
The Giving Tree – A Narcissistic Child, An Enabling Tree
Silverstein never fully explained the meaning of the book The Giving Tree, and was regularly pressed to defend it. He said the story was about a relationship and nothing more. “It’s just a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes,” Silverstein repeatedly explained.
Yet, parents have dug deep to mine the book’s true meaning. The book has been both lauded and condemned as either completely understanding the sacrifice of raising a child as well as vehemently saying that this is NOT how to parent at all. Some argue the kid is a co-dependent eco-terrorist.
Marie Laveau – Don’t Cross Madame Laveaux, Just Don’t
Silverstein’s song explains why you should swipe right or face the consequences of this lady from Louisiana. Not only does this poem promote murdering men, it also talks about the power of voodoo magic.
Down in Lou´siana where the black trees grow
Lives a voodoo lady named Marie Laveaux.
She got a black cat tooth and a mojo bone,
And anyone wouldn´t leave her alone.
She go GREEEEEEEEEEEE…
Another man done gone.
She live in a swamp in a hollow log
With a one-eyed snake and a three-legged dog.
She got a bent bony body and stringy hair,
And if she ever seen you messin´ round there,
She go GREEEEEEEEEEEE…
Another man done gone.
And then one night when the moon was black,
Into the swamp came Handsome Jack.
A no-good man like you all know,
And he was lookin´ around for Marie Laveaux .
He said, “Marie Laveau, you lovely witch,
Why don´t you gimme a little charm that´ll make me rich.
Gimme million dollars, and I´ll tell you what I´ll do…
This very night I´m gonna marry you.”
It´ll be UMMMMMMMM…
Another man done gone.
So Marie did some magic and she shook a little sand,
Made a million dollars, and she put it in his hand.
Then she looked and she said , “Hey hey,
I´m gettin´ ready for my wedding day.”
But ol´ Handsome Jack said “Good-bye Marie.
You too damn ugly for a man like me.”
So Marie started shakin´, her fangs started gnashin´,
Her body started shakin´, and her eyes started flashin´.
She went GREEEEEEEEEEEE…
Another man done gone.
So if you ever get down where the black tree grow
And meet a voodoo lady named Marie Laveaux,
And if she ever asks you to make her your wife,
Man, you better stay with her for the rest of your life
Or it´ll be GREEEEEEEEEEEE…
Another man done gone.
The Worst – Night, Night, Kids
A deliberate attempt by Silverstein to scare children, his poem “The Worst” will keep kids up at night. This Glurpy Slurpy Skakagall ain’t nothin’ to mess with.
When singing songs of scariness.
Of bloodiness and hairyness,
I feel obligated at this moment to remind you
Of the most ferocious beast of all:
Three thousand pounds and nine feet tall —
The Glurpy Slurpy Skakagall —
Who’s standing right behind you.
Fred – The Specter of Death
One of those playful Silverstein gotcha moments where one minute the reader is invested in the tale of Fred, only to reveal at the end that, well, he’s dead. This morbid tale might be a little heavy for the kids.
From out of the cold Caribbean
Into the Desert Libyan
There crawled a strange amphibian,
And we all call him “Fred”!
You say you want to call him “Ted”?
But I want to call him “Fred”!
You like “Maurice” instead?
Or “Barnaby” or “Red”?
Or “Lucifer” or “Ned”?
Well, anyway, he’s dead.
A Boy Named Sue – Fatherhood, The Hard Way
Johnny Cash made this Silverstein song/poem famous and proved that they made a great duo, although very few knew that the song’s true author was Silverstein. The father’s logic for naming his son Sue is both cruel and bizarre.
Well, my daddy left home when I was three,
and he didn’t leave much to Ma and me,
just this old guitar and a bottle of booze.
Now I don’t blame him because he run and hid,
but the meanest thing that he ever did was
before he left he went and named me Sue.
Well, he must have thought it was quite a joke,
and it got lots of laughs from a lot of folks,
it seems I had to fight my whole life through.
Some gal would giggle and I’d get red
and some guy would laugh and I’d bust his head,
I tell you, life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue.
Well, I grew up quick and I grew up mean.
My fist got hard and my wits got keen.
Roamed from town to town to hide my shame,
but I made me a vow to the moon and the stars,
I’d search the honky tonks and bars and kill
that man that gave me that awful name.
But it was Gatlinburg in mid July and I had
just hit town and my throat was dry.
I’d thought i’d stop and have myself a brew.
At an old saloon in a street of mud
and at a table dealing stud sat the dirty,
mangy dog that named me Sue.
Well, I knew that snake was my own sweet dad
from a worn-out picture that my mother had
and I knew the scar on his cheek and his evil eye.
He was big and bent and gray and old
and I looked at him and my blood ran cold,
and I said, “My name is Sue. How do you do?
Now you’re gonna die.” Yeah, that’s what I told him.
Well, I hit him right between the eyes and he went down
but to my surprise he came up with a knife
and cut off a piece of my ear. But I busted a chair
right across his teeth. And we crashed through
the wall and into the street kicking and a-gouging
in the mud and the blood and the beer.
I tell you I’ve fought tougher men but I really can’t remember when.
He kicked like a mule and bit like a crocodile.
I heard him laughin’ and then I heard him cussin’,
he went for his gun and I pulled mine first.
He stood there looking at me and I saw him smile.
And he said, “Son, this world is rough and if
a man’s gonna make it, he’s gotta be tough
and I knew I wouldn’t be there to help you along.
So I gave you that name and I said ‘Goodbye’.
I knew you’d have to get tough or die. And it’s
that name that helped to make you strong.”
Yeah, he said, “Now you have just fought one
helluva fight, and I know you hate me and you’ve
got the right to kill me now and I wouldn’t blame you
if you do. But you ought to thank me
before I die for the gravel in your guts and the spit
in your eye because I’m the guy that named you Sue.”
Yeah, what could I do? What could I do?
I got all choked up and I threw down my gun,
called him pa and he called me a son,
and I came away with a different point of view
and I think about him now and then.
Every time I tried, every time I win and if I
ever have a son I think I am gonna name him
Bill or George – anything but Sue.
It’s Hot – A Dark Approach to a Heat Wave
When it gets hot outside, almost everyone can agree it’s miserable. But what length is too far to get a reprieve from the heat? For Silverstein, there isn’t one. In this “cute” little poem about the heat, he says he’d like to take off his skin to avoid the high temps.
I can’t get cool,
I’ve drunk a quart of lemonade.
I think I’ll take my shoes off
And sit around in the shade.
My back is sticky,
The sweat rolls down my chin
I think I’ll take my clothes off
And sit around in my skin.
I’ve tried with ‘lectric fans.
And pools and ice cream cones.
I think I’ll take my skin off
And sit around in my bones.
It’s still hot!
Whatif – Death, War, Crushing Fear and Self-Doubt, Divorce, And Torn Pants
This poem is the stuff of nightmares for helicopter parents. Silverstein hits on all the horrible things a kid’s (and an adult’s) mind can conjure: death, war, self-doubt, and, most terrifying of all, torn pants. While Silverstein’s poem was meant to dispel fears by addressing these issues directly, those with anxiety disorders might want to avoid this one.
Last night, while I lay thinking here,
Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
And pranced and partied all night long
And sang their same old Whatif song:
Whatif I’m dumb in school?
Whatif they’ve closed the swimming pol?
Whatif I get beat up?
Whatif there’s poison in my cup?
Whatif I start to cry?
Whatif I get sick and die?
Whatif I flunk that test?
Whatif green hair grows on my chest?
Whatif nobody likes me?
Whatif a bolt of lightning strikes me?
Whatif I don’t grow talle?
Whatif my head starts getting smaller?
Whatif the fish won’t bite?
Whatif the wind tears up my kite?
Whatif they start a war?
Whatif my parents get divorced?
Whatif the bus is late?
Whatif my teeth don’t grow in straight?
Whatif I tear my pants?
Whatif I never learn to dance?
Everything seems swell, and then
The nighttime Whatifs strike again!
Sarah Cynthia Syliva Stout – Not Taking Out the Garbage Leads to a Missing Person’s Report
This is a tale of excessive hoarding and what happens when you don’t do your chores. After allowing heaps of garbage to pile up in her house, Sarah goes missing while trying to take the trash out. Was she abducted or did she simply get lost? Either way, it’s a morbid tale any way you slice it.
Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout
Would not take the garbage out.
She’d wash the dishes and scrub the pans
Cook the yams and spice the hams,
And though her parents would scream and shout,
She simply would not take the garbage out.
And so it piled up to the ceiling:
Coffee grounds, potato peelings,
Brown bananas and rotten peas,
Chunks of sour cottage cheese.
It filled the can, it covered the floor,
It cracked the windows and blocked the door,
With bacon rinds and chicken bones,
Drippy ends of ice cream cones,
Prune pits, peach pits, orange peels,
Gloppy glumps of cold oatmeal,
Pizza crusts and withered greens,
Soggy beans, and tangerines,
Crusts of black-burned buttered toast,
Grisly bits of beefy roast.
The garbage rolled on down the halls,
It raised the roof, it broke the walls,
I mean, greasy napkins, cookie crumbs,
Blobs of gooey bubble gum,
Cellophane from old bologna,
Rubbery, blubbery macaroni,
Peanut butter, caked and dry,
Curdled milk, and crusts of pie,
Rotting melons, dried-up mustard,
Eggshells mixed with lemon custard,
Cold French fries and rancid meat,
Yellow lumps of Cream of Wheat.
At last the garbage reached so high
That finally it touched the sky,
And none of her friends would come to play,
And all of her neighbors moved away;
And finally, Sarah Cynthia Stout
Said, “Okay, I’ll take the garbage out!”
But then, of course it was too late,
The garbage reached across the state,
From New York to the Golden Gate;
And there in the garbage she did hate
Poor Sarah met an awful fate
That I cannot right now relate
Because the hour is much too late
But children, remember Sarah Stout,
And always take the garbage out.
Headless Town – Headlessness and Its Effect on Sales
It’s a worthy lamentation. While the visualization of a town full of headless people is, quite honestly, terrifying, Silverstein does make a good point: Why would you sell hats in a town full of headless people?
Selling hats in Headless Town–
Special sale, so gather ‘round.
Short brim, wide brim, white or brown,
Hats for sale–in Headless Town.
Selling hats in Headless Town–
Stetson, bonnet, cap, or crown,
Isn’t there one soul around
Who needs a hat in Headless Town?
Selling hats in Headless Town
Sure can get a fella down,
But there’s a way
If there’s a will
(I once sold shoes
Warning – Terrifying Finger Amputation
If you’re a kid (and in some weird cases, an adult with certain phobias), this is a very real fear. While a creative deterrent for getting kids to stop picking their nose, threatening them with a scary sharp-toothed snail seems a little dramatic.
Inside everybody’s nose
There lives a sharp-toothed snail.
So if you stick your finger in,
He may bite off your nail.
Stick it farther up inside,
And he may bite your ring off.
Stick it all the way, and he
May bite the whole darn thing off.