Where the Sidewalk Ends

By: Toby Mast
In 1974, Shel Silverstein wrote Where the Sidewalk Ends. The book was published  as  a collection of short poems for children. The poetry, however, is very beautiful and can be enjoyed by all ages. When readers grow older they begin to realize the quality of the work. The poetry is skillfully manipulated to generate emotion, enticing the reader in the beauty of the poetry..  Silverstein often uses an unexpected  plot twist as the poem resolves, and  this idea promotes persuasiveness, humour, compassion and suspense throughout the whole book.

He uses the unforeseen ending to make the work humourus and end stronger then it started. For example,  in the poem “True Story,”  the narrator is stuck in a series of inescapable situations and manages to escape only to be delivered into the next situation. The poem's ending goes like this:

But he dropped me in a boiling lake 
A thousand miles wide
And you'll never guess what I did then then-

This ending of the poem rapidly changes the flow of the story. The piece stretches a whole page and would have ended weakly with something like “and dropped me hundred miles that way, I ran to talk to you today.”  The plot twist makes  the poem more humorous because of the irony of the fact that he would finally die after the other situations,  along with the contradiction in someone informing the reader that they had died. This humor improves the poems quality by invoking emotion. Emotion is vital to all writing.

He also improves the quality of poems with foreseen endings. In a poem “Boa Constrictor,” a person  dictates  what occurs as he is being eaten by a boa constrictor. He does get eaten in the end after a steady build up:

Oh, fiddle
It’s up to my middle
Oh, heck
It’s up to my neck
Oh, dread
It’s up mmmmm fffffffffffff

The build up was foreseen though humorous (the entirety of the poem is much longer).  The endings humor was not based on the plot of the poem but on the idea of someone trying to declare that they have been eaten while inside a snake. He kept the reader interested in order to reach the entertaining end in two ways. The first idea was using rhyme scheme and repetition, and the second was using suspense.  The reader asks “Is the man actually going to be eaten or was he going to escape like the person in the previous poem did so many times?”  The effective use of plot twists to make even more straightforward forward poems carries  the emotional roller coaster suspense.

Silverstein also uses these endings to trick the reader into a train of thought, then trapping them inside that same thought but leading into a different resolution than they expected. .This plot reversal is written in a  poem called “Listen’ to the Mustn’ts.”  This poem is written as a series of instructions: Listen to the MUSTN’TS, listen to the DON'TS.   This pattern continues until he reverses the poem when it is said(the poem is told from a perspective of an authoritative adult)

Now listen to me child 
Anything can happen, Child
In this poem he attacks the contradiction of telling a child what they cannot do, while telling them anything is possible. Most adult readers would have agreed with him for the first part of the poem, thinking that the child should not do things that are unsafe or dangerous. Then he traps the reader  by pointing out that adults often say  that anything could be. This leads to an overall more persuasive, and therefore better writing.

He also also also uses  a form of persuasiveness in the plot ending to change readers’ hearts rather than their minds. The usefulness of this technique is displayed in a poem titled and about “Poor Angus.”  The poem takes the form of an interview where the author is asking question and Angus is responding.

Oh what do you wear, Poor Angus,
When the winds blow down the hills?
“I sew myself a warm cloak, sir.
Of hope and daffodils.”

Oh who do you love, Poor Angus
When Catherine's left the moor?
"Ah, there,sir, there’s the only time,
 I feel really poor.”

Here Silverstein uses the unexpected plot twist to generate compassion. The poem had been following the pattern where the author inquires on how Angus survives when his poverty affects him. Then Angus replies that he hopes and  finds joy in other things to tolerate it.  The reader can see  on how Agnus survives the weather.  He replies that he hopes for the future and enjoys the benefits of nature rather than the disadvantages. Then here the plot takes a surprising turn when he describes himself as feeling poor when Catherine leaves.  This generates compassion  for Angus as someone who survives on little but loves so much. The ability to bring out emotion is good writing.
The increased suspense along with the humor and persuasiveness increases the overall quality of the book. This good writing made  it to sell well. Where the Sidewalk Ends received 4.5/5 stars on the Barnes and Noble website and 5/5 stars on the Amazon website with 802 reviews. Abebooks official review describes the book as  “This classic poetry collection, which is both outrageously funny and profound, has been the most beloved of Shel Silverstein's poetry.”  This method of writing, if done correctly,  is very effective and should be used more often through poetry and fiction.

Works Cited

Silverstein, Shel. Where the Sidewalk Ends: The Poems & Drawings of Shel Silverstein. 1st ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1974. Print.

“Where the Sidewalk Ends: Poems and Drawings." AbeBooks. AbeBooks Inc., 1 Jan. 1996. Web. 19 Jan. 2015.

"Where the Sidewalk Ends: Poems and Drawings." Amazon. Amazon.com, 18 Jan. 2015. Web. 19 Jan. 2015.

"Where the Sidewalk Ends: Poems and Drawings." Barnes and Noble. Barnesandnoble.com, 1 Jan. 2015. Web. 19 Jan. 2015.

Comments (3)

Chloë Epstein (Student 2017)
Chloë Epstein

Your essay was really well written, and I loved your book choice. Shel Silverstein is one of my favorite poets. I never really noticed how abrupt his ending could, probably because I was so used to them. Good job!

Imani Weeks (Student 2017)
Imani Weeks
  1. Most of Shel Silverstein poems ended with an unexpected twist. I didn't know that was the type of writing style that he stuck to.

  2. You separated the quote from the paragraph though you still were able to explain what was going on in the quote.

Aaron Watson-Sharer (Student 2017)
Aaron Watson-Sharer
  1. I learned that Shel Silverstein wrote a lot of poems. I thought he only did books but not poetry.

  2. His structure is on point. He gets from introducing to explaining and uses the poems as evdience to support his case.