Thursday, August 14, 2008

Poetry: Not Just for Children Anymore

Dear Everybody:

Holy COW! You will never guess what I just discovered on the Web! It's The Devil and Billy Markham by Shel Silverstein!!!!

Eh? So what, you say? Another light, witty children's poem? Oh, man, have you got a lot to learn!

So go right here, and read the whole damned (in both the literal and figurative senses) thing:

[Alas, the site is gone, possibly because the poem cycle is being sold as a play nowadays. I saw a magnificent one-man performance by Anthony Lawton once, and there are any number of clips on YouTube which fail to live up to him. But here's the opening:]

The Devil and Billy Markham
by Shel Silverstein

The Devil walked into Linebaugh's on a rainy Nashville night 
While the lost souls sat and sipped their soup in the sickly yellow neon light.
And the Devil, he looked around the room, then got down on his knees. 
He says, "Is there one among you scum who'll roll the dice with me?" 
Red, he just strums his guitar, pretending not to hear. 
And Eddie, he just looks away and takes another sip of beer.
[And on and gloriously on it goes . . . I encourage you to find a copy.]

Okay, have you read it? Really? Scout's honor and hope to die? Well, then...

Did that take your breath away or what? Yep, ol' Shel wasn't JUST an entertainer of children. (If you haven't heard Johnny Cash's version of SS's "A Boy Named Sue, incidentally, you're just plain culturally lame.) He was a bawdy, guitar-totin', women-seducin' kind of guy. Playboy used to commission him to go to exotic places, seduce women, and draw cartoons about the experience. Jules Feiffer (you artist-guys know about Feiffer, right? You'd best!) wrote an obituary saying that Silverstein was the envy of all other (straight) male cartoonists.

Now, the poems. Silverstein was obviously basing his works on the Negro holler, which...

Okay, wait. You don't know about Negro hollers? I worry about you guys. Try googling "The Signifying Monkey."

Done that?

If you have, you're now WAY up on your culturally illiterate cronies. Now, when you compare the two, what do you see? Two things:

1) Silverstein's work is far far far more sophisticated.

2) Parts of it have rotted and aged. A line here, a few words there, are embarrassing to read now. The reference to Harlan Ellison... You missed it? Well, it reads a little precious now.

What's the lesson here? Well, first of all I think The Devil and Billy Markham is a keeper. It's real lit, the true quill. But it can't score a perfect ten against oral tradition. The reasons for this are myriad and complicated and if you're interested, hit me up when you see me & I'll be glad to tell you. I'm a talker.




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