by Jesse Nathan
Poetry Media Service
Don't Bump the Glump! And Other Fantasies, by Shel Silverstein. HarperCollins, $17.99.
In 1956, the young Sheldon Alan Silverstein dropped off a portfolio of about 15 drawings at the offices of an upstart publication called Playboy, then located at 11 East Superior in Chicago. Hugh Hefner said he hadn't gotten around to looking over the work when Silverstein returned for it two weeks later. Silverstein "demanded his cartoons back. He didn't think we were going to buy any of them," said Hefner. But the editor scrutinized and pondered and then, on the spot, purchased eight drawings for $500.
That was just the beginning: over the next 15 years Silverstein created a vast trove of drawings for Playboy, acting as a kind of cartoon correspondent, sending back illustrated dispatches from his travels in Japan, Europe, Russia, the Middle East, Africa, and San Francisco's exotic Haight-Ashbury. And among all that early material, Silverstein generated the poetry and illustrations that would in 1964 congeal into his first book of poems: Uncle Shelby's Zoo: Don't Bump the Glump! and Other Fantasies, reissued by HarperCollins as Don't Bump the Glump! and Other Fantasies.
Don't Bump the Glump!--a bestiary of strange critters brought to life in verse--is, decidedly, a "first book." Like the first collections of many poets, Silverstein's hints at what's to come and implies directions and forms. It's not a stand-alone gem, but it does shine from within the context of Silverstein's oeuvre. In this case that's the body of work generated in Silverstein's prolific career, which spanned from the late 1950s until his death in Florida in 1999: the poet was also a draftsman, cartoonist, singer-songwriter, guitarist, painter, playwright, and professional vagabond, best known for a kind of whimsical poetry officially for children and unofficially adored by gobs of adults.
Don't Bump the Glump! is clearly the youthful poetry of the artist who would give us much-celebrated works such as A Light in the Attic. It suggests the modes Silverstein would work in, showcasing rougher-edged samples of what was to come later. The poet loves dazzling us, for instance, by pushing meter and rhyme, even to the point of unwieldiness. In Don't Bump the Glump!, we read of "The Considerate Soft-Shelled Phizzint":
You'll never know an animal
more considerate of human feelings
than the Soft-Shelled Phizzint.
Someone has mistaken this one
for a pincushion
and he's too polite to say he isn't.
Silverstein would hone his use of rhythm in such creations as "The Razor-Tailed Wren," from 1974's Where the Sidewalk Ends:
The razor-tailed wren,
He'll pretend he's your friend
As he cuts all the grass on your lawn,
But do not leave anything
Sticking far out
Or swishity--it will be gone.
In Don't Bump the Glump! Silverstein reveals his affinity for refrains, a tool the poet came back to again and again in his writing. This, too, he improved upon. Consider the first stanza of "There's a Gritchen in My Kitchen" from Don't Bump the Glump!:
There's a Skaverbacked Gritchen
Who lives in my kitchen
And makes his home under the sink.
And he lives upon Gipes
that crawl out of the pipes
And he takes only Postum to drink.
By contrast, here's the first stanza of the slightly more elegant, less tongue-clunking "Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too," from Where the Sidewalk Ends:
Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me too
Went for a ride in a flying shoe.
"It's time we flew!"
Said Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me too.
Throughout his career Silverstein was fascinated with creatures both wildly imagined and familiar, but this bestial obsession manifests itself most explicitly in the subject matter of Don't Bump the Glump!, in which the poet reels off one outlandish critter after another, from the Gorp-Eating Kallikozilliar to the Bald-Top Droan. One of the poems in Don't Bump the Glump!, "About the Bloath," turns up in Where the Sidewalk Ends 10 years later, essentially identical save a title change. By then it's just called "The Bloath":
In the undergrowth
There dwells the Bloath
Who feeds upon poets and tea.
Luckily I know this about him,
While he knows almost nothing of me.
The world quickly came to know of Shel Silverstein. And he went on to collaborate with loads of artists: He wrote "A Boy Named Sue" for Johnny Cash (and won a Grammy for it in 1970). He penned "Cover of the Rolling Stone" for Dr. Hook. "Queen of the Silver Dollar," which Emmylou Harris covered on her album Pieces of the Sky, was his handiwork too. As for his poetry, it improved as Silverstein learned to refine and harness his words. "Beginnings have an irritating but essential fragility, and one that should be taken to heart," said Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Perhaps, then, the zaniness of Don't Bump the Glump! carries it, but it's likely better viewed as a signifier of what was to follow from Silverstein. With Don't Bump the Glump!, acknowledged Mitch Myers, his nephew and the executor of his estate, "he was just starting to stretch his legs."
Jesse Nathan is an associate editor at McSweeney's publishing in San Francisco. His work appears widely, including in Tin House, The Believer, Sojourners, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among others. This article originally appeared on www.poetryfoundation.org. Read more about Shel Silverstein, and his poetry, at www.poetryfoundation.org.
© 2008 by Jesse Nathan. All rights reserved.