How Shel Silverstein Quotes Inspire Mike Lee's Not Gonna Write Poems
A Poetry Book for All the Non Poets
In 2017, urgent care physician Dr. Michael Lee began crafting his first book of children’s poetry and enlisted his ten-year old daughter, Jessica, to collaborate on the poems’ accompanying drawings. Lee wrote Not Gonna Write Poems: A Poetry Book for all the Non Poets, inspired by Shel Silverstein’s collection of quirky quotes. The sharp and witty phrases that comprise the late artist’s poetry collections also serve as life lessons. Silverstein’s brief snippets are touching and have profound empowering moments that allow children to feel comfortable with silly antics and to relish in their mischievous nature.
In different examples, Dr. Lee’s compilation of 78 poems, reflect and reinterpret Silverstein’s quotes on themes like illness, toxic friendships, and fear, but with his own unique perspective.
Here is a sampling of Silverstein quotes that motivated Michael Lee to craft his first poetry collection.
- Dealing with illness, “Sick” from Where the Sidewalk Ends
Little Peggy Ann McKay employs every illness, condition, and disease she remembers to avoid going to school. In addition to having “the measles and the mumps,” Peggy also adds “a gash, a rash, and purple bumps” for good measure. If the seventeen chicken pox fails to keep the creative Peggy home, something called “instamatic flu” might save her from the boredom of books and teachers. The hilarious list of endless ailments abruptly ends when a parent tells the inventive girl, “Today is Saturday.” Peggy stops embellishing her sickness. She gets to play and to prepare her ailment list for the following Monday.
In comparison, Dr. Lee treats medical conditions in a realistic but whimsical manner to discourage truancy and fake illnesses. “Allergies” provides a sympathetic and vivid description of seasonal reactions to pollen, dust, and weather. The narrator’s most comparable reworking of Silverstein’s “I cough and sneeze and gasp and choke” in the poem “Sick” is Lee’s verse,“My cough is causing me to choke/I’m buying so much syrup, I’m almost broke.”
The physician-poet also addresses draining effects of dealing with a debilitating illness in “My Flu.” Unlike little Peggy Ann whose “temperature is one-o-eight,” the flu victim’s litany of symptoms are those that most folks that have suffered from this sickness can relate to:
“I’ve got a bad headache and stuffy nose.
Got body aches from my head to my toes.
Feel kinda dizzy and weak as my temperature rose.
Perhaps I’d feel better if I’d assume a supine pose.”
While the speaker appreciates the friend’s welcome visit, the bedridden patient laments his current, contagious health.
- Deciphering toxic friendships, “Friendship” from A Light in the Attic
Silverstein bluntly deciphers a hypocritical lifetime friendship, where only one “friend” benefits from the dubious bond:
“I’ve discovered a way to stay friends forever—there’s really nothing to it.
I simply tell you what to do
And you do it!”
Michael Lee’s interpretation of a questionable friendship is “Frenemy,” where the poet goes into greater detail of how a pretend friend acts. The poem describes a series of negative actions of a friend-foe who is unreliable, manipulative, and selfish:
“You call on me to ask me for a favor,
Then after I help you out, you’ll say, “See you later.”
You’re always borrowing clothes from me,
And when you return them, they’re always dirty.”
The tolerant, mistreated speaker in Lee’s poem eventually bids the toxic exploiter farewell: “So I think that of you I’ve finally had my fill.” The relator accepts ending a harmful relationship with grace and sincerity.
- Confronting panic or anxiety, “Fear”, from A Light in the Attic
Fear is a universal concept. Everyone has a certain trigger that activates stress or worry. For some, the mere thought of confronting the stressor causes more dread. Shel Silverstein’s fear depiction is the relatable swimming anxiety. Many people who never learned how to swim experience agitation of being near water. In “Fear”, Barnabus Browning feels this terror. He suffers an extreme aversion, as the fear paralyzes his life. Browning’s terror of drowning controls his life:
“So, he would never swim
Or get in a boat
Or take a bath
Or cross a moat.
He just sat there day and night
With his doors locked tight
And the windows nailed down,
Shaking with fear,
That a wave might appear”
In an ironic twist, poor Barnabus’s tears fill up the sealed room and drown him.
Lee approaches fear from a similar angle with “Superstitious Sam.” The protagonist’s universal fear is a lifelong malady, exacerbated by a family environment that foments total mistrust. Parallel to Barnabus Browning, “Superstitious Sam” also stops living and refuses to plan any life event:
“So, Sam became so obsessed with superstitious things
That he’d just sit around all fall, winter, summer, and spring,
Too afraid to do much of anything.”
In a second poem also entitled ”Fear”, Lee addresses the terror children feel about physical contact with insects. Any creepy-crawly bug is an unwelcome visitor, despite the child’s valiant effort of ignoring the many or no-legged creatures:
“I’ll try not to imagine lice in my hair,
Or crickets or worms hiding in my footwear.”
By crafting the Silverstein-inspired anthology, Michael Lee creates new and enjoyable possibilities in children’s poetry. Dr. Lee’s book NOT GONNA WRITE POEMS has followed well in the prodigious footsteps of Shel Silverstein, using witty and comical poems and illustrations to bring joy and humor back into the world of poetry. The Silverstein connection prompts greater interest in Lee’s debut anthology at the upcoming NYC Book Expo America and Book Con, where Mike Lee is a featured author at the Agora Publishing Booth. Dr. Lee’s story and book can also viewed on his website page: Mikeleethepoet.com.