Since I have started off with my favourite book series, I want to continue with one of my favourite poems: “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout” by Shel Silverstein. It is the first poem written in English that I ever remember reading; I was a nine grader when I first read it (and that may be the reason why I made my nine graders read it too), so it has a pretty special place in my heart. I also realize that this blog is turning into an apology for children’s literature, but someone’s gotta do it, right?
The way the persona tells the story of Sarah to an audience, the constant usage of alliteration, assonance and rhyming reminds me of the oral tradition (plus, Silverstein also recites it himself) of the old and maybe that is the reason why Sarah reminds me of a mythical character. But the main reason behind that association is the way she stands up to an authority figure (which is significantly a father) and cultural norms on her own and gets punished for it in the end. Sure, this poem is a way to get the kids to listen to their parents and be more environmentally conscious, but it is also a way to subtly tell them to conform to the norms of the society or “meet an awful fate” (and that’s why I never be sure of the real intention of Silverstein here).
The first thing that seems odd in the poem is her name, or rather what her name represents. All of the three names have mythical connotations: Sarah is Isaac’s mother and mentioned in the Old Testament, Cynthia is the epithet of Artemis/Diana and Sylvia is the mother of Romulus and Remus. We have three different women with three very different connotations. Whilst Sylvia may represent civilization (as her children lead to the founding of Rome) whereas Artemis represents virginity, innocence and to some extent rebellion (her decision to stay chaste and unmarried). When I read “And though her daddy would scream and shout” with that in mind (and don’t forget that the father of Artemis is Zeus/Jupiter himself), suddenly it got a little more complicated. Here, we have a little disturbing relationship depicted between a father and his little girl that may even suggest domestic violence. He is the authority figure in the poem obviously and that (together with her being an Artemis substitute) turns him into a Zeus figure and what is Zeus doing besides ordering and shouting? Hence, in comes Prometheus-the legendary rebellious titan whose fight against Zeus inspired marvelous works (I am writing that with Lord Byron’s “Prometheus” on mind).
In the myth, Prometheus gives humans fire-which is portrayed and emphasized in the poem as a bad thing through repetitive images of burnt food-as the act of rebellion. In a way, he refuses not sharing such a helpful tool with these incapable beings even though it means for humans to get powerful and possibly become a threat to the gods. Here, Sarah’s defiance is a threat to the order of the house as well as her neighborhood, it makes everything chaotic and the effect of her rebellion (in her case the garbage) spreads across the country. At first I tried to attribute a positive meaning to that, like its effects were so vast and unstoppable so that the rebellion would continue but then I realized that it is literally garbage. Here Silverstein, much like Zeus himself, undermines the power of such disobedience and punishes Sarah secretly, as we don’t get to hear about it, in a way that is unspeakable especially to little children. Her, bonus, total alienation and exclusion from society mirrors that of Prometheus.
But there is a twist here; Sarah breaks down and accepts the enforced norm after her alienation. This break from her Prometheus character is also represented via the break in the rhyming. All of the lines except for “And finally Sarah Cynthia Stout said/OK, I’ll take the garbage out!” are rhymed open couplets and these two stand out. This can be Silverstein’s way of trying to emphasize the fact that the authority eventually prevails over the marginal and he does this ironically, by making those two lines stand up to the ‘norms’ of the rest of the poem.
Although my take on the poem has gotten a bit darker and more pessimistic over the course of years I still enjoy it, it incorporates very different themes and leads to very interesting discussions: one of my students even suggested talking about child labour which was something I have never considered. No matter from which perspective you approach the poem, one thing is certain: Sarah Cynthia Sylvia and her awful fate is as inspiring as the titan that rebelled against the king of gods.