‘Listen to the MUSTN’TS’ by Shel Silverstein is a short eight-line poem that is contained within one block of text. The lines follow a vague rhyme scheme that is made up of both full and half-rhymes. For example, lines two and four rhyme with one another due to the “—n’ts” sound. But, a reader should also consider line three. It also ends with “—n’ts” but is not a full rhyme. It is known as a slant or half-rhyme. There is another moment of rhyme between lines one and seven. Then again between lines six and eight.
Normally within Silverstein’s work, the lines are structured quite consistently and follow a specific pattern of rhyme. This is usually due to the fact that a child is meant to be the speaker. In the case of ‘Listen to the MUSTN’TS’ the speaker is an adult. Still, though, there is enough rhyme to give the poem a pleasing sound when read allowed.
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The poem begins with the speaker telling the child that they must take the time to listen to all the naysayers in the world. There are the “MUSTN’TS” and the “DONT’S” as well as the “WONT’S.” All of these people will tell the child that what they want can’t and should not occur. The child needs to hear them, and then push their voices aside so they can get on with making everything they want to happen.
You can read the full poem here.
There is also an element of interest added through the use of capitalization. Eight words in the eight-line poem are capitalized, they are “MUSTN’TS,” “DONT’S,” “SHOULDN’TS,” “IMPOSSIBLES,” “WONT’S,” “NEVER HAVES” and “ANYTHING.” The first words in this list are all negative, but by the time one gets to the end of the poem this changes and the adult speaker is able to explain what kind of words one should really take to heart.
The fact that Silverstein chose to capitalize these words at all is interesting. It gives them a power that they wouldn’t otherwise have. It also imbues them with an additional agency as if they are their own breed of person.
The most important themes of this piece, self-confidence, and open-mindedness do not become clear until the last three lines. It is in the final lines that the speaker tells the listener, a child, that despite what other people say, that anything is possible. One’s dreams can come true, all ideas are relevant, and “ANYTHING can be.” A child should believe in themselves and disregard all those who tell them not to.
Analysis of Listen to the MUSTN’TS
Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
In the first lines of ‘Listen to the MUSTN’TS’ the speaker addresses the listener of the poem. The relationship between the two is made clear by the end of the first line. The speaker is an adult and the listener is a child. In fact, the first line ends with the word “child,” solidifying this theory.
The adult is going through all the different types of negative people the child is going to come across in their life. The first of these is the “MUSTN’TS” these are the people who aren’t going to do anything but tell the child they mustn’t do something they want to. The adult is not suggesting that the child refrains from following the rules. Instead, they are trying to explain that this kind of person exists and will try to control the child’s dreams.
The same can be said about the second line. Here. the adult tells the child that they must listen to the “DONT’S.” Again, these are people who are recognized by the fact that all they seem to do is tell one not to do something.
At first, it seems backward that the adult is telling the child to listen to these negative people, but this is only a temporary period of listening. In the last lines of the text, it becomes clear what the adult really wants the kid to do.
Finally, the adult gets to the “SHOULDN’TS.” These people want the child to stop thinking, dreaming or wanting something. They probably have a reason for this, but it won’t be a good one.
The IMPOSSIBLES, the WONT’S
Then listen close to me-
All of the people mentioned in the first three lines of ‘Listen to the MUSTN’TS’ should be listened to. As should those listed in lines four through five. These are the type who tell everyone that what they want is impossible. Their language is ever-present and always poisonous to the dreamer. They go along with the “WONT’S.” These are the people who tell one they “won’t” be able to achieve something.
Finally, in the fifth line, it starts to become clear what exactly the adult is doing by telling the child to listen to all these disappointing and depressing people. One should hear their words then disregard them and “listen close” to the adult speaker instead. They have something to say that is more important than anything the naysayers do.
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be
In the final two lines of ‘Listen to the MUSTN’TS’ the speaker tells the child that despite what the “MUSTN’TS” and “SHOULDN’TS” say that “ANYTHING” can happen. There are no limits to what can occur in the world so a child should not take the words of the negative people in the first six lines to heart. When they are feeling down about the prospects of a dream, all they need to do is remember this person’s words and know that anything “can be.”