Sick by Shel Silverstein

Within ‘Sick’ Silverstein crafts a humorous story of one child’s attempts to stay home from school. The poem explores the themes of deceit, obligations, and joy. Peggy Ann McKay, the speaker of the poem, does her best to convince her parents that she is much too ill to attend school that day. Silverstein uses techniques such as hyperbole to make her excuses increasingly outlandish and over the top. The poem was meant to be enjoyed by children and adults alike, just as is the majority of Silverstein’s work.


Summary of Sick

‘Sick’ by Shel Silverstein is a light-hearted depiction of a child who does whatever she can to convince her parents she can’t go to school.

The poem begins with the speaker stating that she is not going to school. There is an endless number of reasons she supplies her parents to support her decision. These come list-like in the next thirty-one lines. They range from having measles to a cough and a shrunken brain. It’s unclear if the child speaker knows how absurd she sounds. (But the reader should be enjoying her very funny attempts at coercion.) This is a fact which makes the poem all the more amusing. Especially when one gets to the end and it turns out it was Saturday all along.

You can read the full poem here.


Structure of Sick 

‘Sick’ by Shel Silverstein is a thirty-two line poem that is contained within one block of text. The lines are structured in a particular rhyme scheme. It follows the pattern of AABBCCDD, and so on, alternating end sounds as the lines progress. This pattern is common within Silverstein’s work.

The poem was aimed at a younger audience, therefore the sing-song like rhythm of the lines is perfect. It is used to make the lines more pleasing to read as well as listen to. The pattern also should help keep a child’s attention for longer. He also achieves this through the humorous nature of the content. The events of the poem should be relatable to the child hearing or reading it.


Speaker, Tone, and Mood

The speaker, who is a young girl named Peggy Ann McKay, is doing her best to figure out a way not to go to school and as the poem progresses the number of claims of ill health get more and more outlandish. The fact that there are so many different things she comes up with adds to the lighthearted nature of the text. Her tone throughout the poem varies at times, with the repetition of claims of illness, it is clear how desperate she feels to find a way out of school.

 Other times, it’s impossible not to laugh at the absurdity of her claims. It’s unclear whether or not she realizes how her words sound, but the writer’s mood is definitely lighthearted. The speaker’s tone changes immediately in the last lines when she finds out that it is Saturday. Any sense of depression she might have channelled at her parents vanishes and she is gone, the monologue over. 


Poetic Techniques in Sick

Although this piece was written with an audience of children in mind, there are still a number of poetic techniques that are worth taking note of. For example, Silverstein makes use of anaphora. This is a kind of repetition in which the beginning word or phrase in a line is repeated multiple times. It can be seen most clearly with the word “My.” The word pops up at the beginning of thirteen of the thirty-two lines. 

“I” or “I’m” is also quite common. These focus the text heavily on the first-person narrator. She is consumed with her own state of being and trying to convince the listener/s, her parent/s, that she is too ill to go to school. 

Alliteration is another technique that’s used well within ‘Sick.’ It too helps with the flow of the text and continued engagement on the part of the reader. Lines 15, 16 and 18 are great examples. Here, a reader will notice the phrases, “ hip hurts,” “ belly button’s” and “‘pendix pains.” The repetition of the letter at the start of these words contributes to individual catchy phrases. Both of these techniques, and others, are used to simply enhance one’s experience when reading the text, rather than allude to deeper meanings or tap into traditions of writing.


Analysis of Sick

Lines 1-6

In the first lines of this piece, the young speaker begins by stating that she cannot “go to school today. There is no hesitation in this statement, nor is there any throughout the thirty-one following lines. She is determined not to go to school and she’ll do anything she can to convince her parents that she has a good reason not to go. The narrator of the poem, the person who is telling the story of Peggy Ann McKay, only speaks a few times. Otherwise, ‘Sick’ is a complete monologue. 

The first two things she mentions are the “measles and the mumps.” They are followed by two rhyming words “A gash, a rash.” These could be associated with “measles and mumps,” but to Peggy, it doesn’t really matter. The next lines just build off of her first statements. She adds that her, 

Mouth is wet, [her] throat is dry 

[She’s] going blind in [her] right eye. 

The fact that all of these lines rhyme makes it even harder to believe what she’s saying. The statements are already absurd but the rhyming makes them seem even less likely if that’s possible. 


Lines 7-12

The next lines contain a number of moments of repetition. The word “My” begins two of the lines, and the word “And” starts two more. There are also a few dashes in this portion of ‘Sick.’ They are used to show pauses in the speaker’s phrases and also increase the few moments of enjambment. Such as between lines twelve and thirteen with the phrase, 

My leg is cut—my eyes are blue—

It might be instamatic flu.

The final line utilizes the word “instamatic.” This word is not normally associated with sickness (a result perhaps of the speaker’s youth) but its meaning in this context is clear. She has gotten the flu instantly, without warning. This is why her parents are only hearing about it now. This statement comes after a number of others that claim she has enlarged tonsils, chickenpox, and a green face. 


Lines 13-18 

These lines also use the word “My” a great deal. It starts four of the lines. Its repetition helps to increase the list-like feel of much of ‘Sick.’ The speaker is going to continue making outlandish statements about her health until someone stops her. They come one after another without a pause. 

From line 13 to line 18, among other things, she claims to have a cough, a hip that hurts, a “wrenched’ back and a sprained ankle. These last couple of phrases are interesting as it’s clear she got them from those around her. The statement about the “‘pendix” hurting when it rains for example. Of the “wrenched” back. These are the pains of an older person. 


Lines 19-24 

Next, the speaker states that one of the reasons she can’t go to school is because her “nose is cold” and her “toes are numb.” Still, this isn’t enough. She moves to her thumb, neck, and voice. They are all hurting or disabled in some way. She is barely able to speak and her “hair is falling out.” 


Lines 25-32 

It is in the last lines of ‘Sick’ that Silverstein’s characteristic twist ending occurs. He is known for increasing the humour of his poetry at the last moment or supplying some surprising detail that changes one’s opinion of the speaker or the previous lines. 

In this case, it is the speaker who is surprised. After listing out a number of other maladies, from a shrunken brain to a hangnail, she is told that it is Saturday. There was no reason for her excuses after all. This immediately makes her stop talking and she runs off to play outside. 

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  • Avatar anonymous says:

    It is a good poem. Good explaining.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thank you. And yeah, I couldn’t agree more. The poem is fab.

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