‘The Skin Stealer’ by Shel Silverstein is a twenty-three line poem that is contained within one block of text. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme but Silverstein did utilize both full and half-rhyme throughout the poem. The former is seen at the end of lines, as well as inside the text.
For example, the word “do” at the end of line three and “coo-coo” in line five. In the first set of lines there are a number of perfect end rhymes as well, with “bed” and “head” as well as “be” and “he”.
Other Poetic Techniques
The latter, half-rhyme, can be seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, “carefully” and “prepare” in lines two and four. Both words make use of the short “a” sound. Repetition is another technique that can be seen throughout ‘The Skin Stealer’. For instance, the use and reuse of the word “skin” at the end of three of the lines.
Another technique used by Silverstein in this text is that of anaphora or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For instance, “And” appears at the beginning of six of the twenty-three lines.
You can read the full poem here.
Summary of The Skin Stealer
The poem begins with the speaker stating that, like every night, he unzipped his skin and took off his head. He went to bed like normal but soon discovered that someone, a “coo-coo” had stolen his body and gone out onto the street. This creature was acting in a way the speaker never would. He danced with women and tickled children. The speaker thought him a scoundrel and asked for everyone’s forgiveness.
Analysis of The Skin Stealer
In the first lines of ‘The Skin Stealer’ Silverstein’s speaker with an outlandish premise. He states that sometime this very evening he “unzipped” his own skin. Obviously this statement is not meant to be taken literally. In fact, it is only made more absurd in the second line when the speaker says that he “unscrewed” his “head”. With these two statements in mind, a reader might go to any number of images. One might imagine a doll, action figure, costume or something else that looks human-like but can come apart.
As is the case with the majority of Shel Silverstein’s poems, there is the surface-level content that’s meant to entertain a young reader and that which resides below the surface that can intrigue an adult. In this case, one should think about what it means to take off and put back on one’s own skin. There are a number of inferences one could make about identity, societal norms, pressures and general anxiety about one’s own life/personality.
The speaker goes on to state that this unzipping and unscrewing is not unusual. In fact, he does it all the time whenever he wants to “prepare” himself “for bed”. But, something different happened on this particular night. A “coo-coo” came and put on the speaker’s skin and head. There are no details in ‘The Skin Stealer’ about what a “coo-coo” looks like or why it needs anther’s skin. This creature took the speaker’s skin and used it for his own purposes. One might be reminded of the saying “a coo-coo in the nest”.
In the next lines, the speaker describes how the coo-coo took his skin and ran out into the street. He started doing things the speaker would never even think about doing. These include “Ticklin’ the children / And kickin’ the men” The coo-coo was “Dancin’ the ladies away” as well. The shortening of the words “tickling”, “kicking” and “dancing” in these lines, as well as “doing” and “saying” in the previous denotes a dialect. But it also alludes to the speaker’s anger at these actions. His words are becoming slurred as if he’s spitting them out, amazed at what went on in front of him.
With the previous lines in mind, the speaker addresses the reader, telling them that “f he makes your bright eyes cry” or “Or makes your poor head spin” one should know that it isn’t actually the speaker inside the skin. It is the coo-coo acting out (or at least making it seem as though the speaker is acting differently than would otherwise).
The speaker calls the coo-coo a “scoundrel” in line twenty, making his opinions about his actions. For adults reading this poem, who are able to look deeper, into the subtext of ‘The Skin Stealer’ the speaker is really addressing who he is, and who he is afraid to be. His anger at the coo-coo’s actions shows a stubbornness of personality. But, the events as a whole, promote a re-analyzation of one’s own way of being.