Whatif by Shel Silverstein is a playful presentation of fears, struggles, and uncertainties that haunt Silverstein at “night,” and the organization of the presentation is something that crosses boundaries of logic and reason. Through this approach, he has crafted a poem that allows people across similar boundaries to share the commonality of experiencing “night”-time overthinking in a way that shows connection and allows us to see humor in the midst of the frustration. In this, he unites and entertains in spite of the trouble. You can find the full poem here.
By describing the details that he could not get off his mind as “Whatifs,” Silverstein has indicated a level of stress and quickness involved in their progression. These thoughts that troubled him “all night long” were so numerous and spastic in surfacing that a space between the words describing them does not exist. Just as there is no pause between “What” and “if,” there was no pause between the ideas that “crawled inside [his] ear” the previous “night.”
There is irony at work in that the progression is portrayed as speedy, given the “Whatif” structure, but their journey into Silverstein’s “ear” is noted as a “crawl,” which has a slow connotation. For this reason, the less obvious connotation of being sneaky can be applied to the verb, “crawl.” Silverstein is not contradicting himself by using a verb to reference slowness in spite of the quickness of the surfacing thoughts. He is indicating that these notions snuck into his mind, as in they provided no warning before “pranc[ing] and part[ying]” into his consciousness.
That pairing of verbs, as it happens, shows that the thoughts had something similar about them as they travelled through his mind. This is shown in the repetition of the beginning “p” sound for both verbs. This similarity could be their general presence that disrupts him from sleeping, like they have one united purpose. This pairing of ideas is mimicked as well in the AABB rhyme scheme that surfaces in this first stanza and continues throughout the poem. Just as the rhyme pattern is concrete and unifying, so were these thoughts unified in bringing stress to Silverstein.
One more interesting thing about this section is that the notions that plagued Silverstein the “night” seemed incredibly joyful about their actions as they “sang their same old Whatif song.” That their intrusions are labeled as a “song” adds a merry quality to express joy, like birds that sing on sunny days. It seems, then, that the trouble in his mind enjoyed causing him distress.
The “Whatif” details being repeated for every line of this section drive the concept of continuous, stressful ideas to a focal point of the work, which furthers the sense of purpose these thoughts had to torment Silverstein. As soon as one “Whatif” was completed, another moved in to harass him. This made it a constant, purposeful assault.
The specific notions that create this unified assault, however, are presented in a scattered format so that, initially, he addressed worry over being “dumb in school,” but this immediately shifted to “if they’ve closed the swimming pool.” Barring “the swimming pool” being in the “school,” the connection between these two ideas is shaky. This represents a scattered quality that saturated the unified assault of the stressful thoughts since they leaped from one topic to another with little to no logic between themes.
There was also no logic about the progression of how these ideas escalated since “if there’s poison in my cup” was situated between “if I get beat up” and “if I start to cry.” This less drastic notion of “cry[ing],” on the other side of things, arrived between the “poison” and “if I get sick and die.” There was no consistent progression toward something bigger since smaller details intermingle with larger ones—“cry[ing]” coming between two potentially terminal concepts—which makes the situation feel random. Essentially, no logic or order accompanied these thoughts. They simply popped in Silverstein’s head in whatever order they arrived.
At times, as well, the information presented in this “Whatif” situation was not necessarily possible. For instance, Silverstein likely would never experience “green hair grow[ing] on [his] chest,” but for some reason, this was an idea that popped in his mind during the “Whatif” assault.
There was also vagueness behind some of the ideas, like “if nobody likes [him]” or “if they start a war.” No information is given about who “they” were that would “start a war,” and Silverstein does not specifically state what crowd would include “nobody [to] like” him. This indicates that he did not need any kind of specificity to worry over a detail, which broadens the spastic elements that infiltrate his mind at “night.” It did not matter who “they” were, for example. The concept pushed into his mind to cause him stress, without the need for particulars. This reveals very real paranoia in the “Whatif” wonderings because he had no who, why, or how for the “war,” but he worried over it anyway.
Certain elements that invaded his mind were possible, but not overly impressive. He would not be horrifically impacted, rationally, by whether or not he “grow[s] taller,” but he wondered about it. Likewise, “the fish [not] bit[ing]” could be a low-key problem, but it still had a place in his stressful “night” thoughts. What the reader can infer by this is that it is not just fear that troubled his mind that “night,” but wonder and displeasure as well.
This extends the reach of the “Whatif” concept in its unity by expressing that nearly anything could have been employed to take away his sleep. However, it does alter the meaning just a bit because fear is no longer the only thing that kept him awake. This escalates the sneaking factor that was already addressed because the strategy included varied tactics. Just as a military plan could include a number of battle techniques, these thoughts approached with different strengths and fronts for the strongest assault possible.
These final two lines boost the universality of the situation once more to indicate that Silverstein struggles with this “Whatif” assault every night since after “[e]verything seems swell,” “[t]he nighttime Whatifs strike again.” What this means is that during the day, Silverstein is fine and “swell,” but every “night,” he is kept awake by a series of thoughts he cannot avoid.
This is a theme that many people could understand if they experience active thinking patterns when they lie down to sleep. It is a common enough concept, and Silverstein has placed a playful edge on the situation through the mismatched concepts to almost share a joke with the reader. By presenting random things like “green hair” that are nonsensical, he is downplaying the situation into a comical presentation, giving the reader a smile or laugh in place of frustration that could come with this kind of alertness.
This is, additionally, connected to the theme of unity that the “Whatif” scenarios already brought to the literary table. We all can experience this, and by sharing a laugh about it, we can—together—lessen the grief of the situation. Like the “Whatif” details combined to form this assault—no matter the vagueness, illogic, or disconnect of pairings—Silverstein has presented a poem that can connect us to shake off this struggle in a healthy way.
About Shel Silverstein
Shel Silverstein is one of the most known children’s authors of our time, specifically concerning his work, The Giving Tree. He is also an illustrator, songwriter, and actor. He passed away in 1999, but with a number of noted works to keep his memory alive, like Where the Sidewalk Ends from 1974.