“Where the Sidewalk Ends” by Shel Silverstein is a three-stanza poem that depicts the adult world as something harsh and demanding, in contrast to a more childlike mentality that can provide a break from the responsibilities and pressures of being an adult. The sounds, senses, and word choices within the poem build the contrast to a distinct level to entice the reader to let go of adulthood long enough to find a break in youthful imagination. This contrast and invitation are the key elements to the poem, and the method of delivery is too striking to overlook those concepts. You can read the full poem here.
Where the Sidewalk Ends Analysis
The description of the “place” that happens “where the sidewalk ends” is offered in a storybook fashion, as if Silverstein is telling the reader of a location that must be achieved on some sort of epic journey. If the poet were going for a more concrete “place,” the wording would likely have been more specific since “[t]here” is a very vague term. No indication is given as to “where” this “place” is other than vague details of concepts that surround it, as opposed to more specific directives that could have been provided for a specific area. Through this approach, immediately the reader can infer that this “place” is more of an idea than a physical location since no direction is stated that would tell the reader “where” the “place” is.
The storybook element continues since the vague details of “where” this “place” is are delivered in the very childish way of continuing the story with “[a]nd.” There is no solid structure backing the delivery, but it very much reflects what an excited child would sound like while telling this story. This settles the reader into a moment of childish yearning that sets the tone for the poem since the primary theme seems to be leaving behind a hectic adult life for the sake of a more free moment of childhood joy.
The interesting thing, however, is that this storybook approach of childish delivery does not take away from the sophistication of the poem. Rather, the word choices in this stanza are vivid in a way that is deeper than a child’s perspective. Few children, for instance, would say, “the sun burns crimson bright.” This is a situation then of childish wants being offered by an adult, which is a perfect mirror of the poem’s theme of an adult wanting to escape into a childhood mentality.
It is interesting as well that the vivid details given in this stanza are not limited to what can be seen since smell is brought into the equation through “peppermint wind.” This again adds in a childish concept of a candy scent, but it elevates the poem into a secondary sense. It can be argued that touch is brought into the scenario as well when the position of “the moon-bird” is noted as “rest[ing] from his flight.” This extension of senses provides a strong story since it reaches into numerous ideas that the reader can understand.
For those concepts that can be seen, not all of them read in a normal fashion. As an example, “grass” is not typically “soft and white.” By proclaiming that in this “place,” “grass” exists in this manner, Silverstein is simultaneously telling the reader that this “place” is not a physical one since “white” is not a normal color of “grass” while offering another childish detail to the story by extending the imagination in this way. Both of these accomplishments add to the concept of a strong desire to reach, as an adult, back into a more innocent and joyful childhood.
The presentation of this stanza is different from the first, and this can be spotted in the lessened number of lines that begin with “And.” The reason why this is relevant is that this stanza is about the “dark” “place where the smoke blows black” rather than the “place” with “the sun” and “peppermint wind.” Essentially, this “place” is not a happy, youthful location, but rather a representation of something that is more pressing, like an adult life of hectic details and responsibilities.
The area where this might be the clearest is in the new description of “the street.” Whereas in the first stanza, that “street” is close to “begin[ning],” which indicates newness and possibility, in the second stanza, it “winds and bends,” which indicates confusion and uncertainty in a much “dark[er]” way. The harsher nature of this “street” furthers since “pits” are referenced, and even the loveliness of “flowers” is tainted by “asphalt.”
An additional detail of contrast happens with the sounds that begin the words connected to each distinct concept. For the harsh adult “street,” many of the words have hard consonant sounds to lead into them, like “b,” “p,” and “d.” All of these letters can be seen as frequent, beginning elements of the words in the first three lines of this stanza, whereas the words connected to the other “street” have softer consonant sounds to begin them, like with the repeated “w” that occurs directly after the trio of adult “street” lines: “We shall walk with a walk…” This gives a softer feel to the child “street” and a harsher feel to the adult one to make the childish prospect more preferable.
Overall, Silverstein has done a remarkable job at creating a new concept of a “street” that in no way feels inviting or pleasant, as compared to “the street” that was so filled with positive possibility. By this strategy, there is no question that the first stanza’s “street” would be the better option, so latching onto the invite of “leav[ing]” the current “place” to “walk” in the “bright[er]” details is logical.
The last three lines of this stanza pull the reader back into the childlike mentality of the first stanza since the “walk” is noted as being “measured and slow.” As an adult life can be seen as fast-paced and hectic, this contrast is striking enough to reveal that the “slow” strides would be connected to youthful notions. As well, this path includes “chalk-white arrows,” and this idea feels like something a child might have drawn with sidewalk “chalk” or some other playful method rather than a solid marking of “the street.” By this, the reader is encouraged to step away from adult guidelines to follow the play and rules of a childish imagination.
This final stanza is a culmination of the entire poem, essentially, since the poet begins by answering his own request of “leav[ing]” the adult setting to “walk with a walk that is measured and slow,” saying “Yes.” This could infer that there was a response given by the reader to say that they would join the poet, and Silverstein is therefore acknowledging that agreement as if it had been spoken. This way, the reader can understand that the invitation was accepted without stepping away from the narrative of the poet’s perspective to focus on the reader’s moment of acceptance.
The repetition of the ideas of the “walk that is measured and slow” and “the chalk-white arrows” is a reminder of how grand this more childish path is, as if the poet does not want to chance that the reader will forget and be lured back into the more adult world after that “Yes” of acceptance.
Once that reinforcement happens, Silverstein then states in a plainer way what the reader could have already inferred by this point, which is that the “bright[er]” street with its storybook representation is filled with youthful imagination and wonder. Specifically, he says that “the children” “mark” and “know [t]he place where the sidewalk ends.” This solidifies the basic elements of this poem by proclaiming that this “bright” “street” is one with childlike qualities, where their joy and rules are what abound. In this then, the reader can know for sure that Silverstein is offering a break from a less childlike life for a moment of more innocent delight.
From the harshness of adult life then, Silverstein offers an escape through youthful imagination, and this idea is the core concept at work within the poem.
About Shel Silverstein
Shel Silverstein was born in the 1930s and lived until 1999. His work in entertainment extends beyond the reach of poetry and into songwriting, acting, and carton-creating. What might be some of his most famous works are The Giving Tree (a children’s book) and “A Boy Named Sue” (a song recorded by Johnny Cash).