Saturday, February 13, 2021

Poetry Spot: Cloony the Clown


The following poem immediately reminded me of the quote by Bob Monkhouse: “People used to laugh at me when I said I wanted to be a comedian. Well they're not laughing now.”


Sheldon “Shel” Silverstein (1930-1999) was an American poet, singer-songwriter, cartoonist, screenwriter and author of children’s books.

Born into a Jewish family in Chicago, he was drafted into the US Army in 1953, serving in Japan and Korea. His wife Susan died in 1975, his daughter Shoshanna died in 1982 at age 11 of a cerebral aneurysm. After remarrying, he and his wife Sarah had a son, born in 1984.

Drawing and writing from age 7, he developed his own style early in that he did not have access to other writers and cartoonists. In 1957, Silverstein became one of the leading cartoonists in Playboy, which sent him around the world to create an illustrated travel journal with reports from far-flung locales. During the 1950s and 1960s, he produced 23 instalments called "Shel Silverstein Visits..." as a feature for Playboy. Apart from children’s books, poems and stories, Silverstein also wrote for adults and had a number of hits as a songwriter, including A Boy Named Sue, One’s on the Way, Cover of the Rolling Stone and Sylvia’s Mother. Silverstein died in 1999, aged 68, of a heart attack.


Cloony the Clown

      - Shel Silverstein

I’ll tell you the story of Cloony the Clown
Who worked in a circus that came through town.
His shoes were too big and his hat was too small,
But he just wasn’t, just wasn’t funny at all.
He had a trombone to play loud silly tunes,
He had a green dog and a thousand balloons.
He was floppy and sloppy and skinny and tall,
But he just wasn’t, just wasn’t funny at all.
And every time he did a trick,
Everyone felt a little sick.
And every time he told a joke,
Folks sighed as if their hearts were broke.
And every time he lost a shoe,
Everyone looked awfully blue.
And every time he stood on his head,
Everyone screamed, “Go back to bed!”
And every time he made a leap,
Everybody fell asleep.
And every time he ate his tie,
Everyone began to cry.
And Cloony could not make any money
Simply because he was not funny.
One day he said, “I’ll tell this town
How it feels to be an unfunny clown.”
And he told them all why he looked so sad,
And he told them all why he felt so bad.
He told of Pain and Rain and Cold,
He told of Darkness in his soul,
And after he finished his tale of woe,
Did everyone cry? Oh no, no, no,
They laughed until they shook the trees
With “Hah-Hah-Hahs” and “Hee-Hee-Hees.”
They laughed with howls and yowls and shrieks,
They laughed all day, they laughed all week,
They laughed until they had a fit,
They laughed until their jackets split.
The laughter spread for miles around
To every city, every town,
Over mountains, ‘cross the sea,
From Saint Tropez to Mun San Nee.
And soon the whole world rang with laughter,
Lasting till forever after,
While Cloony stood in the circus tent,
With his head drooped low and his shoulders bent.
And while the world laughed outside.
Cloony the Clown sat down and cried.




Shel Silverstein's "Cloony the Clown," one of his numerous whimsical children's poems, carries the fairly adult theme of the frustrated artist to extremes. An artist is frustrated either because his audience refuses to connect to him, or because he hasn't found the way to connect to the audience. Poor Cloony is both, and the final image of him bursting into tears could be horribly depressing or secretly joyous, depending on your interpretation.

Cloony Can't Connect

Cloony uses every trick, joke and stunt in the clownish repertoire, but "could not make any money, simply because he was not funny." So, in a classic reversal, he tells his audience the sorrows of his devastated soul. The response is universal laughter, and "Cloony the Clown sat down and cried."

Is Cloony Sad or Happy?

The theme of "Cloony" is artistic frustration, but you might wonder how deeply it travels for Silverstein. Is Cloony crying in despair? If so, artistic frustration becomes Sisyphus-like, a perpetual, horrific impotence. However, Cloony may be crying because now he can read his audience, and realizes tears bring laughs. Silverstein won't reveal the answer, but he posed the thematic question well.

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