The Last Poem I Loved: “The Devil and Billy Markham” by Shel Silverstein


Having been an English teacher with an undergrad degree in Journalism, one might think I read a lot of quality work, but I don’t.

I read news and posts that probably take less time to write than it does for me to make coffee, and I worry about that. I fear my sensitivities for literature have been dulled at the edge. I love tales where things blow up and the good guy woos the voluptuous gal and rights the wrong. What I fear now is that the endless bombardment of violent sound-bite images on television, drug store novels and in movies have eroded my appreciation of simple, elegant word art. I can breeze through passages of authors yet find no reason to pause, unless it’s Cormac McCarthy, whose worlds draw me in like rain to drought-parched sand. But the other day I remembered another author whose work left me in awe.

It seems there’s a new book of poems coming out by Shel Silverstein, the celebrated children’s author. It is a never-before published collection of posthumous work that didn’t make the cut. Just didn’t fit. I read this news and went looking in the garage through an old box that I hide from my two sweet daughters. I have a stack of old Playboys from the sixties and seventies (Lord, I’m getting old), just a handful, twenty or so. The old cliché about reading Playboys is “I only keep them for the articles,” but I do, really. I have the issue with shorts written by Tennessee Williams, Harlan Ellison and John D. McDonald. I have Richard Matheson’s short story “Duel” which became Stephen Spielberg’s first film. Excellent writing. One of my favorite shorts is “Scut Farcas and Murderous Mariah” by the incomparable Jean Shepherd who wrote Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and other Disasters, which greatly influenced my appreciation for comedic style.

I have Shel Silverstein’s “The Devil and Billy Markham,” a rambling poem of epic proportions that astounded me the first time I read it. I found it on the web several years ago and sent it out to all my friends with the caveat: “Piss and get something to eat before you start reading this thing. It’s long.” Written in classic Silverstein pentameter, it tells the tale of the Devil himself walking into a Nashville diner looking for someone to roll dice with him. Down-on-their-luck songwriters ignore his siren’s call, but Billy Markham steps forward. Having scribbled his tunes on napkins in a fickle town, all the while searching for someone to sing them, he sees this dice game as not just the only game in town, but the best chance he’s had in fourteen years on Music Row.

“Well, then, get down,” says the Devil, “just as if you was gonna pray,
And take these dice in your luckless hand and I’ll tell you how this game is played.
You get one roll—and you bet your soul—and if you roll thirteen you win,
And all the joys of flesh and gold are yours to touch and spend.
But if that thirteen don’t come up, then kiss your ass goodbye
And will your useless bones to God, ’cause your goddamn soul is mine!”

But, not surprisingly, the dice have no spots. Silverstein takes us on a long journey with Billy Markham, to hell, heaven and back again, all the while weaving in thoughts on God and the Devil, fate and free will, and presented in as fine an example of rhythmic pentameter that I have ever read.

I can recommend but a few authors that have shaken my soul like a good margarita. Trevanian (Shibumi), Vonnegut (Welcome to the Monkey House), and Cormac McCarthy (anything he ever wrote) to name a few, but Silverstein’s “The Devil and Billy Markham” holds a special place in my heart. Maybe it was the sacrilegious comments well-constructed in rhyme that compelled me to think about God in different ways. Or maybe it was the tale of man vs. the Devil in a test of wits that remains vibrant with me even today. All that said, if I could recommend an enjoyable read to lovers of well-crafted words, I would suggest this: “The Devil and Billy Markham.”

But with a caveat: “Piss and get something to eat before you start reading this thing. It’s long.”

Roy Camarillo was born in Texas just north of the Mexican border and raised in Midland, an oil town of 40,000 or more. An Oblate seminarian dropout, he was a technical writer for Jet Propulsion Laboratory before teaching English in Los Angeles Unified, and then became a school principal in Washington D.C. and California's Sonoma County. He currently resides in Jerusalem, Israel with his wife and two daughters where he is writing a crime novel set in Texas, circa 1950s. More from this author →