In case you are one of the few remaining holdouts (along with the world’s most isolated man) who haven’t seen this, I present you with a 3-year-old reciting the poem “Litany” by Billy Collins. And then, below it, Billy Collins reading his own poem. I had seen it, but DadWagon double-friend Rebecca M. (who prefers CGI babies) sent it to me this morning and got me interested all over again.
There seems to be quite a bit of discussion about this, most of it flattering to the parents and the boy, but some of it critical. The boy’s mother has been getting into it with commenters on YouTube as well, defending her housekeeping and insisting that they boy wasn’t donkeywhipped into doing any of this rote memorization.
I tend to believe her. The boy does look like he enjoys this, and having two kids around that age, I recognize the look of accomplishment the boy is feeling (even if it is well beyond the passion of my children to do this kind of memorization).
One question, though: why is this so great? This boy’s dilemma is not unlike what faces a lot of child prodigies. His tone is great. The veneer of comprehension is there. But what could this poem mean to him? Even less, I would argue, than Mozart means to a 3-year-old who can play “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.” A lot of the commenters on the video were moved to tears by what they heard. I guarantee you he will not be so moved by reciting it, not for a long time.
Not that I understand exquisite poetry—An Berliner Kinder is about all I can handle—nor should this boy (who also did some Lord Tennyson elsewhere) have to understand it. If my kid started memorizing these types of things, I’d probably post a video of it on YouTube as well. But everyone who either 1) gets wildly inspired by this boy or 2) feels horribly depressed that their kids, like mine, are nowhere close to doing this should relax.
I find that toddlers’ natural use of language is far more poetic than anything that adults can dream up. We adults are all fallen creatures, our language tied to the filthy structures and patterns of adult life. That goes for adult poets, too. So if I’m going to watch a 3-year-old on YouTube, I’d rather it be that girl explaining Star Wars in her own language. There’s so much more to see and appreciate there—actual creativity and synthesis and self-expression.
In contrast, what this boy is doing is madrassa learning, the same as young boys reciting the Koran by heart. Does that make them any holier? I don’t believe so. I think a child is at his highest form, if you will, when he’s just being himself. A kid. Being a kid. This ain’t that.
The toddler’s version:
Here is Billy Collins’ version: