On poetry and three-year-olds

August 26th, 2010  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  7 Comments

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:


  1. Alexandra says:

    August 26th, 2010at 7:11 pm(#)

    And of course my favorite internet sensation, Capucine. I bought a t-shirt with one of her phrases from this story she makes up and it benefits buying books in the developing world I believe. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=miv-ZEmwtVg and here is the link to the Tshirts for Edurelief: http://skreened.com/capucine

  2. beta dad says:

    August 26th, 2010at 7:36 pm(#)

    I call shenanigans. That kid is totally reading off of a teleprompter.

  3. Nathan says:

    August 26th, 2010at 8:20 pm(#)

    @BetaDad Ha. In that case, the parents should’ve punk’d him, Charles Barkley dumbass style

  4. Spencer says:

    August 27th, 2010at 12:00 am(#)

    I’m still hung up on the horror of the CGI babies.

  5. Mother of 4 says:

    August 28th, 2010at 2:14 pm(#)

    Oh, but he IS being himself in this video, and that’s what makes the recitation so charming and endearing! He plays with his toys, drops one and says “Uh-oh!” and keeps on going. At the end, he asks his mother “Can I hold them?” He’s talking about his toys.
    He plays throughout, is himself throughout, and THAT is what makes this video so astonishing.

    The boy has quite an able mind, that much is clear, and I don’t think it takes anything away from my four children (although they are much older) to acknowledge his well-above-average abilities. And to be perfectly honest, I don’t see what MY children– or YOURS– have to do with this child. Only envy would cause a person to compare in such a way.

    This is not a staged recitation. This is not theater. This is a child sharing what he can do, what he so obviously loves to do– because you can’t make a three year-old sit still (not one with his energy) and learn something he doesn’t want to learn. At the end of the other YouTube video of this boy, the one where he recites Tennyson’s “The Eagle,” he smiles at the end with such pride and satisfaction, knowing that he did something very well. Absolutely touching, if you ask me. And I’m a lawyer, so don’t go accusing me of being a softie.

    By the way, I doubt your kids understand what they’re saying when they recite The Pledge of Allegiance at school, and I doubt they know what they’re referring to when they play and sing “Ring Around the Rosie.” Does that take anything away from them? Does that mean they’re not really Americans or that they’re not really having fun playing? There is a flaw in your logic– and, I must say, a tinge of bitterness to your tone.

    To the father who claims this child is reading from a teleprompter: well, then that would make him a genius as a reader, wouldn’t it? “Speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world” would be QUITE a feat for a 3 year-old to read. And he’s most definitely three– his body language, not to mention the narrowness of his shoulders and the size of his pajamas, gives away his age.

  6. Mother of 4 says:

    August 28th, 2010at 2:18 pm(#)

    P.S. Don’t you pay attention to your children they’ve seen the same movie four times? They start to say the words as they’re watching. My daughter, at 9 or 10, used to love to watch MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, and I found that she knew the lines– to Shakespeare. And I don’t think that was unusual.


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