ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
If you Google former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins and his poem "Litany," you'll find two YouTube videos: one of Collins reading the poem and another of Samuel Chelpka reciting it from heart. Chelpka's is far more popular - more than 320,000 hits so far. Give a listen and you'll understand why.
(Soundbite of YouTube video)
Mr. SAMUEL CHELPKA: "Litany" by Billy Collins. You are the bread and the knife, the crystal goblet and the wine. You are the dew of the morning grass and the burning wheel...
SIEGEL: Samuel Chelpka is 4 years old. He was three when he recited that poem and became a YouTube sensation. One of the hundreds of thousands of people who saw the video was the poem's author, Billy Collins.
And just a few days ago, the precocious performer met his muse, as NPR's Ted Robbins reports.
TED ROBBINS: No one knew quite what to expect when the University of Arizona Poetry Center invited Billy Collins to meet Samuel Chelpka and his parents Christopher and Della.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER CHELPKA: This is Samuel.
Mr. BILLY COLLINS (Poet): Hi, Samuel, Billy Collins. How are you?
Mr. S. CHELPKA: Good.
ROBBINS: Would the boy be shy? Not a chance. Within five minutes of meeting his hero - how many 4-year-olds have poets as heroes? - Samuel was reciting another Collins poem.
Mr. S. CHELPKA: I know "The Country."
Mr. COLLINS: You're kidding. That's great. You know, those poems are hard to memorize because they don't have rhymes.
Mr. S. CHELPKA: Yeah.
Mr. COLLINS: Yeah. But you can do it anyway.
Mr. S. CHELPKA: All right.
"The Country." I wondered about you when you told me never to leave a box of wooden, strike-anywhere matches just lying around the house.
ROBBINS: And on he went, flawlessly reciting a poem filled with irony, humor, and imagery. His parents say most people ask whether Samuel understands what he's saying. They ask, does it matter?
Mr. C. CHELPKA: I mean, you've probably had that experience where you've read a poem and you don't feel like you know what a quote means, yet you still enjoy it. Either something about the rhythm and the images that sparks your imagination.
Ms. DELLA CHELPKA: He just - he loves words. He loves saying them and hearing them in many different forms.
Mr. COLLINS: And Y was once a little...
Mr. S. CHELPKA: Yak.
Mr. COLLINS: Yak. Nice.
ROBBINS: For all his sophistication, Samuel is still learning the basics of language. He grabbed an alphabet picture book off the shelf and handed it to the former poet laureate to read to him.
Mr. COLLINS: Yacky, wacky, tacky, yacky, backy, backy, packy. See, it's got like a backpack on.
ROBBINS: In a few years, Samuel may not even remember this meeting. Billy Collins will.
Mr. COLLINS: It's just an astounding realization of how - just how a poem can travel out, you know, away from your desk, away from the room you wrote it in and find its way into all these corners of life and find its way into the mind of a 3-year-old child. Just very moving.
ROBBINS: Of course, Samuel's love of words, poetry doesn't just spring forth spontaneously. It's there because his parents expose him to it.
Mr. COLLINS: So there you have the confluence of this really unusually gifted child and very nurturing, sensitive parents.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COLLINS: Just too good to be true.
ROBBINS: For the poet to affect a reader, well, that's the object. For a reader to affect the poet, took a small exceptional boy.
Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.
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