04/07/03
Baby Poets
    by John Cech

What you're hearing is a child making his first poems -- squealing with delight at the sound of his own voice, rhyming sounds, endlessly repeating what he decides will be his choruses, singing his couplets with his whole little body. This toddler, a little over a year old, is practicing something called echolalia, that rhythmical babbling that automatically begins for children before they begin talking in recognizable words and sentences.

But even to say it that way suggests that there is something incomplete or unimportant or merely preparatory about what this child is doing. Developmental psychologists tell us that this early music making and poeticising is essential to the creation of a sense of "I," of personal identity -- and this comes from hearing the sound that one makes oneself, and becoming intimately familiar with the sound of one's own voice, through turning one's whole being into a musical instrument that can produce those sounds. I sing, therefore I am.

The television program, "The Telletubbies," is amazingly in tune with this need for very young children to craft a place for themselves in their world through primal utterance. That's why very young children adore these three colorful creatures and sit in wrapt attention, watching while they bounce through the activities of their day -- waking up, skipping, eating, spinning, greeting, and, of course, hugging -- all to the accompaniment of their giddy, ceaseless, monosyllabic chanting.

Many adults don't get what's going on in the program, and instead treat it with suspicion or sarcasm, reading all sorts of subtexts into it. What they don't realize is that the show isn't about them. It's meant for those small human beings who are instinctively learning how to make something from, call it, "nothing," who are learning how to select the sounds that stand for the thing or the act, how to locate the rhythms of the world, how to tune oneself to its music so that one can learn to dance in it. Every poet, we say, has to discover his or her voice, and that's just what very young children are doing -- finding their voices so they can sing the song of themselves -- emerging as Whitman put it, "out of the cradle, endlessly rocking . . . out of the Ninth-month midnight" when "a thousand warbling echoes have started to life within me, never to die" -- beginning with those lovely baby poems.

Copyright 2003 John Cech

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Tuesday, 25-Mar-2003 19:06:57 EST


"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."