~ viral videos ~

YouTube video of slam poet Julia Engelmann surpasses 7 million views

With 7,061,845 views to date, this video has set a new popularity benchmark for online poetry videos. It was first uploaded on July 1, 2013, and I’m not sure how rapidly it gained popularity — probably not quite rapidly enough to qualify as viral in the strict sense of virality according to that quote I shared in my post about “Speke, Parrot” last month: “A video … is ‘viral’ if it gets more than 5 million views in a 3-7 day period.” But I think we can agree that given the relative lack of popularity poets enjoy in Western European societies, 7 million views is extraordinary. “Speke Parrot” attracted the attention of the BBC after just 110,000 views in four days.

I’m indebted to Martina Pfeiler for bringing this video to my attention. I don’t know any German, so I asked her what the poem was about. She replied,

Julia Engelmann takes up Asaf Avidan’s Reckoning Song (One Day), which has 16,000,000 hits on YouTube. In numerous stanzas she talks about procrastinating on things rather than taking one’s life into one’s own hands. The final part of the poem turns into an appeal to do the things one really likes to do, so that by the end of one’s life one may have a chance to tell the stories that one really wants to tell about one’s life.

“Speke, Parrot”: Poetry video in Middle English goes viral (sort of)

I first saw this due to a link from Chaucer Doth Tweet on Wednesday. Apparently I was far from alone. BBC News (or to be specific, #BBCtrending) calls it “The 500-year-old poem that captivated Reddit.”

A complex political satire written almost 500 years ago doesn’t seem like an obvious candidate for viral success, but its unusual pronunciation has struck a chord online.

The poem, called Speke, Parrot, was written in the sixteenth century by an Englishman named John Skelton. A group of students at a Dutch university set the poem to pictures and asked their professor to read it aloud, pronouncing the words as closely as possible as to the original Middle English. It’s almost unintelligible to the untrained ear, but that seems to have been the key to its popularity.

The students uploaded the video to YouTube on Tuesday. Their friend posted a link to the history sub-forum on Reddit – a popular online discussion board – where it took on a life of its own. It has quickly become one of the highest rated posts of all time in that category, with more than 2,000 “upvotes”. The video has now been viewed more than 110,000 views on YouTube.

“I was quite surprised myself,” says Sebastian Sobecki, professor of Medieval English at the University of Groningen, who voiced the short film. He tells BBC Trending that in the poem Skelton – tutor to English King Henry VIII – satirises a new breed of courtiers, eager to impress King Henry and his policy makers with their fashionable opinions, and language skills newly acquired overseas. That’s why he refers to them as “parrots”; you could call them the hipsters of their day.

The conversation on Reddit homes in on the way the poem is pronounced, rather than its political meaning. “It sounds like a medley of Scottish, Dutch, German and English to me,” wrote one. “To me it sounds like the Spanish Ambassador from Blackadder,” said another.

“They’re exclusively focused on how we know what Middle English sounded like,” notes Sobecki, who says a huge body of research makes it possible to recreate the sounds with relative accuracy. “It seems that there are a lot of people outside academia who take an interest in that, and that’s big news to me.”

(Yes, I just repeated the entire article, techno-parrot that I am.) The video is now up to nearly 130,000 views — keeping in mind that YouTube counts every time someone started playing the video as a view, regardless of whether they finished watching. Still, for less than a week, that’s extremely impressive, and suggests to me that contemporary poets and poetry-filmmakers shouldn’t worry about a poem being too weird or obscure to capture the public imagination.

The article refers to this as a viral video, but it’s worth asking whether any poetry video can truly be said to have gone viral yet. According to a Wikipedia article on viral videos,

There isn’t exactly a set rule for how many “views” constitute a video “going viral”. In a recent blog post, YouTube personality Kevin Nalty, aka Nalts, asks the question “How many views do you need to be viral?” In 2011 he said, “A few years ago, a video could be considered “viral” if it hit a million views.” But Nalts updated that definition. He said, “A video, I submit, is “viral” if it gets more than 5 million views in a 3-7 day period.”

Four-year-old whose Billy Collins recitation went viral on YouTube meets Collins, gets on NPR

Listen to (or read the transcript for) “Love Of Words Brings Child, Poet Together” by Ted Robbins for All Things Considered.

If you missed the video, I posted it back on August 24, just around the time it was beginning to go viral, along with another video of Collins himself reading the same poem (“Litany”). The boy, Samuel Chelpka, was 3 at the time the recording was made. Collins discovered the video and wrote them a note of appreciation, and last weekend they had a chance to meet. NPR was there.

“You’ve probably had that experience where you’ve read a poem and you don’t feel like you know what it quote means, yet you still enjoy it,” Christopher Chelpka said. “There’s something about the rhythm and the images that sparks your imagination.”

“He loves words,” Della Chelpka said. “He loves saying them and hearing them in many different forms.”

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.

In a few years, Samuel may not even remember this meeting, but Collins will.

“It’s just an astounding realization of how a poem can travel 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,” Collins said. “[It’s] just very moving.”

There was a lengthy discussion about this on the Women’s Poetry listserv in early September, with some people saying they found the video creepy or disquieting, but I felt then and continue to feel it’s nothing but wonderful, and might encourage other parents to inculcate a love of poetry in their kids. I see videos like this from proud Chinese parents all the time — apparently there’s nothing at all unusual about training three-year-olds to memorize and recite what must be, to them, completely incomprehensible poems from the Tang Dynasty. This is part of what it takes to maintain a vibrant poetry culture, something we haven’t really had for a very long time.

Anyway, I’m glad to see a poetry video being given attention in NPR’s flagship program, and I salute Mr. Collins for embracing the remix culture and being so supportive of other people envideoing his work.