First Word

In Heav’n you’ll learn to sing ere here to speak
Richard Crashaw, “To the Infant Martyrs”

Like Adam in the Garden, you fix life
with names. Each time, I give the word, you point,
the cat is kitty. Eagerly, you dub
the dog kitty too. I say, No, dog-gy,
correcting you, shaping new syllables
for you to populate your own Eden.

Yet fluid possibilities get lost:
not liquid fur nor woof, but kitty, dog.
Under the weight of words, wonder contracts.
Finger poised, you chant your incantation;
the cat acknowledges your name for it
and, arching its back, settles into place.

Ginny Kaczmarek
originally published in Maple Leaf Rag III, 2006
Portals Press, 2006

used with permission of the poet


For an English Classroom

Lesson plan for Ginny Kaczmarek’s “First Word”
by Gina Ferrara

Ginny Kaczmarek’s poem sets up a domestic scene where a mother is teaching her child words and meaning. The poem begins with an epigram by Richard Crashaw, a 17th century poet who was known for his maternal images and ardent devotion to women. Kaczmarek uses an extended metaphor of the Garden of Eden which sets up contrasts between knowledge and innocence and conformity and creativity. Words, according to the poet, causes wonder to lessen. The child comes up with his or her word for the cat and calls the cat by this word. The cat initially responds by arching its back and eventually settles into its place, comfortable with its child designated name.

This poem brings up many questions about the importance and need for words. Do words necessarily denote knowledge? What does the arrival of knowledge bring? What are the connections and differences between knowledge and creativity?

Have the students read the poem to themselves quietly. Then ask for a few volunteers to read the poem out loud.

Discuss the poem with the class for a few minutes.

For a writing exercise, have students come up with a list of five to ten words that they think are essential to our language.

Have them choose one of those words and write a word poem. The poems should be about their chosen word. Students can also make a collage with pictures from magazines and newspapers that convey the meaning of the word.

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