You Never Forget Your Firsts: Making Memories Vividly Present with Mary Kinzie’s “First Passion”

By Meg Davis

I learn ways of writing by doing, by mimicking the writers I admire and considering how their words spin

together in fresh, insightful ways. This is the same approach I take with my students, particularly in my

high school Creative Writing and Poetry courses where intimidation and writer’s block reverberate at

higher frequencies.

“First Passion” by Mary Kinzie makes annual rounds as a mentor text. Typically, when my students first

encounter the poem, we’re in the midst of a unit designed by a colleague and mentor where students

consider thirteen “ways in” to a poem a la Wallace Stevens. Entry points such as images, sound, order

and arrangement, tone, and — in the case of “First Passion” — punctuation and spacing allow for a

kaleidoscopic reading approach. Each “way in” refracts a particular poetic dimension or layer of meaning,

shifting according to the poem at hand.

The poem’s staggered spacing enacts an anxious breathlessness, capturing a sudden surge of emotion

that threatens to overcome the speaker. Reviewer Benjamin S. Grossberg (2008) speaks to Kinzie’s way

of “dexterously us[ing] space on the page to recreate the cadences of speech, making wrought poems

feel agile, spontaneous, and unspooling in the reader’s present.”

First Passion

Running	there I am	   at fourteen
I have been scolded
by my father for something I hadn’t done
or hadn’t not done   who knows         the dishes	nothing
serious like my smoking
or ineptness with people and bad
It was unjust
and the almost irrelevant injustice grew so pure and tiny
in its atmosphere of truth
which rose like sky
that I fell in love with it and it cut into me
loosening the first tears
(though these were not what frightened me at night
Then the griefs came loose   beginning to run   	I was
fourteen and
wailed around the blocks
more times than once
my chest	straining against the sobs
in their delightful echoing
back from the streets that suddenly were empty
everyone having
inched backward from the windows
into the parts of rooms that are never chosen
the side of the stairs   	the door
to the water heater            
where they watched
me amazed at this sourceless melodious grief
eager to return to the normal dithering watchful
golden gossip   	of the afternoon  
–​​Mary Kinzie

We read the poem aloud several times, alternating readers so as to fully experience how Kinzie plays with

spacing and (a lack of) punctuation — intentionally varying our delivery, working to vocalize the poem’s

emotional intensity. We speculate about what is happening to the speaker, about the griefs come loose,

about its title. Some students say the spaces are sobs, attempts to self-soothe through deep breaths,

silence between running strides, or signs of a first anxiety attack. We wonder about how Kinzie’s use of

verb tense evokes the speaker’s memories as realistic and present

The discussion is generative and curious, on occasion taking the whole fifty-minute class period with

pauses to re-read and mark up the poem. When the transition feels right, I give the following writing

prompt: “Modeled after ‘First Passion,’ write about a ‘first’ in your life — perhaps a first of something

you’re quite familiar with now.” Before we get into poetic representations, we brainstorm lists of possible

“firsts.” Topic in hand, I encourage students to consider capturing the emotion through play with creative

spacing, punctuation, and verb tense. Often, I recommend intentional spacing choices to emulate

specific speech cadences or patterns. I suggest they embrace the present-tense gerund construction of

Kinzie’s first line, “Running          there I am          at fourteen” — selecting an apt verb and orienting the

poem by naming their age at the time of their selected memory.

Resulting student writing is often rich with personal experience, accessing otherwise unarticulated

emotions — riding the train by herself, age 13, for her first “weekend with dad” after her parents’ divorce;

feeling weightless, age 16, as the wheels roll during the first time driving a car; uninhibited joy and

nerves, age 15, at a first visit to meet her family in Mexico. One of my former students, Lucia S., wrote

about a memory of release.

First Dance

Jumping	 there I am	 at eleven
I have landed on my brother's Lego
our third-floor apartment too cluttered to breathe
or play 	who knows 	or dance 	anything
an accident, shhhh our too-loud-voices
the neighbor that smells of Marlboro
seeping, clouding, clogging
the walls shrink in
and I accept the pressure, collapse
loosening my lungs, my limbs
then the hands came loose   beginning to dance   I was
eleven and
jumped on the couch
remote control as my microphone
more times than once
freedom, togetherness
clap along 	this Sunday afternoon

I love the vibrant details of the Lego, the Marlboro neighbor, the remote control as microphone and the

way the poem moves from feelings of constraint towards a freedom-filled dance. No matter how

students choose to infuse the prompt with their individuality, the “First Passion” mimic poems are often

among the semester’s most vivid.

Works Cited

Grossberg, B. S. (2008). [Review of California Sorrow, by M. Kinzie]. The Antioch Review, 66(1), 190–190. 

Kinzie, M. (2007). First Passion. The New Yorker. 

Stevens, W. (1954). Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. Alfred A. Knopf.

Meg Davis is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She has taught creative writing and contemporary poetry courses for middle and high school students both in and outside of traditional school settings. 

Featured photo by: Matthew Burgess

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