50. The Naming of Cats: T.S. Eliot

We are in the process of coming up with a name for our 7/8 team. Since I have been teaching I have always been on the Dream team, and we have combined with a teacher from the Infinity team. In addition to some of our own kids, we have taken on additional students from the Galaxy team. Add to the mix the new seventh graders from elsewhere and a new name was clearly needed.

Putting the task into the hands of our students has been interesting. After the silly or dull names, we are left with some good picks. As part of the process, we have had good discussions around the significance of names, symbols and all of the pitfalls.

Enter Mr. Eliot. After tackling “Prufrock” and “The Wasteland” in graduate school (SUNY Cortland College), we ambled through his work until we came to his horrible plays and the children’s poems that served as the basis for “Cats”. It was hard to read the plays and imagine them as interesting theater, and it was hard to focus on the cat poems as anything more than children’s pap. It did not help that it was all crammed into the last few weeks of the semester, didn’t have to do with death, and followed three weeks alone on “The Wasteland”.

Middle school, in many ways, is a breath of fresh air. This project, the poetry blog, has forced me to re-examine my biases towards those simpler poems. Enter Mr. Eliot. Because it is about something as common as a cat–the naming of a cat–it offers us a chance to contemplate the ordinary bits of life. Measuring life out in coffee spoons is a bad thing in its trivial ordinariness, but the complexity of names offers a task worthy of a great mind. It is, I think, a paradox. One that many middle school students face, as they think of the great things they are going to achieve while being concerned about the smallest of slights.

As for teaching it, talk to your students about their own names. What is on their birth certificate? Have them ask their parents how they came to be called that. Many students know what their name would have been had they been born the opposite gender, which can be fun and telling. Dare them to share their middle names. I have students look up the meaning of their names on the internet.

We discuss last names, too. For example, how someone of a long ago generation was “Tom the Mason” and became “Tom Mason”. How many Millers, Gardners, Bakers and Stones are in your class? Then, the “Tom of Bristol” becomes “Tom Bristol”. How many Londons and Florences do you have? My last name is Darling, so what does that say about my ancestors? I also know a Love and a Funk. We are what we do, or where we come from.

Then, move onto nicknames. Why Tom and not Thomas? Do they go by a middle name? I had a friend named Christine, but her first grade teacher called her Pippi because of her red hair and tomboy attitude, and it stuck. What do friends call you? Is that out of respect? Why did it stick? Did the student have a choice? In the first weekend of college, my friend Jen started calling another freshman “Spike” and it stuck for four years; so much for reinventing yourself.

Finally, what would they want to be called? Have them use the name for the week; have the class do it. How does this change the perception of others, and what they have of themselves?

Names are fun. Have fun with them. Then, read this poem and talk about pets. Are cats a different sort of animal? Do we name cows? What about future food? Why and why not?

The Naming of Cats
T.S. Eliot

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey–
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter–
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum-
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover–
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.


One thought on “50. The Naming of Cats: T.S. Eliot

Add yours

  1. Absolutely interesting handling of the poem! Loved the manner in which derivation of names,and nick names happened!

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