Course:Kaddish by Allen Ginsberg

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Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky [Use "Insert Image" and search. Any image you find is fair use. You can also upload your own images if you wish].

I got to Howl pretty early—high school, I think, not long after On The Road—but I didn’t discover Kaddish, Ginsberg’s achingly candid elegy for his mother, until many years later. My mother might have been dead by then, which might have something to do with why Kaddish is my favourite poem of all time.

Ginsberg’s mother Naomi struggled with mental illness for much of her adult life, and Ginsberg unflinchingly traces his mother’s disintegration, digging way down, pouring out the details:

     Serving me meanwhile, a plate of cold fish—chopped raw cabbage dript with tapwater—smelly tomatoes—week-old health food—grated beets & carrots with leaky juice, warm—more and more disconsolate food—I can’t eat it for nausea sometimes—the Charity of her hands stinking with Manhattan, madness, desire to please me, cold undercooked fish—pale red near the bones. Her smells—and oft naked in the room, so that I stare ahead, or turn a book ignoring her.

Ginsberg documents the rippling effects of Naomi’s illness on not only himself but also on his brother Gene and his father Louis:

     Once I came home, after longtime in N.Y., he’s lonely—sitting in the bedroom, he at desk chair turned round to face me—weeps, tears in red eyes under his glasses—

     That we’d left him—Gene gone strangely into army—she out on her own in N.Y., almost childish in her furnished room. So Louis walked downtown to postoffice to get mail, taught in highschool—stayed at poetry desk, forlorn—ate grief in Bickford’s all these years—are gone.

And Ginsberg, reading Kaddish in his apartment on a clip I saw somewhere, choking up on the line about walking down to the postoffice for mail. The depth of family pain. Family loss. Family sorrow. Ginsberg’s ability to marshal it, unleash it, and direct it, point it at the reader. At me. That line makes me cry, now.

So there’s some hard going, no question. Ginsberg’s memories and pain flow and gush and he doesn’t flinch away from anything. But the ending, with all its loss and pain, contains a strange, shimmering beauty:

     Returning from San Francisco one night, Orlovsky in my room—Whalen in his peaceful chair—a telegram from Gene, Naomi dead—

     Outside I bent my head to the ground under the bushes near the garage—knew she was better—

     at last—not left to look on Earth alone—2 years of solitude—no one, at age nearing 60—old woman of skulls—once long-tressed Naomi of Bible—

     or Ruth who wept in America—Rebecca aged in Newark—David remembering his Harp, now lawyer at Yale.

     or Svul Avrum—Israel Abraham—myself—to sing in the wilderness toward God—O Elohim!—so to the end—2 days after her death I got her letter—

     Strange Prophecies anew! She wrote—‘The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight in the window—I have the key—Get married Allen don’t take drugs—the key is in the bars, in the sunlight in the window.


your mother.’

     which is Naomi—

The long lines, thought-units, dash breaks (‘Intense fragments of spoken idiom, best’— Ginsberg in “Cosmopolitan Greetings”), candour, courage, openness, detail—using the raw, awful facts of your own life for material—wailing away using long forms, deep forms—making a myth of your self—all of these things have both inspired and influenced me deeply. I love this poem, and am willing to forgive Ginsberg a lot of his other bullshit because of it. Kaddish is a masterpiece.