Study Guide

Kaddish

by Allen Ginsberg

Kaddish Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

One of the central formative experiences of Ginsberg’s life was the decline into mental illness of his mother, Naomi, a wrenching psychic ordeal that he internalized for the first four decades of his life before confronting his feelings in the poem “Kaddish,” which he composed in bursts of confessional exhilaration from 1958 through 1961. The trigger for the central narrative section of the poem, a biographical recollection of his mother’s life, was a night spent listening to jazz, ingesting marijuana and methamphetamine, and reading passages from an old Bar Mitzvah book.

Ginsberg then walked out into New York City, and with his mind racing with the rhythms of the Hebrew prayers, he found himself covering the same ground his mother had known in her early youth. As his thoughts turned to her life, and to his inability to talk to her directly as an adult, he remembered that she had been buried three years before without the traditional Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. Determined to honor her memory before God, to face his own doubts about death and about his relationship with his mother, and to come to terms with his life to that point, Ginsberg began with a direct exposition of his feelings, “Strange now to think of you, gone,” and withheld nothing as he re-created the full emotional depth of their life together.

“Kaddish” is both an extended elegy and a dual biography. For the poet himself, it is a “release of particulars,” the “recollections that rose in my heart,” which he views with a mixture of lingering nostalgia for childhood and a dread of how details apprehended in innocence take on a darker cast when seen in terms of the course of a person’s life. His own journey from early youth to his present middle age is a parallel to the path that Naomi took from a youthful beauty, “her long hair wound with flowers—smiling—playing lullabies on mandolin,” to Naomi “At forty, varicosed, nude, fat, doomed.” Her mental illness and paranoia, which baffled and frightened him in his youth, are now a lurking threat to his own mental stability, especially as he has experienced visions and hallucinations of awesome power. The direction of their lives, of everyone’s life, is toward “the names of Death in many mind-worlds,” and it is this awesome certainty that has driven Ginsberg to open the paths to his subconscious. Rebuked by his mother’s madness in life, and by her silence now, the poet thinks with gratitude of his mother no longer suffering, but he realizes that he will not find any kind of peace because he still has not “written your history.”

The central incident in the second section concerns the trip that the twelve-year-old Ginsberg took with his mother on a public bus to a rest home....

(The entire section is 1130 words.)

Kaddish Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Kaddish is Allen Ginsberg’s elegy for his mother, Naomi. In Kaddish Ginsberg portrays the course of Naomi’s mental illness and its effect on the extended Ginsberg family. The perceptions of Ginsberg, the narrator, are crucial to understanding how sexual and religious themes of identity work in the poem. Naomi’s worsening condition coincides with Ginsberg’s realization as a young boy that he is gay, and with his emerging discomfort with traditional American religious institutions.

Invoking both “prophesy as in the Hebrew Anthem” and “the Buddhist Book of Answers,” section 1 remembers Naomi’s childhood. Naomi passes through major American cultural institutions—school, work, marriage—all of which contribute to her illness. Section 2 details her descent into madness and its harrowing effects on the family. Throughout the poem, Ginsberg seeks rescue from Naomi’s madness, yet recognizes that her condition also inspires his own critique of the United States. “Naomi’s mad idealism” frightens him; it also helps him understand the sinister qualities of middle-class American institutions. As he admits Naomi’s condition caused him sexual confusion, he also confers imaginative inspiration to her. She is the “glorious muse that bore me from the womb, gave suck/ first mystic life”; and it was from her “pained/ head I first took vision.” Unlike Naomi, the truly mad in Kaddish are those incapable of compassion, such as the psychiatric authorities who brutalize Naomi with electroshock treatments, leaving her “tortured and beaten in the skull.”

By the end of Kaddish, Ginsberg seeks to redeem Naomi’s life according to the Eastern and Western religious traditions which inform the poem. The final sections of Kaddish seek to transform the trauma of Naomi’s illness into sacred poetry. The key to this transformation is Ginsberg’s revision of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. The Kaddish was not said at Naomi’s grave because the required minimum of ten Jewish men—a minyan, in traditional Judaism—was not present, as required by Jewish law. Therefore, the poem accomplishes what Naomi’s original mourners could not: Ginsberg eulogizes Naomi with his Kaddish, and by doing so he offers his own revision of traditional Judaic law.